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How ‘Swagger’ Raised Its Game – TheFantasyTimes

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By Jitin Gambhir

How ‘Swagger’ Raised Its Game


The sports drama series “Swagger” debuted in fall 2021 and was centered around high school basketball in Seat Pleasant, Maryland. Creator Reggie Rock Bythewood and his team received moderate critical acclaim for the first season. However, the second season, which premiered on Apple TV+ last week, had greater ambitions. Bythewood wanted to create a more intricate narrative, more exciting basketball action, and make a statement about America using the story of a prep school sports team.

In a recent video interview, Bythewood described the challenge he set for himself: “How do you take Season 2 of ‘Swagger’ and hold up a mirror to America?”

The series follows Jace Carson, an elite high school athlete who is highly ranked in basketball and expected to receive college scholarships and go on to play in the NBA. Throughout the first season, Jace experienced both conflicts and bonds with those around him, including his single mother Jenna, his lifelong best friend Crystal, and his demanding but supportive coach Ike. The second season takes place during Jace’s senior year, as the pressures of fame and expectations reach their peak.

While Jace is loosely based on Phoenix Suns power forward Kevin Durant, many aspects of Jace’s story draw inspiration from Durant’s own experiences, such as being raised by a single mother and being a highly regarded prospect from Seat Pleasant.

Durant himself, along with his manager and business partner Rich Kleiman, initially conceived the idea for a show based on his early years and the world of AAU basketball. They teamed up with producer Brian Grazer, who then proposed the concept to Bythewood. Bythewood found his own connections to Durant’s story and decided to bring it to life.

Bythewood’s own experiences as a high school student and actor in the Bronx provided valuable insight into the pressures faced by athletes suddenly in the spotlight. He combined his perspective with Durant’s story, resulting in the creation of “Swagger.”

The show’s contemporary setting allows it to explore modern political issues. Bythewood aimed to touch on the current societal shift away from examining racism that followed the Black Lives Matter movement, now that critical race theory is often viewed as controversial.

Bythewood used the predominantly white upper-class prep school setting in the second season to reflect the imbalances of power and the unique challenges faced by Black students, depicting it as a microcosm of the nation.

Authenticity has always been Bythewood’s guiding principle in “Swagger.” In the midst of tackling serious off-court issues such as sexual assault, violence, and homophobia, Bythewood wanted to ensure that the on-court basketball action was equally compelling.

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He emphasized the importance of truthful portrayal by insisting on realistic game sequences. When a character dunks on the show, they are actually performing the dunk on a regulation hoop, without the use of trampolines or lowered rims. Season 2 features even more high-level, athletic basketball scenes where the audience will not see a cut from a player shooting to the ball going through the hoop.

The commitment to realism posed a challenge for the cast, which blends experienced actors with basketball players. Actors had to learn to play convincingly, while ballers had to deliver credible performances.

The dedication of the cast members to their roles has been remarkable. Quvenzhané Wallis, who had little basketball experience before working on the show, underwent intense training to play her character as a top female basketball player aspiring to be a McDonald’s All American. O’Shea Jackson Jr., who grew up playing basketball and remained an avid NBA fan, also underwent extensive training to sharpen his skills. Isaiah Hill, who hails from a basketball background and had no previous acting experience before being cast as the lead in “Swagger,” faced the reverse challenge: His basketball skills came more naturally than delivering dramatic monologues. However, witnessing the dedication of his fellow cast members in improving their basketball skills motivated him to work harder on his acting.

Bythewood recognized Hill’s growth throughout the series, stating, “At the end of Season 2, he’s no longer a basketball player who can act: He’s an actor who happens to play basketball. The level of growth he’s shown has been exciting.”

Durant himself has been impressed with the progress of the series, commenting on how the relationships between the characters have evolved over Seasons 1 and 2. While he sees elements of himself in Jace, he recognizes Jace as a distinct character facing his own challenges in today’s world.

The debut season of “Swagger,” a sports drama centered around high school basketball in Seat Pleasant, Maryland, received moderate critical acclaim when it premiered in fall 2021. Creator Reggie Rock Bythewood and his team were proud of their achievement.

