Recently, WSN’s sports desk had the privilege of sitting down with award-winning filmmaker and director Dan Klores. He talked about his most recent project, “Basketball: A Love Story,” which is a 20-hour, 10-part documentary that encapsulates basketball as a global common denominator in today’s complex world. The documentary is broken down into 62 short stories that explore the two-sided love of the game while offering perspectives and insights on issues like race, gender, politics, business and more. The documentary features 165 industry legends, including some of the best players, coaches, and journalists in the history of the game. Responsible for the revival of the NY Renaissance — a youth basketball organization that competes in New York City — Dan Klores prioritizes academic achievement, community building and commitment to core values as leader of the NY Rens.
WSN: You brought together all these basketball legends— from the NBA, ABA, NCAA, WNBA and the international scene — what was it like recruiting the players and basketball personalities that represent the entire basketball world?
Dan Klores: First of all, when I started this, the film was originally going to be 10 hours and five parts. But I had known in my mind the short stories I wanted to tell, because the film isn’t chronological or linear. The stories — like you said — stem from the NBA, college, the Olympics, and involve politics, race, media and business. So I made a list of stores which I edited over the course of multiple years, but I knew who I needed to tell the stories. If I was going to do a scene on “The Decision,” well clearly, I needed LeBron. If I was going to do a scene on San Antonio, I needed Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and those guys. If I was going to do a scene on Geno Oriamo versus Pat Summit — well Pat was very ill — but I needed Geno and a bunch of his players, as well as players that played for Pat. I knew who I needed and who I wanted to get and I also understood that the film was going to take a number of years, and some of these players were older, and a few were ill. I needed Dolph Schayes, who was an NYU graduate. Greatest player in NYU history — not even close — and top 50 of all time in the NBA. He had been retired a long time and living in Syracuse, where he played professionally, and he passed about a year after I interviewed him. So I had to go there before I started talking with the younger, more contemporary men and women. Do you know Dolph Schayes?
WSN: I’ve definitely heard the name but I don’t know much about him.
DK: As a kid, I grew up in Brooklyn [being] a huge NYU fan. They were fantastic.
WSN: I know they used to play games at Madison Square Garden.
DK: All the time. And they produced many All-Americans and players that went on to play in the pros, and they were my favorite team as a kid. But college basketball really got decimated in New York City because of the gambling scandals. NYU decided in the late ’60s to minimize their programs. They were one of the top teams in the country year after year.
WSN: You talked about getting over 500 hours of interview footage while creating “Basketball: A Love Story.” How do you go from over 500 hours of interviews to the 10 hours that were used in the film?
DK: It’s part of telling the story. Some of the interviews were six hours. Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson were six hours each. The average interview was two hours and 25 minutes. The process of deciding which segments make the final cut lies within the storytelling. The process I use involves tracking all of my interviews within a book, and I underline in red the parts I might be interested in, which is usually two-thirds of each interview. To focus on a story like the gambling scandal in the 1960s, I will first look to see who spoke about that. I will then write the dialogue from the interview, so that’s the order of how a story becomes a scene. There’s a logic to it, and then when you’re editing, it’s like a puzzle — you try to figure out which lines work best and at what point, while also keeping in mind the visuals. It’s a very disciplined undertaking. You lose a lot of stuff but you have to be. You must be ruthless. After a while you lose a lot of lines that you love, but if it doesn’t help tell the story, you’re out. Gone.
WSN: In the “Patriots to Protest” episode, basketball players were boycotting the 1968 Olympics, right around the time the Civil Rights movement in [the United States] was starting to gain attention. I think a lot of the power within the documentary is how basketball can be used to shed light on social issues involving race, politics, gender and more.
WSN: Without getting too political, it’s accurate to point out that our current president has criticized football players for taking a knee, and has also taken shots at LeBron James and Steph Curry, arguably the two most influential leaders in today’s NBA. There’s also been journalists who have told LeBron, who recently opened his I Promise school, to “shut up and dribble.” How do you think your documentary responds to these threats of people trying to use sports to attack and divide people?
DK: Thank you for asking that. The film is about basketball as a global common denominator, as one of the few common denominators that can bring people together. If you travel the world and go to Ireland, Croatia, China, Nigeria, you can use only a few global common denominators to relate to people. Think about it. Food, music, God, sex, basketball. In my mind, basketball represents a common place for people to celebrate and begin to talk about the shared love, and through that, how else do we grow? You can’t grow if you’re angry.
You have a professor at NYU who teaches in the Sports Management department. His name is Dave Hollander. Just the other day, after watching the film, he announced that he is introducing a four-credit course at NYU, with my film “Basketball: A Love Story” as a central point to his summer session course called “How Basketball Can Save the World.” So that’s my view. I have a not-for-profit organization called NY Renaissance basketball association. It’s for inner-city kids who play hoops. Three years ago, we started an anti-gun violence campaign. All 250 kids in the program, from third grade to eleventh, wear an orange emblem on their uniform to raise awareness. So that’s what I think basketball can do. I don’t know if it can change the world, but it can certainly help make the world a better place. And I love these younger athletes now because they’re taking a stand. What’s going to happen in the 2020 Olympics? Could something similar happen? It’s a legitimate question.
WSN: There is an emerging idea of sports media companies focusing on short-term content, especially when targeting younger generations that have a shorter attention span and less desire to read or watch time-consuming material. Can you talk about your decision to pursue something longer and some of the challenges that came with that?
DK: There’s been documentaries on baseball, jazz and other disciplines that start from the beginning and recount the history — they’re linear and structured as if they are the history of those things. I told myself I’m not doing a history — I decided to tell it as short stories. I wasn’t thinking of younger generations and how they view things when I made that decision. But what I’ve learned — and ESPN is smart about this — is you can go on their app, and they’ve released the film as short stories. So you can watch one short story that’s eight minutes, or 14 minutes. And that appeals to younger people.
WSN: What would you say to a current undergraduate student about watching the documentary? Does it appeal to more than just basketball or sports fans? How so?
DK: To me, it’s not really about sports AT all. It’s about this universal language, this global common denominator. It’s a love story. Each story in the 62 stories involves both sides of love. The joy, the wonder and the embrace, but also the despair, the loss, and the betrayal. It’s so much deeper than basketball. It’s about the art of the game. The genius of the game. The scandals of the game. It’s about race in [the U.S.]. This is also a story about “The Outsider.” Young people, I’m astounded, love the history part. There’s something pleasing about that. It’s not chronological, I don’t open with James Naismith discovering the game, but I get to that part eventually. This isn’t a history, but it is historical.
WSN: What was the most fulfilling part of putting together “Basketball: A Love Story?”
DK: There was so much. Sitting down with Bill Russell for six hours. Pat Riley breaking down in tears was just incredible. Steve Nash, who everyone would normally say has everything he wants in the world, is talking about how basketball is the only thing that got him through years of depression and issues of self-worth. There are magnificent moments and I felt very lucky to have made this. Hopefully it’ll stick around for a generation. What do you think?
WSN: I think since it has historical aspects, but isn’t a history from beginning to end, and the way you partnered with ESPN so the film is easy accessible and people can watch at their leisure, I think there’s definitely potential for it to stick around for a while. It includes some of the best basketball stories in my lifetime, and I could say the same about my father’s lifetime. Any basketball fan, whether it’s your first day loving the sport or it’s been your love for a while, can find things that resonate with them. There’s a lot to unpack and that’s an advantage.
DK: Thank you so much.
A version of this article appeared in the Nov. 12 print edition. Email Brendan Duggan at [email protected]