“Swagger,” the Apple TV Plus drama centered in the world of youth basketball, boasts an impressive pedigree with storylines drawn from the formative experiences of NBA standout Kevin Durant. But the series is anything but a TV-scaled biopic; its ambitions are decidedly bigger and more far-reaching than even the 6-foot-10-inch superstar.
“The approach was not ‘Let’s fit into Kevin’s life.’ The approach was, ‘Use Kevin’s life as a point of inspiration,’” creator and executive producer Reggie Rock Bythewood, whose long, versatile list of writing and directing credits include the limited series “Shots Fired” and the “30 for 30” documentary “One Night in Vegas,” tells Variety.
By using elements of Durant’s backstory as the foundation for a more contemporary tale about Jace (Isaiah Hill), a disadvantaged teen with undeniable potential to become an elite athlete, Bythewood envisioned a broader framework to explore more immediate topics and themes.
“What does it look like now for [a young athlete like] Jace, who’s growing up in this day and age, in social media – what would that be like?” he says. “Then later on, as you get into deeper to the season, what happens when the pandemic hits? What happens when we’re in the aftermath of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor? It would’ve felt inauthentic in a contemporary setting to not reflect that.”
Durant tells Variety that his goal was always to use his backstory to illustrate the many life lessons he learned from the sport of basketball, from responsibility and work ethic to relationship dynamics and vulnerability to stepping into the larger world around him.
“Most of my teammates today all came from the same environment — poverty, crime, not a lot of activities — so we were drawn to sports,” says the NBA All-Star. “It was able to create some structure for us so we can move on and advance in life. We owe a lot of that to the game and where the game has taken me. I wanted that to come across to people.”
“I think we aligned with the perfect people to make that vision come to life,” Durant continues. “The process of me telling my story to Reggie and him also getting different perspectives from other people that’ve been through similar journeys, and to see it all mixed in a pot and come out this way was fun. We went in deep.”
Here, Bythewood shares with Variety how he reimagined Durant’s backstory to explore an even more universally relevant narrative.
Tell me about your process for taking the specifics of Kevin’s true-life stories and anecdotes and reformulating them so that they make for a compelling continuing TV drama?
I met with Kevin at the behest of Imagine Entertainment, Brian Grazer’s company. Brian and Kevin had met about this idea of doing a story inspired by his youth basketball days. I decided to take a meeting and flew out to Oakland to meet Kevin and we talked about his experiences, and then I just wanted to talk about other more global issues inspired by this world.
My oldest son went through the basketball circuit, my youngest son’s been playing very high level of baseball, and I just really then wanted to broaden the conversation outside of the biopic arena, using his story as a strong spark of inspiration. [I] really wanted to examine as if we’re doing autopsy, if you will, about this world of youth basketball, of youth sports — raising questions about how do we treat kids in this country? Really trying to give a view from every seat in the house, whether you’re a coach, player, sneaker rep or parent.
Stories like this that have so much specificity can often prove to feel quite universal in many ways, and that feels very true of “Swagger.” Tell me about working toward that purpose, finding the bigger truths in this unique, specific world.
The reality is this is a basketball show that’s not about basketball. It’s really about growing up in America. It’s really asking ourselves, “Who has the right to say you’re American?” It is times a collision of culture, but really beneath all of it, with all of that specificity, just about family and it’s about finding your own swagger.
Now on the surface, “swagger” means bravado, confidence, maybe attitude, maybe machismo. In the context of our show, “swagger” means having a cause bigger than yourself, and whether it’s family, team, community, it’s finding that cause that actually gives you the swagger it takes to prevail.
Can you give me an anecdote about something specific to Kevin’s experience that you were able to then blow up a little bigger?
Kevin grew up in a single parent household, his mother pushed him and protected him. And with those elements, I would say this isn’t the Wanda Durant story, but there’s some universal truths with people that grew up in single parent households, as did I. But along with that I have a friend who sells cosmetics — she works for Mary Kay — so I used that as inspiration, so [lead character Jace’s mother] Jenna sells cosmetics.
