On Tuesday night, ESPN’s beginning their main airing of an unprecedented project. Basketball: A Love Story is a 20-hour, 10-part documentary in total, with director Dan Klores putting together 62 different short stories on basketball history and themes that can be watched either individually as part of a larger experience. The whole series is already available on the ESPN app and was shown in two binge-style installments on ESPN2 late last month, but Tuesday marks its ESPN debut; the series will air there in four-hour blocks over the next five Tuesdays, beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern tonight (and for the next two weeks, with the final two weeks airing beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern). Klores recently spoke to Awful Announcing about the finished product, and the around 15 years it took to get to it, saying the genesis of the idea came almost two decades ago and that it came with a rejection from NBC.
“Years ago, I wanted to do a 10-hour piece on the game. Adam Silver [then the president and COO of NBA Entertainment, now the NBA commissioner] and Jeff Zucker [then president of NBC Entertainment, now president of CNN] introduced me to Dick Ebersol, who was in charge of NBC Sports. I went to meet Dick in his office, and he was really wonderful, sophisticated, and I didn’t even realize I got turned down as he walked me out of the office. He was good at what he did, you know?”
After that didn’t work out, Klores found a better reception at ESPN.
“I’d finished Ring of Fire [Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, the 2005 documentary co-directed with Ron Berger]…Geoff Reiss [at one point the senior vice president, programming, production and operations for ESPN Internet Group, currently the GM of Yahoo Sports] worked for John Skipper at ESPN, and he loved Ring of Fire and [2003’s] The Boys of Century Park. So he asked me ‘What do you want to do?’ and I said ’10 hours on the game,’ and he brought me to Skipper and they said yes. That was a long time ago, about 15 years ago.”
That turned out to be a bit of a false start, but it led to a different project.
“They said yes and I started doing all sorts of research, where I wanted to go. I knew I didn’t want to tell a chronological story or a linear history, not at all, not even close. I did what I always do and just read and read and read. And then Skipper called me one day and said ‘Sorry, we no longer have the budget. But we want to do something with you. What do you want to do?’ So I came up with the idea of Black Magic [the two-part, three-hour 45 minute 2008 ESPN Films documentary on “the parallel stories of the American civil rights movement and the rise of African-American basketball players“].”
“I came up with that idea, and Skipper was now in charge (he became ESPN’s executive vice president of content in 2005 before later becoming the company’s president in 2012), and it was a tremendous success. That won the Peabody and was the genesis for their 30 for 30 series, because they really hadn’t done docs before that.”
Much of Klores’ work has been in sports, but he initially wanted to move away from the sports scene after Black Magic, and even viewed the 30 for 30 he did direct as not particularly a sports film. But around five years ago, he decided to try again on the big basketball project.
“I didn’t want to do another sports film. I looked at Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks [the 2010 30 for 30 he directed] quite frankly as a comedy, and did that, that turned out pretty well. But about five years ago, I had some personal crises in my life, and quite frankly, I needed a distraction. I’m an older guy with three boys, they’re now 15, 17 and 20 but this was five years ago, and I needed a distraction. I went back to Skipper and Connor [Schell, an executive producer on Black Magic and the 30 for 30 series who was in charge of ESPN Films at the time and is now ESPN’s executive vice president, content] and said ‘What about this?’ and they said ‘Yeah, we’re in.'”
Klores said the growth of the series from 10 to 20 hours came after ESPN approved it this time, but the idea to do a non-linear, thematically-focused series of short stories was already there.
“It was 10 hours, five parts when we started researching again. I said ‘Give me an extra two,’ so they gave me 12 hours. And it eventually reached 20. But then Skipper left, which was not great for me at all. So that was the hour component. But I never, ever intended it from the first hour on to be linear, to be chronological, nor to be a history. If you wanted to do a history on basketball, you’d need 80 to 100 hours.”
“So I took elements of what I had done in the past with Black Magic and [2005’s]Viva Baseball!, I developed main characters if you will, and I then decided ‘No, I’m just going to tell stories. I’ll have some chronology to it, but I’m not going to open up with [basketball inventor Dr. James] Naismith, because I’ll lose the audience.’ So the third scene in the whole film is [then-Warriors coach] P.J. Carlesimo getting choked by [Latrell] Sprewell [in 1997], but there’s a real logic to it. And the good news is that was able to do exactly what I wanted to, there was no interference, which was very important.”
While working on a project for almot five years is long by the standards of most documentaries, Klores said it was actually faster than his usual pace given the scope of the series.
“It takes me two full years to make a 90-minute movie or a 100-minute movie. This is 20 hours in four and a half years, so I had to move fast.”
He said the most enjoyable part was the interviewing. And while only a small fraction of the interview footage shot appears in the final project, the whole footage will be given to the NBA for future possible use.
“The interviewing took about two and a half years, hitting the road. That was the fun part of it. Preparation was fun also. I sat in Bill Russell’s home for 5-10 hours, Oscar Robertson’s for six hours. This is not like a normal thing, you know? And I’m giving all the interviews to the NBA, they’ve been so good to me, and they’ll have these in their library forever. I shot over 550 hours of interviews and we only use 11, you know? So they get it all, and hopefully they can use it to expose lots of people to the game. And I gave the interviews to Jackie MacMullan and Rafe Bartholomew for the book, the oral history, which is terrific.”
