Streaming on Feb. 8, Netflix's drama High Flying Bird explores the idea of a player-owned basketball league. André Holland (Moonlight) plays a sports agent caught in the middle of a league lockout, who decides to start arguing for the concept, while representing a rookie player named Erick Scott. Since lockouts are real and the concept of a player-owned league isn't new, is High Flying Bird's Erick Scott based on a real NBA player?
The film takes place during a lockout that, at the start of the film, has gone on for a similar amount of time to the most recent NBA lockout in 2011. High Flying Bird begins during the 25th week of a lockout; the 2011 lockout lasted around 21 weeks. But the film is fiction. Holland's sports agent character, Ray, isn't a real person, nor is Erick, who is played by Melvin Gregg (UnReal). Instead, their characters both represent different layers of the organization overall.
In reviews and in interviews with Holland, director Steven Soderbergh , and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), High Flying Bird has repeatedly been referred to as a sports movie without sports. While it's about basketball, it's not about the actual game, but about the business. Ray is at the center between the often black players and the usually white, outrageously wealthy owners. Erick is the representation of the players; the owner side of things is represented in part by Kyle MacLachlan's lawyer character.
Holland and Soderbergh came up with the idea together while working on The Knick. Holland was originally inspired by the Negro Leagues. He told NPR, "We started talking basketball and race and the intersection between the two, and this idea came about. And I got really passionate about this idea of athletes having more agency — people having more agency." And as Soderbergh explained to ESPN, "I've always been interested in a project that deals with the question of why the players don't have more of a direct ownership stake in any of the major sports leagues, particularly basketball, because that is utterly dominated by black athletes. I always wonder when the contracts come up why a group of the players doesn't get together and go, 'We should own all this sh*t.'"
As Holland's NPR interview points out, it can be hard for people to want to sympathize with players, because a lot of them end up rich compared to the rest of us, too. But as the actor explained, "The film isn't only interested in telling the story about the millionaires. But it's also about the people who don't become millionaires, who don't get a chance to play on that stage, and what happens to their lives. Everybody's not LeBron [James], right, and everyone's career doesn't have that kind of trajectory."
Soderbergh liked the idea of the film taking place over a weekend and wanted it to be about intimate person-to-person interactions, which explains why there are characters like Erick, who stand in for the player side of things. "What I loved about the movie and me coming back with this movie this year, I built my name on two people talking in a room," he told The Hollywood Reporter at Slamdance. "And I still believe in the power of something seemingly so small as two people talking in a room. I still think that is how everything begins. You can look at the largest global narrative that you can find, and you can trace it back at some point to two people in a room."
While Erick Scott is not a real player, there are real players in High Flying Bird. As the New York Times' review points out, Karl-Anthony Townes, Reggie Jackson, and Donovan Mitchell give testimonies that are included in the film.
So far, High Flying Bird is getting great reviews, so, if you'd like to see how it all comes together (and maybe see if Erick reminds you of anyone in particular), check it out on Netflix Friday.