I felt like I’d seen a single parent mother before struggling with finances, but I didn’t feel like I saw a single parent mother struggling with finances who had the best player in the DMV — the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area — and who also had a side hustle in selling cosmetics. One of the great things was just having the space to make it our own.
Was there a particular point of departure from that baseline of what Kevin provided you with that really cracked open the show for you and gave you a lot of running room, creatively?
It was very apparent to me early on when we started dealing with the age of 14. Fourteen is an age in its historical context, in American history, in the Black community — that was the age that Emmett Till was when he was murdered [on] Aug. 28, 1955.
I really thought a lot about Emmett and found this painting that an artist named Lisa Whittington created called How She Sent Him and How She Got Him Back. And on one side of Emmett’s face, it’s bright and vibrant and youthful and optimistic. And on the other side, it’s damaged, it’s distorted. He was beat and bloodied and bruised up. And so I would tell the creative team, “Our coach is fighting for this side of the face — the optimism.”
We really used this painting as a North Star for our storytelling, so that as the story goes on the basketball is always the anchor of the story, but the journey is really examining how we treat kids in this country and looking at what kids growing up in this country is about.
Basketball provides a certain inherent drama that you’re able to play with. What’s been fun about figuring out how you want to use the sport for dramatic purposes, for comedic purposes, for tension in your storytelling?
One of the main challenges is there’ve been so many sports narratives or basketball narratives, and how can you shoot basketball in a way that we haven’t seen before? And so that was a real interesting challenge to take on. And I wanted to do it in a way where we felt like we were inside the game and not merely spectating the game.
[We developed] a unique idea to photograph the basketball, and also to do it authentically: long takes when we could, so that you could actually see the ball going through the hoop. I didn’t want to have an 8-foot or 9-foot rim where actors that weren’t able to dunk, dunk. It needed to be 10 feet.
And I never wanted to do a scene or shot where the ball goes out of someone’s hands and you cut to the ball going through the hoop, like other basketball narratives have done. That was an integrity issue for us, so when you see the ball going through the hoop, there’s no trick camera work, there’s no visual effect.
In the pilot, there’s a scene between Jace and Ike: They’re in the gym alone together and they’re just talking and Jace is putting up free throws. And I never cut, not until he makes 10 free throws in a row. There’s no tricks there: He made those 10 free throws. So when I did call cut, we were just all jumping and cheering. You felt like there’s no reference before to a scene like that, where somebody is making ten free throws in a row where you’re not cutting. So all that was really exhilarating, those real moments of basketball authenticity.
Tell me about adding characters like Jace’s friend and fellow baller Crystal (Quvenzhané Wallis), figuring out who they were based on people you knew, researched about or that Kevin told you about.
Crystal’s a real interesting character and I’m excited for you to see where the character goes. Just based on things I’ve heard and seen in the basketball world, I really became concerned about some things athletes go through. And I definitely wanted to deal with a female athlete and give voice to female athletes as well, so my writing staff did a lot of research to shape Crystal’s character. I’m being a little vague because you haven’t really got into it yet, but that was something that we really researched and worked hard to get it right, and we wanted to find all the nuances and subtleties that someone going through the things she goes through would be dealing with.
Having young athletes of your own at home, and this cast of young actors on set, how did they help you understand kids today — the way that they talk, the things they’re into the way they react and interact. What kind of insight did they provide you?
One of my sons is 20 now and my youngest is 17, and I just think that just watching them and the things that they go through really informed me. It just did not feel foreign, or I didn’t feel like I was out of my element in directing my young cast, because I deal with two young dudes all the time.
But it was also a very interesting mirroring of the show because while we are doing a show we really want to remind people like there’s a lot of pressure in what they do on the court and they are kids. We had to also remember that in our production: There’s a lot of pressure on them learn lines and still do the homework and work these days, and you need it to be great. And the best way to get a great performance would be to allow them the space to fail, just as we should allow the space for all of our kids to fail. And my feeling is just that the only thing we don’t want you to do is just to stay down on the canvas.
And so, it felt pretty organic to work with them because of the fact that I have two kids, that we bump heads at times, it’s beautiful at times — it’s parenting, which is certainly the toughest job that I’ve ever had and the most rewarding
“Swagger” stream news episodes Fridays on Apple TV Plus.