‘Small Ball’: A Great Idea, No Matter How You Play It (Guest Column)

'Small Ball': A Great Idea, No
Courtesy Rick Wartzman

As game-starved NBA fans devour “The Last Dance,” the 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls that is now airing on ESPN, it’s hard not to think about what might have been. Or, more accurately, what almost was. Or, more accurately still, what turned out to be — just not for me and my buddy Kevin.

Kevin Conran and I met more than 30 years ago playing pickup basketball in Los Angeles, back when my knees contained enough cartilage to give it a go and his quick hands were still more than a decade away from being stiffened by arthritis.

By 2014, we’d both hung up our sneaks, but our passion for the game hadn’t diminished. And so, when Kevin suggested teaming up on a basketball-themed children’s TV show, it seemed like the next best thing to getting back out on the blacktop.

A designer, illustrator, and animator, Kevin was well established in the entertainment industry. His brother, Kerry, and he had made the 2004 movie “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” After that, Kevin had gone on to work on a host of productions, including “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Bee Movie” and “Dragons: Riders of Berk,” the “How to Train Your Dragon” television spin-off. For my part, I work at an institute at a university. I’m also a longtime journalist and the author of several books about the intersection of business and society. I’d never written for Hollywood before, but I was game to try.

The cartoon that Kevin wanted to make was called “Small Ball.” Geared for the grade-school set, the show would feature a squad of NBA and WNBA players when they were growing up. It would center on themes such as keeping your word, doing your homework and eating right. But we planned to take on tougher issues, too, like bullying and racism.

Each episode would begin on the set of “Inside the NBA,” the hugely popular postgame gabfest on TNT anchored by Ernie Johnson and a trio of former pros: Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. From there, the brief opening would dissolve into the animated world of Kenny and Chuck’s Hi-Five Basketball Camp, where they were the directors and Shaquille O’Neal ran the canteen — dubbed the Snack Shaq — dispensing wisdom along with drinks and treats.

Kevin arranged for meetings at Sony and Paramount. And by early 2015, I had used my own connections to get “Small Ball” in front of a top producer, Mike Tollin, who runs Mandalay Sports Media and has scores of credits to his name, including “Varsity Blues” and “Coach Carter.” He’s also a co-executive producer of “The Last Dance” — and the one who persuaded Michael Jordan to sign off on doing the film.

Tollin is a friend — but not close enough to get involved with something out of a sense of obligation. “Cool project,” he told us after Kevin and I walked him through our treatment. He asked for a few modest revisions, but he was all-in. “Small Ball” was suddenly looking big-time.

Tollin’s first stop to try to sell our handiwork was Cartoon Network. It appeared to be a perfect fit. The channel was then part of Turner Broadcasting, which also counted in its stable TNT, the home of professional basketball and “Inside the NBA.” What’s more, the executive who had just been brought in to run Cartoon Network had come from Turner’s sports division, where she had managed relations with the league. Everything seemed to be falling our way.

For whatever reason, though, Tollin couldn’t get any traction. He handed off the “Small Ball” pitch deck, only to be met with silence. Weeks and weeks went by, and we didn’t hear anything — the classic “Hollywood no.” He kept pressing until the chief of Cartoon Network finally had to say something. “The programming mix is moving in a different direction,” she told him. We’d been rejected.

Kevin and I were disappointed, for sure, but if basketball had taught us anything it was to persevere. We rejiggered “Small Ball” to aim at a slightly older age group, making it more fun and irreverent. And we kept on pitching: to Disney, Netflix, Nickelodeon and elsewhere. Everyone we met with told us how terrific the project was. Still, nobody would commit to anything — another form of the “Hollywood no.”

Over the coming months, we decided that to break the logjam, “Small Ball” needed a true star. By August, with the help of Tollin and his colleague Jon Weinbach, we landed one. Shaquille O’Neal — or his animated self, anyway — would go from being part of our ensemble cast to carrying the whole show. Within a few weeks, Kevin and I were back at Disney. Only this time, we had a new member of our team with us.

Shaq was brilliant. He not only conveyed great enthusiasm to the half-dozen Disney development folks sitting around the conference table, he told them he was even interested in hosting a live Small Ball summer basketball camp at Disneyland — a fantastic way to extend the brand. A couple of days later, one of the Disney execs emailed us. “Hi guys!” he said. “It was a pleasure sitting down and talking with you all … loved the Shaq attack.  We’ll get back to you shortly with our thoughts.”

