“Swagger,” the joint project of Reggie Rock Bythewood (“Gun Hill”) and Kevin Durant, is marketed primarily as a fictionalized retelling of Durant’s rise to basketball stardom. But it’s so much more than that.
The show is poised to show the growth of an ego-inflated, young basketball star Jace Carson (Isaiah Hill, debut) into a better person and player thanks to the influence of his wholesome teammates and hard-ass coach, Ike (O’Shea Jackson Jr., “Just Mercy”). The show reminds us of what we love about basketball, from the trash talk to the buzz in the room and in your heart on game day to the satisfying, rim-shaking dunks. But, in its most powerful moments, “Swagger” also discusses societal issues like police brutality and systemic racism.
Jace Carson is only in the eighth grade, but he already has his eye on one goal: the NBA. Coach Ike may or may not be able to get him there; some suggest if Ike couldn’t get to the NBA himself, Jace is sure to become a washed-up has-been, too. If Jace wants to go pro, he has to find a team that can showcase his star status as soon as possible. Jace’s dream of being an NBA star does not only allow him to pursue his passion; in his mother Jenna’s (Shinelle Azoroh, “Mother’s Milk”) eyes, it ensures he won’t be stuck in his hometown, full of potential but with nowhere to go.
In a scene from the pilot, the police pull up and arrest Jace as he’s taking out the trash because he “fits the description” of a carjacker. Only when they recognize him from online videos of Jace balling out, do they let him free. Even as they release his cuffs and allow him to lift his face from the pavement, they pin the blame of the traumatic event on him, a 14-year-old child. His mother, rightfully furious, points out the sheer ridiculousness of demanding an ID from a 14-year-old taking out the trash.
“Swagger” allows room for heavier moments but also makes portrayals of Black joy and greatness a priority. In Jace’s first real practice with his new team, SP Grind, they put him in a red jersey with black trim to create an image resonant of the iconic Michael Jordan in his Chicago Bulls uniform. “Swagger” makes it undeniable that Jace Carson is destined for greatness. His name is the one uttered with the most frequency and among very esteemed company such as Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
Some NBA fans might disagree, but take it from a Celtics fan coming from a Celtics family since before Larry Bird — no great player is anything without his team. The other players of SP Grind invite Jace to the locker room to interrogate his intentions, but they really bring him there to make sure he knows about theirs. The group, led by the ever-endearing Musa (Caleel Harris, “The Loud House”) lets him know what’s most important to them (and to any successful team): “If you’re SP Grind, we got your back. On and off the court. Here, we family.”
“Swagger” executes the perfect balance between despair and hope, light and darkness, and offers a perfect depiction of what it really means to give your blood, sweat and tears.
Daily Arts Writer Emmy Snyder can be reached at email@example.com.