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'Swagger' follows a young basketball prodigy, inspired by Kevin Durant's life story

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Swagger," the new Apple TV+ series, opens with a gifted and ambitious 14-year-old athlete running in the pre-dawn darkness on the streets of the DMV - the District, Maryland and Virginia. His mother watches and times him. He comes back into their car early.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SWAGGER")

SHINELLE AZOROH: (As Jenna) Pushups.

ISAIAH HILL: (As Jace) I'm too tired, too tired.

AZOROH: (As Jenna) Tired can beat you, or you can beat tired. You're the No. 1 player in the area code. What do you think the haters want my baby to be? Tired.

SIMON: Isaiah Hill is the young phenom Jace Carson who's determined to make it to the NBA. Shinelle Azoroh is his equally devoted mother. O'Shea Jackson Jr. is the former high school star who becomes his coach. Kevin Durant, now of the Brooklyn Nets, is one of the show's executive producers. And the showrunner, writer and director is Reggie Rock Bythewood who joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

REGGIE ROCK BYTHEWOOD: A pleasure to be here.

SIMON: And I gather this was drawn from some of Kevin Durant's own experiences growing up in the DMV.

BYTHEWOOD: And that was the launching pad. You know, as great as a basketball player as he is - and I've rooted for Kevin - I flew out and met with him. And he was just the greatest guy. He was - so we started talking about Kevin's experiences, what it was like growing up as this 14-year-old kid who really aspired to get in the NBA and also really had to prove himself, was still going through ups and downs. And it wasn't like everyone was, back off, Kevin Durant's on the floor and just, you know, and people will just fall in front of - they were really going after the kid.

SIMON: In a sense because he was so good.

BYTHEWOOD: It was because he had so much promise.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, tell us about Jace Carson. He's got a lot to balance in his 14-year-old life, doesn't he?

BYTHEWOOD: Yeah. Well, first of all, let's just start with 14, right? The age 14 has historical context in America and particularly in Black America. You know, August 28, 1955, Emmett Till was murdered. I saw this painting by this artist named Lisa Whittington. And Lisa created this painting of Emmett Till. And on one side of his face, Emmett's face is, like, bright and optimistic and happy and innocent. And on the other side of his face, it's bruised up and blood on his face. And so when I looked at that painting, I thought, like, in telling this story, our coaches, our community - I mean, as a storyteller, we're fighting for that side of his face that has innocence and vibrancy and promise.

In shaping Jace, you know, I asked a couple of questions. Like, what would happen if one of the best players in the DMV - D.C., Maryland and Virginia area - stepped on the court and a lot of people forgot to treat him like a 14-year-old kid? Gee, I think I'm right in saying what I'm about to say. Prior to LeBron James, every sort of high school player that was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, you know, never really reached their full potential, never really rose to the heights that everyone thought because of all that pressure that that Sports Illustrated cover put on him. Well, you don't need that pressure anymore because of social media.

SIMON: Yeah, I mean, just a few years ago, it struck me as outrageous that you would have pro and college scouts truly at youth basketball games in the middle of Croatia looking for talent.

BYTHEWOOD: Right.

SIMON: And now, as you say, you don't even need that because they're on TikTok and other platforms.

BYTHEWOOD: All over. Yeah, yeah. I mean, some of the most popular players have - you know, high school players have millions of followers. We meet Jace as an eighth-grader who has just turned 14. A popular basketball website called Overtime is going to come see him play. And if he plays good, he can just become a national star, and coaches will know his name. D1 coaches will know his name. And that's really what's at stake for this kid, as he sees them. He sees this as his ticket and his opportunity to succeed, and that's how we come to the story.

SIMON: You know, a scene I found very upsetting - and I had to think it through - you've got youth basketball coaches talking about getting fees from shoes and sports companies. On the one hand, it's upsetting because you think these people shouldn't be benefiting from the hard work of teens. But you reflect a bit, and you also think, well, you know, they were probably athletes who never got a fair chance. And it is a talent to find and to develop talent. So if shoe companies are throwing money away, why shouldn't they throw a little at them?

BYTHEWOOD: Well, Scott, maybe, you know, for your audience, let me set a stage a little bit because, you know, in "Swagger," we're not focused on team basketball from the middle school team or from the high school team. You know, across the country, we have club basketball teams, you know, grassroots, you know, various leagues.

SIMON: Yeah.

BYTHEWOOD: And then the most elite youth basketball teams, you know, have sneaker contracts. And some of these coaches can make, you know, money into the six figures. And that doesn't necessarily mean that coach is a bad guy or a good guy. But the reality is some are really about themselves and some are about the kids.

SIMON: The level of basketball play in this series is terrific. That's often - the one drawback in even the best sports movies is that, with great respect to actors who've done it, sometimes they're better actors than they are athletes, and they're just not convincing as athletes.

BYTHEWOOD: Yeah.

SIMON: I bet we could go back and forth naming good examples of that.

BYTHEWOOD: Right, right.

SIMON: The basketball looks real and accomplished here.

BYTHEWOOD: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: Did you look for players who could be actors or actors who were good players? How did you do that?

BYTHEWOOD: I looked for both. So we found a lot of actors who could give us great emotion and couldn't come close to dunking.

SIMON: (Laughter) Yeah.

BYTHEWOOD: And then we...

SIMON: Understandably.

BYTHEWOOD: Well, yeah, then we found a lot of kids, ball players who could dunk but would say, you know, you know, they didn't necessarily belong in acting.

SIMON: Yeah.

BYTHEWOOD: And then this kid, Isaiah Hill, pops up. His basketball game is dynamic, but then he also just has this - he's really dialed in emotionally. He really knows how to connect with the material and who he's talking to. And so when he can give you emotion and you can really see what he's feeling when he's not talking, like, that's - you know, when I saw those moments in his audition, that's how I knew he was the guy. And we all got excited about Isaiah. You know, when you see all of my cast members when they make a shot, there's no camera trick. They're making it. Scott, if you see somebody dunk, I'm not doing what other films have done where we lower the rim to 8 feet or 9 feet 'cause that's sort of something...

SIMON: Yeah.

BYTHEWOOD: Like, you can smell that a little bit, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

BYTHEWOOD: So it's a 10-foot - you know, we never cheat on that. And it's - it was really a great challenge but really satisfying to just see them acting and hooping and really leaning into as much authenticity as possible.

SIMON: Reggie Rock Bythewood is the showrunner, writer and director of "Swagger" now on Apple TV+. Thank you so much for being with us.

BYTHEWOOD: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KURTIS BLOW SONG, "BASKETBALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.