Basketball rules NBA superstar Kevin Durant’s world. Not only on the court but on TV too. Basketball County: In the Water, the documentary he produced in homage to his DMV hoop roots, debuted on Showtime last year. And now the drama series Swagger, inspired by his experiences coming up in the world of AAU basketball in the DMV, is on Apple TV.
Produced by Brian Grazer, whose numerous credits in TV alone include Friday Night Lights and Empire, Swagger is created and spearheaded by Reggie Rock Bythewood, the New York Undercover alum who last did the FOX series Shots Fired with his wife director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Swagger—a rare show centering the lives of young Black kids with the backdrop of basketball—certainly plays ball, tackling everything from racial profiling and child abuse to sexual assault, exploitation in sports, racism and more.
Jace Carson is a 14-year-old basketball phenom in the making being raised with his sister Jackie by single mother Jenna. His game and his life get a wake-up call when his mom places him on local legend Ike “Icon” Edwards’s AAU squad. Icon has struggles of his own. Considered a has-been for never living up to the promise of his high school game, Icon is a married soon-to-be father who works in a hardware store but has a passion for coaching. And then there is Crystal, fellow baller and Jace’s best friend since childhood, as well as numerous teammates and a few other coaches.
During a recent session of the AAFCA (African American Film Critics Association) virtual roundtable, Bythewood shared that he met with the Brooklyn Nets star to get the ball rolling. During those initial conversations, Bythewood said Durant “shared his real live experiences of being a grassroots basketball player, and not necessarily having everyone be a believer on the court, but most specifically himself.” The show creator took a few of those elements and mixed them in from recollections from his own childhood and what he saw his own kids experience while playing sports—with the aid of the amazing show writers—to bring the characters to life.
Innocence is one key element of the show that is rarely explored with young Black people. And that comes through mostly in the characters of Jace and Crystal. Newcomer Isaiah Hill, who plays basketball in real life and centers Swagger as its star, never acted before. In fact, he only learned about the show because his cousin saw a social media post from Gina Prince-Bythewood about casting for the show and forwarded it to him. Playing Crystal is Quvenzhané Wallis, who has the distinction of being the youngest actress to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Hushpuppy in the 2012 indie phenom Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Speaking with EBONY directly, Hill described Jace as “a 14-year-old manchild, a center of attention in his household.” According to the first-time actor, Jace’s “will-to-win comes from his desire to be valued and counted on by his loved ones.” Pushing him forward is his mother Jenna played by Shinelle Azoroh.
“Jace’s mom is his real extra push. In some scenes, she looks like she wants it more than he does. And she is out there in the trenches with him working,” Hill explained.
For Azoroh, Jenna had another layer that she loved and that was “that Jenna wasn’t her circumstances. She was always trying to get her family out of these circumstances. And that’s what a lot of Black women do . . . They have to keep it moving,” she shared.
On top of that, Azoroh shared that she also “really liked that she was always taking care of herself [and practicing] self-care. She looked nice. Her hair was always banging in a different natural hairstyle. . . . I think this is where Swagger gets it right, where we look good in the midst of everything that’s happening around us. And that’s what really attached me to Jenna.”
The character Jace also has a very special relationship with his sister Jackie, played by Jordan Rice, that is deepened by the experience of their father leaving them. While Jackie longs for their father’s love, Jace is determined to become the best basketball player he can be to show his father what he missed out on. Along the way, Jace also finds a mentor, friend and father figure in Icon, brotherhood in his teammates, a deeper friendship with his childhood best friend Crystal, and, most importantly, himself.
The role of Crystal is very special for Quvenzhané Wallis. “I think she has a lot of strength as a young woman,” she later explained during the AAFCA roundtable. “She knows she loves basketball. She knows she loves the people around her. But she’s still growing and learning things about life. And I think that’s really important, especially because of how old she is. She’s just 14, you know, [and] she hasn’t experienced all of life, but she’s been through a lot.
“She’s been through the struggles and the maze of life and taking wrong turns and making mistakes,” she continued. “I think that’s really important, especially for people my age, or just women in general, just to see that it’s okay and you can heal, and you can work through it, and you can move past it and still do the things you love.”
O’Shea Jackson, Jr., whose breakthrough role came as his father Ice Cube in the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, shared that his character Ike’s vulnerability is something he really appreciates about Swagger. “Men, a lot of times we try to put so much on our shoulders because we’re just supposed to tough it out. We’re just supposed to figure out how to make it happen. And through the team and through Jace, I, as a character, get medicine that I didn’t know that I needed, that you don’t have to take on the world by yourself,” he told AAFCA. “Not being afraid to ask for help, not being afraid to vent a little bit when it’s needed is something that I feel like a lot of not just males, but a lot of people run away from.”
Summing up the show, Caleel Harris, who plays Jace’s teammate Musa, says the show is “a bunch of people just living in life and at the center of it is basketball. And the bottom line is everybody in the show is trying to find their own swagger.”
Swagger is airing on Apple TV+ now until December 17.