Again, weeks passed — and nothing. Eventually, Kevin’s agent relayed that Disney wasn’t interested. No real explanation was provided.

Kevin and I kept at it for a while — through the end of 2015 and into 2016 — but by then it was obvious that “Small Ball” wasn’t going to happen for us. We weren’t going to be rich or get to hang out with Shaq, be feted at halftime of the All-Star Game, or toasted on “Inside the NBA.” We were deflated. Mike Tollin was, as well. “It’s a head-scratcher,” he wrote to us. “So close, yet … ”

By the summer of 2016, we were back to our regular routines — me focusing on serious stuff, Kevin tackling other TV assignments. I even stopped thinking about “Small Ball.” Obsessively, anyway. That is, until Weinbach emailed Kevin and me out of the blue in late January 2017.

My kids came shouting to me to show me something on tonight’s Lakers-Jazz broadcast … an ad for a new Bleacher Report animated series called “Small Ball.” … I thought maybe you guys took it elsewhere — no harm, no foul. But then I looked at the credits on the Bleacher Report and didn’t see your names. …

“Small Ball” — I mean this other “Small Ball” — was sponsored by Nike and was set to run on the Bleacher Report, a sports website. I called Kevin immediately. We were floored.

Beyond sharing a name, the shows looked incredibly similar. And even though we’d been trying to sell a full-fledged animation series and Bleacher was making one-minute installments to be posted online, their premise was the same as what we’d first conceived: a bunch of today’s NBA stars depicted as cartoon characters when they were kids.

Besides, guess who owned Bleacher? It, too, was a Turner property — just like Cartoon Network, where we’d sent our original deck. Fortunately, Kevin had registered our “Small Ball” with the Writers Guild years before. We were ready to retain a lawyer. Within no time, the heads of Bleacher, Turner Broadcasting and Nike had received cease-and-desist letters. Meanwhile, Kevin and I started digging, trying to find every additional link that we could between our project and theirs.

Early on, Kevin had shared the “Small Ball” deck with several talent agencies that represented NBA players, in a bid to get their clients to sign on. Players from two of those agencies were now on the Bleacher show. By triangulating on LinkedIn, I also unearthed that an executive who’d worked at one of the agencies that Kevin had visited had since moved on to Nike as a director of brand partnerships.

The truth was, we had no evidence that this person had ever seen our pitch when he was with the agency, and no evidence that he had anything to do with the Bleacher show now that he was at Nike. But in the moment, it felt like a bombshell — our own little Steele dossier.

Regardless of how strong a case we believed we had, Bleacher, Nike and Turner were unmoved. Executives at Bleacher insisted that their staff had come up with “Small Ball” entirely on their own. Nobody associated with their show had so much as an inkling about ours, they said. Any resemblance was pure happenstance.

As for the name — well, they maintained, what else would you title a cartoon about NBA players when they were very young? “Small ball,” a style of play in which smaller players are favored over bigger ones because of their speed, agility and outside shooting prowess, had become a common term. Our attorney kept after Bleacher for a bit, and then advised us to let it go. The case fizzled.

Hollywood is full of instances in which ideas have been ripped off. Or at least people who say they’ve been ripped off. And yet history is also replete with examples of what is known as “multiple discovery.” Some years ago, Malcom Gladwell wrote about the phenomenon, noting that “Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians ‘invented’ decimal fractions.”

Kevin remains convinced that we got shafted. But I have to admit that I’m not so sure. If those world-changing innovations could be conjured up separately and simultaneously, was it crazy to think that two versions of “Small Ball” could be created this way, as well?

As for the Bleacher show, it was short-lived. It lasted just one season — less than 15 minutes of content in all.

And who knows? Perhaps that gives us an opening to revive our “Small Ball” at some point. Hollywood is an awful lot like basketball, after all. There are lots of passes. Maybe the occasional steal. And even if you’re 0 for 20, you’ve got to keep taking your shot.

One day, you just might make it.

Rick Wartzman works at the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University and is the author of four books. He still hasn’t written for Hollywood.