It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full decade since Quvenzhané Wallis attended the 2013 Oscars as the youngest ever Best Actress nominee at 9 years old for the must-see Sundance champ “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
“Wow, 10 years? I never thought about that,” Wallis told WTOP. “You kind of just brought that to my attention. Wow, that is crazy. I just remember being really excited about jelly beans, because they had jelly beans and popcorn for me. That was just such an amazing opportunity itself.”
Now, after starring in “12 Years a Slave” (2013) and “Annie” (2014), Wallis, now 19, co-stars in the coming-of-age basketball drama series “Swagger,” which drops the third episode of Season 2 on Apple TV+ this Friday.
“I really wanted to take on the challenge of shooting a basketball series that would be like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” creator Reggie Rock Bythewood told WTOP. “Ultimately, I wanted an opportunity to tell a story about people growing up in America with various challenges, so basketball becomes a backdrop. … We get the audience on the edge of their seat, then while they’re leaning forward, we hit them with the truth.”
Loosely based on the life and career of two-time NBA champion and Prince George’s County, Maryland, native Kevin Durant, the TV series follows Jace Carson, a 14-year-old phenom from the DMV playing AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) hoops.
“I was a big fan of [Kevin Durant] and I’m still a big fan,” actor Isaiah Hill told WTOP. “I used to rock all of the KD [shoes]. I’ve got videos of me dunking on little mini hoops in my KDs saying, ‘Mom! This is my Kevin Durant dunk,’ doing something that was utterly trash back then, but I did all of that. Kevin Durant has been my favorite player for a long time, so it’s an honor [to play a fictionalized character inspired by him].”
If you’ve seen the show, you can clearly tell that Hill has some real-life experience playing hoops.
“I definitely played some ball,” Hill said. “I played on a lot of the AAU circuits that you see online and I really wanted to be authentic to the culture. I was a point guard coming into it, but when I got the role of Jace Carson and went back to playing, I became more of a shooting guard.”
His character is coached by former rising star Icon Edwards, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. As the son of Ice Cube, Jackson bonded over familial fame with Hill, who’s the nephew of Grammy-winning singer Lauryn Hill.
“Somebody just told me yesterday that I’m a [nepotism] baby,” Hill said. “I’ve never really felt like a ‘nepo baby,’ but we’ve definitely bonded. Shea told me all of his father’s nicknames and stories. We call him like ‘Lil Cube.’ He’s ‘Crushed Ice.’ We’ve got different names for Shea. Because he’s learned from his father and been in those atmospheres, Shea is one of the most cool human beings to be around. He’s one of the funniest I’ve ever met.”
The family connections extend to Rock Bythewood, whose wife Gina Prince-Bythewood directed the basketball romance “Love & Basketball” (2000) and the epic action masterpiece “The Woman King” (2022).
“‘Love & Basketball’ is one of my favorite films, Gina’s my favorite filmmaker, but this is just a different story,” Rock Bythewood said. “It’s evolved, so much of it is drawn from Kevin Durant, but ultimately really drawn from my children who were not born at that time, so we’re drawing a lot of it particularly from me as a parent.”
While Rock Bythewood tried to stay away from “Love & Basketball” comparisons, Wallis noticed several subtle parallels between the relationship of Monica and Quincy in “Love & Basketball” and her character Crystal and Hill’s character in “Swagger.” Does she think such echoes are intentional choices?
“Yes, of course!” Wallis said. “I think, if I’m not mistaken, Season 1, I have a ‘Love & Basketball’ poster in my room, so it’s definitely some ‘Love & Basketball’ vibes. We try to keep dropping little hints for you all to see.”
Ultimately, this isn’t some nostalgic spinoff. It’s an original venture with daring filmmaking choices.
“A lot of basketball shows will shoot the ball and then they’ll cut, then you see the ball go through the hoop — you’d never see that on our show,” Rock Bythewood said. “We’re not cutting. We have a basketball sequence where we do the entire game in one shot. We have real hoopers that can act, so I just feel like our level of play and our level of cinematography allows us to present it in a way that we’re just not accustomed to seeing.”