Klores said while the series wound up expanding from what he had first planned, a lot of the themes have remained the same as what he initially envisioned. And a key focus for him was not repeating what had already been done.
“From the first moment, I mapped out—I don’t even use a computer, I write on long yellow legal pads with a black pen. But if I look at what I wrote out from five years ago until now, almost everything is the same stories I wanted to tell. When I started getting rolling and interviewing people—166 people have been interviewed, I did about 122 of the 166, I couldn’t do all of them because I just didn’t have time, but everything was done under my direction by just a superstar team of journalists, just magnificent people—I learned ‘Well, what can I do that’s different, that interests me, that’s intricate and not been done before? What angles can I use on stuff that’s been told and told, like Kentucky-Texas Western in 1966?’ Yeah, I tell that story, but I was much more interested in ‘What did that mean to the black household in the 1960s? What did that win mean to the recruitment of African-American players below the Mason-Dixon line?’ I didn’t want to do the same old story.”
Something that particularly stood out for Klores was having great players describe their famous moves.
“I have four scenes called ‘Signature Moves,’ throughout the movie, where I have 16 or 17 different players, where they describe their signature move in great detail, their hands, their hips, their eyes, their ass, their feet, their fingers, their mind. It’s everything from LeBron going rim-to-rim, describing that, [Steve] Nash on probing, Wes Unseld on throwing the outlet pass, Chris Paul on making the steal, [Allen] Iverson on his crossover, Kevin Durant on playing off the double team, Bernard King on the turnaround baseline jumper, [Dirk] Nowitzki on his 20-footer where he kicks his leg out, Hakeem [Olajuwon] on his “Dream Shake,” Earl Monroe on the spin, that’s good stuff, you know? Oscar Robertson and Wayne Embry on the pick-and-roll. I was able to do all of those things.”
One element of Basketball: A Love Story that differs from many treatments of the game’s history is that female players, coaches and executives are integrated throughout. Some of the short stories focus specifically on women’s basketball, but there are also female voices in many of the other segments. Klores said that was a key goal for him.
“I was intent on doing that from the beginning. There’s no way that I was going to box women into ‘Oh, here’s my eight-minute women’s part.’ Just right from the get-go. …I wasn’t going to box women in, I think that’s kind of hideous, and I decided I was not only including women right from the get-go, the first scene is basically ‘Why I love the game’ so why shouldn’t Blaze [Carol Blazejowski] be in it, or Ann Meyers? Then in the Signature Moves, one of those is Diana Taurasi talking about her 15-footer.”
But he added that women’s basketball became a bigger focus for him partway through, and an interview with [current Big East commissioner and initial WNBA president Val Ackerman] was the reason why.
“I always thought basketball mirrors race relations in America, mirrors, I don’t want to say it’s synonymous or a complete parallel, but there’s a lot of race relations in sport, in basketball, that goes beyond just what’s happening on the floor. That’s what Black Magic was about. But the first time…I didn’t do the interview, but we interviewed a woman, and it was Val Ackerman…I read the transcript, because that’s the process, I read it and read it, and I stopped dead in my tracks. If you close your eyes and listen to the voices of women, you’re hearing the same voices of the outsider.”
“So it’s bigger than the parallel to race relations; basketball is the story of the outsider, and it’s always been that way. It’s in the film, from the turn of the century, it’s the Jewish immigrant and the Irish immigrant coming to New York, it’s the mid-European coming to America, moving out to Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, it’s the worker, and then it’s the black person beginning to play in the YMCAs of Washington and Philadelphia and New York. But women, they were ostracized. You know, when women started playing the game it was nine on a team, then it was six women on a team until the late 1960s. Because they didn’t think women had the stamina, so three played defense and three played offense. So women are integrated throughout the entire piece, 19 different women, because of Val Ackerman and that interview.
“Because of that, I was liberated and able to get some of the pioneers, a woman named Cathy Rush who coached Immaculata outside of Philadelphia to three consecutive national championships, I was able to do that story, I was able to do Title IX, I was able to do a scene called ‘Tomboys,’ I was able to do a whole full story on the origins and philosophy of who Pat Summitt was, I was able to do a story on Pat vs. Geno [Auriemma], I was able to do a story on the creation of the WNBA and the issues that they’ve confronted and still face. So I have six or seven separate stories just on women, as well as them being integrated throughout.”
Basketball: A Love Story has been an intensive amount of work for Klores, with plenty of ups and downs along its journey. But he said he’s thrilled with how it’s turned out in the end, and he thinks the short story approach he used could be used elsewhere.
“I’m very happy with the film I made. I don’t think it’s been done before in longform documentary filmmaking, short stories, and who knows, you could make the same film if you have a passion for music, for dance, for comedy, or for the White House, you could do it the same way. Why do you have to begin, if you’re doing the White House, with George Washington and end with Trump? You don’t need to, as long as there’s a thread that makes logical sense. So I’m very, very happy.”
Basketball: A Love Story is available in full on the ESPN app, and will be shown in full on ESPN in five four-hour installments over the next five Tuesdays, beginning Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. Eastern. More details can be found here.