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What if the NBA were player-owned? ‘High Flying Bird’ imagines the ultimate disruption

In director Steven Soderbergh’s new film, the power struggle and activism across sports comes into focus

André Holland’s eyes were wide open.

A lifelong sports fan — college hoops and professional basketball strike his fancy — Holland enjoyed the game. Loved basketball. The mechanics of seeing larger-than-life players running the ball up and down the court, leaping in the sky and landing an on-the-mark hook shot, alley-oop, slam dunk, you name it, was the ultimate payoff.

Then came the recent college basketball protests. Then he picked up Harry Edwards’ 1968 The Revolt of the Black Athlete. And then, as they might say, Holland woke up. “The inequities in sports made me re-evaluate,” said the Alabama native, a transformative actor who has been in some of the best films of the past few years: 2013’s 42 (the Jackie Robinson biopic that introduced the world to Chadwick Boseman), Selma (Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. biopic) and Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight.

“[I] realized that there’s been a long history of athletic athlete activism,” said Holland, who had a nugget of a film idea. “I wanted to explore that and … do my part in pushing conversations forward.”

How he’s hoping to do that is with his new High Flying Bird, directed by Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh and written by Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney. The two men brought his nugget to life. The film is about a sports agent who, during a lockout, pitches his rookie basketball client an intriguing and controversial business opportunity: taking the power out of NBA owners’ hands by selling a one-on-one game to a streaming outlet — rather like what we see in the boxing world.

“Why don’t these guys own a bigger piece of this, if not own the game outright?” — Steven Soderbergh

“I’ve always been interested in the business of sports,” said Soderbergh. “And when it came to the NBA in particular, I always wondered … [when] they go through contract negotiations … why don’t these guys own a bigger piece of this, if not own the game outright? As technology developed, especially in the last five to 10 years, and streaming for a wide audience became viable, I returned to the idea of, wow, you really could start a league and finance it by selling all of the streaming by subscription or by advertising revenue. … That was the popping-off point. Can we come up with … a what-if story in which somebody decides, let’s stick our toe in the water of what it would be like to set up a player-based entity … apart from the NBA? What kind of forces would mobilize to keep that from happening?”

High Flying Bird, which is set to stream on Netflix on Friday, is a disrupter. It’s the kind of film that sparks conversation, and maybe some change. Holland also is the film’s executive producer, and in a way the film’s throughline of taking control mirrors his own career in Hollywood. Holland is a leading man. And this is his shot. And like the crafty sports agent he plays in High Flying Bird, he created his own opportunity.

“Just wanting more out of my career,” said Holland, “wanting more than acting, I’m having to take a cold, hard look at the landscape, and … it didn’t look so hopeful. I felt this need to create my own opportunities, and that’s probably what we all have been doing … and need to do more of. Not wait on people to open doors for us, but find those doors, create those doors ourselves.”

In this what-if narrative that Soderbergh pauses at key moments to intersplice real-life NBA players — Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Reggie Jackson — talking through their own truths, Holland’s character has recently discovered that his client, who happens to be No. 1 draft pick Erick Scott (played by Melvin Gregg), has taken out a high-interest loan and, because of the lockout, he can’t pay it back now that there aren’t any checks coming in. Much of the film feels very thriller-heist — an Ocean’s Eleven-, Crash-, Magic Mike-style Soderbergh staple — but set in the fast-paced world of organized professional sports.

McCraney began working on the script amid the NFL/Colin Kaepernick controversy, protests and the sex abuse scandal in USA Gymnastics. “It was … a strange time,” said McCraney. “There [were] moments where black athletes were looking at the way they were being treated. And then this book, Harry Edwards’ … the 50th anniversary edition of the book was coming out. … It was definitely in the air, and we wanted to make sure that we were talking about it.”

“The NBA is the system we looked at for this film, but … it’s just an examination of systems that we take for granted.”
— André Holland

So much of what we’re seeing unfold in real sports storylines centers on power struggle — whether that be social injustices and/or players vs. owner infrastructure. Both are in play in Soderbergh’s fictional world of basketball and make for a compelling story that, even with mixed early reviews, holds beautifully.

“Look, you love the game,” McCraney said. “You love going down the court, you love screaming at people to catch the ball, run the block out. But those people have to get up the court with all the victories that they made [or didn’t make]. That may affect them financially, may affect them in their interpersonal relationships … the fact that there’s a team owner and that they’re called ‘owners’ — that has implications. That has interpersonal implications. We need to continue to look at that.”

The film feels like activism in a lot of ways. The slavery comparisons between professional basketball are overarching. No way did they want that message to be subtle.

“The majority of the folks who [are] on the court are black in the NBA. The majority of the owners who are making surmountable living are white, older men. I think between myself and André and Soderbergh … we want to bring [about that] conversation,” McCraney said. “Also, just to have questions. André, I believe, asked a question like ‘What if all the black players decided they weren’t gonna play? What does that do?’ ”

“What it would be like to set up a player-based entity … apart from the NBA? What kind of forces would mobilize to keep that from happening?” — Steven Soderbergh

What it’s doing for now is being a compelling film that also co-stars Sonja Sohn as the attorney representing the head of the players’ association. “Athletes bring a story of competition and someone’s rise into fame in the world of sports. It’s the ultimate hero’s journey,” Sohn said. “Everybody can relate to that dream, and I think in particular a lot of young men without opportunities … latch on to that dream.”

That’s what Holland is hoping for: that people latch on and listen. And if change is evoked? “I hope it inspires people to exercise their own interest in whatever field or situation is in front of them. The NBA is the system we looked at for this particular film, but … it’s just an examination of systems that we sometimes take for granted,” Holland said. “At the center of it is, what if we did control [our] own s—? What if we just controlled all our own stuff? What might that look like? Regardless of the industry.”

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment writer at The Undefeated. She can act out every episode of the U.S version of "The Office," she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.