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A League of Their Own

High Flying Bird reminds us the NBA “family” is beyond dysfunctional; it’s malevolent. And it challenges us to imagine a different sort of league.

Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors and Team LeBron is awarded the MVP trophy and embraces NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after their 178-164 win over Team Giannis during the NBA All-Star game as part of the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend at Spectrum Center on February 17, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Streeter Lecka / Getty

Last month Netflix released High Flying Bird, a film written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Midnight; directed by Steven Soderbergh, and shot entirely on an iPhone. A resume like that has enough sizzle to drown out the meat of its message — one that surprisingly eschews Hollywood cliché to question the way we structure the sports we all love.

The film centers around sports agent Ray Burke, played by André Holland, during an NBA lockout. Burke represents a rookie, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), the recent top pick in the draft. Erick’s struggling with the lack of a paycheck and the reality that no one knows how long the work stoppage may last. Ray laments that Erick, rather than focusing on how he might change the game or better the world, is only concerned with what players are trained to focus on: the money, their egos, the lifestyle. Erick sees himself as a cog desperately waiting for the machine to resume running. Ray wants the players to break the machine and build a new one, to create “a whole infrastructure that put[s] the control back in the hands of those behind the ball instead of those up in the skybox.”

On the flip side from Erick is Samantha (Zazie Beetz), Ray’s former assistant, who always sees the big picture and who, like Ray, is always a few steps ahead. Early in the film Sam is offered a job with the Players Association by its head, Myra (Sonja Sohn). It’s an opportunity most would associate with success and ambition, but Sam gives perhaps the most inspiring rejection ever: “Oh. I don’t like to be used.” While Sam is full of plans and drive, unlike Erick she doesn’t want to work for anybody. Beetz’s performance might be the star attraction if not for Jeryl Prescott owning every scene she’s in as Emera Umber, the mother of Jamero Umber, the New York team’s best player and Erick’s teammate and principal rival both on the court and in social media.

The closest the film comes to a traditional climax is when Erick and Jamero’s beef peaks at a Bronx gym’s charity fundraiser; egged on by the children present, Emera’s overt efforts and Ray’s covert ones, the two go at it one-on-one. The game is recorded and goes viral. In many ways High Flying Bird is not a traditional film, fitting given how uncommonly common sense its message is. We don’t see any of Erick and Jamero’s game beyond one clip; there’s not the dog-eat-dog satiation we’re used to with staged gladitorial contests. Before the conflict that leads to the game, Erick is answering questions and signing autographs for a crowd of adoring young people, all of whom moments later have left to swarm his newly arrived rival. When Jamero hits a jumper over him, the kids go wild, the same kids who’ll go just as wild when Erick scores against Jamero. Even the Next Big Thing ain’t too Next or too Big for too long. Even the shiniest cogs are disposable.

Ray spends the film trying to activate Erick to see past the carrot the NBA dangles and realize justice is only possible after the players create and own their own league. But High Flying Bird isn’t a Hollywood fantasy. Ray can’t impose his will on anybody, nor does he want to. “He ain’t a game-changer,” he says of Erick. “He’s just happy to be playing the game.” Asked if this maddens him, he says “Not at all.” Still, Ray plants a seed in the film’s opening scene that only begins to flower in its last. Some growth is only possible after surrendering the desire to see it take root.

The film offers no traditional hero or resolution. It can’t. Because the villain is the NBA itself, and there is no individual, no messiah to save us from a system. The league recently held its annual All-Star Weekend, where word leaked that several NFL owners approached NBA commissioner Adam Silver about whether he’d consider leaving his current job for the same position with their league. Silver and the NBA are both riding a wave of progressive popularity, particularly in contrast to the NFL and Major League Baseball, their stodgier, hopelessly conservative cousins. None other than LeBron James, perhaps the single-most financially exploited player in the league, sings Silver’s praises.

“In the NFL they got a bunch of old white men owning teams and they got that slave mentality,” James said during an episode of his HBO show The Shop. “And it’s like, ‘This is my team. You do what the fuck I tell y’all to do. Or we get rid of y’all.’ I’m so appreciative in our league of our commissioner. He doesn’t mind us having … a real feeling and to be able to express that. It doesn’t even matter if Adam agrees with what we are saying, he at least wants to hear us out. As long as we are doing it in a very educational, nonviolent way, then he’s absolutely okay with it.”

The top-down hierarchy and privileges underwriting the NBA’s power structures are so assumed that the same media and fans who’ll dissect every win, loss, and implausible trade rumor to the nth degree of nuance squint and grunt like Neanderthals suffering a migraine when issues of labor injustice arise. From a Washington Post article the other week: “Silver has shown support in other ways for his players, including allowing them to express themselves on social issues, such as when several of them wore shirts in December 2014 to protest the death of Eric Garner …” Imagine a movie where a white boss assumes the right to “allow” employees of color to acknowledge realities that have ravaged and continue to ravage their communities. It’d seem cartoonishly evil. Here in reality, it’s celebrated.

In a world of Goodells and Bettmans, the bar is set so low it’s easy to imagine why as long as Silver isn’t literally a vampire he’s considered heroic. After the bitter 1999 lockout ended, Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, could have choked on his smugness while giving a speech to the Players Association where he said, “We are once again an NBA family. …You guys will drive us to be the best league in the world. We can’t do it without you and you can’t do it without us.”

High Flying Bird reminds us the NBA “family” is beyond dysfunctional; it’s malevolent. Stern was right, in this sense: the league can’t sustain its cash flow or its corruptions without the players. High Flying Bird asks us to ask ourselves what the players can do without the owners, and whether fans of the game — so often encouraged to feel we’re not in the same boat as the millionaire laborers, when the truth is we’re not even in the same ocean as the billionaire owners — can do without them, too.