After squaring off on the court with classic cartoons in Space Jam: A New Legacy, LeBron James is back on board for another basketball feature. James will produce Netflix’s upcoming Rez Ball, a coming-of-age sports drama from Reservation Dogs duo Sydney Freeland and Sterlin Harjo.
Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, a perfect day to premiere FX’s latest show Reservation Dogs. Creator/director Sterlin Harjo and director Sydney Freeland (alongside co-creator Taika Waititi) are behind the comedy about four Native American teenagers growing up on a reservation in Eastern Oklahoma. Collider reports that Harjo and Freeland are now joining forces again to tackle another project entitled Rez Ball with LeBron James on board to produce.
The sports drama is inspired by Michael Powell‘s nonfiction sports novel entitled Canyon Dreams as well as the New York Times articles that preceded it. Described as “Friday Night Lights meets Hoosiers,” Rez Ball explores the electric world of “reservation basketball.” In his book, Powell describes rez ball as “a quicksilver, sneaker-squeaking game of run, pass, pass, cut, and shoot, of spinning layups and quick shots and running, endless running … Play was swift and unrelenting as a monsoon-fed stream.” The unique gameplay is rumored to have influenced top coaches and NBA teams throughout the years, but many do not fully understand the cultural significance.
The story will follow the Chuska Warriors, a Native American high school basketball team from Chuska, New Mexico that must work together on their quest for a state championship after the unfortunate loss of their star player. Rez Ball is an all-American underdog story told from the perspective of Navajo kids and coaches within the community. Freeland herself was born and raised on a Navajo reservation in Gallup, New Mexico so the film will have an authentic approach to life on the reservation and game itself.
Freeland is set to direct the film and co-write the script alongside Harjo. Maurício and Katie Mota’s Wise Entertainment and James and Maverick Carter‘s The SpringHill Company will co-produce while Spencer Beighley and Jamal Henderson will serve as executive producers. Production will take place in New Mexico and will be shot on reservations with the permission and support of the local sovereign tribal nations.
When asked about the film and its influences, Freeland stated, “Basketball on the Rez is like high school football in West Texas. It has a fanatical following that few sports can rival. I’m also excited to be working with Sterlin Harjo on this. He has brought so much insight, humor, and heart to this story.” She continued:
“This is a story that’s commonplace on Indian reservations all over the U.S., but most people aren’t even aware it exists. What we want to do is bring people into our world, to tell a story about the people and places we know, and what better way to do that than through a sports movie?”
Maurício Mota emphasized, “we could not be more excited to bring this beautiful, powerful story to life with this amazing team. We are eternally grateful to the strategic guidance and advice of the Native American community inside and outside of Hollywood, especially Jodi Archambault (Hunkpapa/Olgala Lakota), Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache), and Notah Begay III (Navajo/San Felipe/Isleta). It was through this community that we were connected with the extraordinary multi-hyphenates Sydney Freeland and Sterlin Harjo whom we spent the last several years developing the script with. We are so honored to be working with them and the brilliant team at The SpringHill Company.” He continued:
“Rez Ball aims to be a love letter to the contributions Native Americans have made to basketball and also a launchpad for Native talent both in front of and behind the camera, ready to make their mark in the industry. We want this to be a blueprint for how to balance excellent storytelling with impact and pipeline development.”
I watched the first two episodes of Reservation Dogs today and can’t recommend it enough. One of the show’s greatest strengths is that provides a realistic glimpse into growing up on a reservation, often with limited food, resources, and opportunities. This is all thanks to the writing team and the Indigenous cast. Stories can be accurately told through inclusion and experience. Therefore, the fact that we are seeing more stories from Indigenous talent on screen and off is pretty amazing (and long overdue).
As a basketball fan, I can’t wait for Rez Basketball. It will be interesting to see the dramatic approach instead of comedy but it makes more sense to have a serious tone with the subject matter. If you haven’t read Stephan Graham Jones‘ No Good Indians, I highly suggest reading that as well because several pivotal scenes take place on the basketball court. This is another book that I hope gets a film adaptation down the road. For now, I’m just happy more Indigenous stories are surfacing and we are experiencing talent that are all showcasing a different side to a culture often misunderstood.
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