However, for the show’s second season, which premiered on Apple TV+ last week, Bythewood had greater ambitions. He wanted the narrative to be more intricate, the basketball action to be more exciting, and he wanted to use the story of a prep school sports team to make a statement about America.

In a recent video interview, Bythewood described the challenge he set for himself: “How do you take Season 2 of ‘Swagger’ and hold up a mirror to America?”

The series follows Jace Carson (played by Isaiah Hill), an elite high school athlete who is highly ranked in basketball and expected to receive college scholarships and go on to play in the NBA. Throughout the first season, Jace experienced both conflicts and bonds with those around him, including his single mother Jenna (Shinelle Azoroh), his lifelong best friend Crystal (Quvenzhané Wallis), and his demanding but supportive coach Ike (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). The second season takes place during Jace’s senior year, as the pressures of fame and expectations reach their peak.

While Jace is loosely based on Phoenix Suns power forward Kevin Durant, many aspects of Jace’s story draw inspiration from Durant’s own experiences, such as being raised by a single mother and being a highly regarded prospect from Seat Pleasant.

Durant himself, along with his manager and business partner Rich Kleiman, initially conceived the idea for a show based on his early years and the world of AAU basketball. They teamed up with producer Brian Grazer, who then proposed the concept to Bythewood. Although initially hesitant, Bythewood found his own connections to Durant’s story and decided to bring it to life.

Bythewood’s own experiences as a high school student and actor in the Bronx provided valuable insight into the pressures faced by athletes suddenly in the spotlight. He combined his perspective with Durant’s story, resulting in the creation of “Swagger.”

The show’s contemporary setting allows it to explore modern political issues. In the first season, the characters dealt with Covid protocols and participated in Black Lives Matter protests. Bythewood aimed to touch on the current societal shift away from examining racism that followed the Black Lives Matter movement, now that critical race theory is often viewed as controversial.

Bythewood used the predominantly white upper-class prep school setting in the second season to reflect the imbalances of power and the unique challenges faced by Black students, depicting it as a microcosm of the nation.

Authenticity has always been Bythewood’s guiding principle in “Swagger.” In the midst of tackling serious off-court issues such as sexual assault, violence, and homophobia, Bythewood wanted to ensure that the on-court basketball action was equally compelling.

He emphasized the importance of truthful portrayal by insisting on realistic game sequences. When a character dunks on the show, they are actually performing the dunk on a regulation hoop, without the use of trampolines or lowered rims. Season 2 features even more high-level, athletic basketball scenes where the audience will not see a cut from a player shooting to the ball going through the hoop.

The commitment to realism posed a challenge for the cast, which blends experienced actors with basketball players. Actors had to learn to play convincingly, while ballers had to deliver credible performances.

Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee for her role in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in 2012, admitted that she had little basketball experience before working on the show and could only dribble. However, her character as a top female basketball player aspiring to be a McDonald’s All American required her to undergo intense training and play with dedication.

O’Shea Jackson Jr., who grew up playing basketball and remained an avid NBA fan, also underwent extensive training to sharpen his skills. Though his character as a coach didn’t require as much on-court play, his abilities were put to the test, including a long take scene in the Season 2 premiere where he and Jace have a heartfelt conversation while making consecutive free throws.

Hill, who hails from a basketball background and had no previous acting experience before being cast as the lead in “Swagger,” faced the reverse challenge: His basketball skills came more naturally than delivering dramatic monologues. However, witnessing the dedication of his fellow cast members in improving their basketball skills motivated him to work harder on his acting.

Hill noted, “Some of them didn’t know how to dribble three weeks before shooting, and in Season 2 they’re doing reverse layups and Euro steps. Seeing them raise the stakes on the court every day made me want to raise the stakes on the acting side.”

Bythewood recognized Hill’s growth throughout the series, stating, “At the end of Season 2, he’s no longer a basketball player who can act: He’s an actor who happens to play basketball. The level of growth he’s shown has been exciting.”

Durant himself has been impressed with the progress of the series, commenting on how the relationships between the characters have evolved over Seasons 1 and 2. While he sees elements of himself in Jace, he recognizes Jace as a distinct character facing his own challenges in today’s world.

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