ESPN Films’ 20-hour, six-week documentary “Basketball: A Love Story” more resembles a modern rom-com than your typical documentary. Rather than a chronological history lesson, it’s an episodic collection of anecdotes and stories that in some ways have more in common with “Love, Actually” than Ken Burns’ completist “Baseball.”
The film weaves through the heartbreaking story of paralyzed player Maurice Stokes and his dedicated teammate Jack Twyman to the bitter women’s basketball rivalry of Tennessee’s Pat Summit and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma to tales of UCLA’s rise, the Dream Team, the Magic/Bird rivalry, the ABA and the emergence of international stars in the NBA with plenty of stops in-between.
“My film is not a history of basketball, because 20 hours is not even close to long enough,” says director Dan Klores. “But it’s historical so there is a lot of stuff that is not obvious. I didn’t do the same old, same old story. I looked for new angles.”
The series is comprised of 62 vignettes, features 165 interviews and a soundtrack of over 100 songs that together knit a rich tapestry. Among those to narrate are Chadwick Boseman, Julianne Moore, Chris Cuomo, Ashley Judd, Michael Che, Ansel Elgort, Ahmad Rashad, Robin Quivers, and more. Episodes air on ESPN on Tuesday nights starting on October 9th. Individual segments will also be available on the ESPN app, making the entire series accessible on any screen.
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Larry Bird… The experience of watching “Basketball: A Love Story” is like sitting around a barbershop while the sport’s greatest icons cut up their favorite basketball moments and players with keen frankness and a surprising sense of humor. For example, one of Tuesday’s segments, entitled Signature Moves: The Feel, features famed center Wes Unseld. The Bullets star explains how he used to practice grabbing a rebound, turning in the air and throwing the ball off the backboard on the other side of the court in one move. “After you do it so many hundreds of times, it became quite easy,” Unseld chuckles. “I used to win a lot of money that way.”
Music plays a strong supporting role in the film, underscoring the scenes with subtle wit, such as when a segment about the 1970s ABA/NBA rivalry ends with Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together.” In fact, because of the project’s episodic nature, music’s use as a narrative device feels even more pronounced and central to each story, as opposed to being used primarily as a transitional or interstitial element.
Says Klores: “I didn’t want to overdo it with jazz because I don’t like that comparison. Oh basketball is like jazz. Yeah? so what. Nor did I want to pretend I was cool and throw in a lot of hip-hop.”
The soundtrack spans the musical spectrum from Frank Sinatra, Glen Miller and Nat King Cole to Michael Jackson, The Grateful Dead, Judas Priest and Lil Wayne. It’s clear Klores, who first made his name in public relations representing a range of celebrity clients, spent hours sweating his musical choices.
“Making the music for my films is always the most fun for me, because I get completely obsessed,” he says. “I will take many three-hour drives just listening to stuff.” In the end, Klores guesses they might have considered upwards of a thousand songs.
“Even how it opens,” he says with evident surprise, given who long he thought about the project before actually undertaking it. “For years, I had James Brown [in mind to] open. Then once I heard [Percy Sledge’s] ‘Come Softly to Me,’ it changed the entire feel.”
Klores does a particularly deft job of drawing out the emotional connection to basketball by those who played. As one veteran notes, for many the sport was their rock and refuge through difficult times. For instance, the poignant anecdote by women’s basketball star Rebecca Lobo, who confesses that the court was the only place she liked being tall, or when Connie Hawkins says basketball is the only thing people ever told him he was good at. Absent fathers, poverty and emotional violence – basketball was a release, and often the only one for a young kid in desperate circumstances. Even for Klores.
A graduate of University of South Carolina, he wrote “Roundball Culture: South Carolina Basketball” when he was 30, before going into PR. By the aughts, he had begun to separate from his Dan Klores Communications firm and explore careers as a documentary filmmaker (beginning with 2003’s “The Boys of 2nd Street Park”) and a playwright.
Though Klores had kicked around the idea of “Basketball: A Love Story” for years, it only became a reality when he needed a refuge. “I wanted to do this film for many years but I had a crisis in my life so, quite frankly, I needed a distraction,” he says without elaborating. “It provided an escape, safety and friendship.”
That’s one of the throughlines of the series — how basketball has brought meaning and purpose to people’s lives and how special of a craft it is practiced largely in solitary but performed as an ensemble. “I call it ‘Basketball: A Love Story’ because of my contention that the game has an obsessive element to it, and to me obsession is a form of love,” Klores says. “Each of these short stories is about that mosaic of love. It’s both sides: The joy, the wonder and the embrace, or the loss, disappointment and betrayal.”