A few days ago I watched one of Netflix’s newest original offerings, a basketball movie titled “High Flying Bird.”
(Warning: Major movie spoilers ahead.)
Except it’s not really about basketball. It’s about the business of basketball. For that reason, I don’t think it will click with sports fans the way sports movies typically do. It certainly took me well into the 90-minute run time until I got a grip on the message being conveyed.
The movie stars Andre Holland as the agent to Erick Scott, a hotshot rookie whose introduction to professional basketball is delayed by an owners lockout.
Scott, who expected to have signed a lucrative contract already, learns a hard lesson after being taken advantage of by a predatory lender. Meanwhile, Ray Burke (played by Holland) finds that his own salary and even his corporate credit cards have been frozen because his boss is worried about the lockout’s impact on the agency.
From there, you think back to the movie’s advertising and the “bold plan” that Burke hatches in just 72 hours to save his and Scott’s careers while at the same time shaking up the league’s power structure.
It’s a really intriguing premise that is unfortunately not done very well.
See, Burke’s big plan is to convince the league that the players can succeed without it. Top young talent like Scott can establish their brand and make money by utilizing social media and by signing exclusive contracts with media streaming services like Netflix. Those streaming services would then host, say, a 3-on-3 game between elite young players like Scott.
Burke never seriously dives into his own idea, though. For example, he schedules a sitdown with Netflix but never actually plans on going through with it. It’s all a ruse to cause a panic among the league’s power brokers and force them to the negotiating table.
Somehow, it works — the lockout abruptly ends. Burke’s plan was so successful that he takes his boss’s job while his former assistant Sam, who helped him execute the plan, becomes next in line to lead the league’s players association. (What?!)
The movie is an indictment of capitalism and the exploitation of workers. It sort of gets its point across in that sense, but I’m not sure how applicable the message is to the real world.
Could NBA players succeed on their own? Yes, some of them would do very well. If people are dumb enough to pay to watch Todd Bridges box Vanilla Ice, they definitely would put down money to see LeBron, Steph Curry and other top NBA stars play each other even in exhibition games.
But that leaves out the other 95 percent of players. Nobody’s going to go out of their way to see even second- or third-tier stars like Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell. (Both make several forgettable appearances throughout “High Flying Bird,” speaking in cliches and platitudes about the life of a young NBA player.)
The movie tries to convince the viewer that the power structure should be reversed, because without the players there would be no league. That’s true, but without the league the players wouldn’t be averaging roughly $8 million in salary with worldwide exposure.
The truth is both sides need each other.
Sadly, Steven Soderbergh’s movie was a missed opportunity but “High Flying Bird” could serve as a jumping off point for other filmmakers who want to further explore how social and digital media have and will continue to change sports. There’s still a lot of interesting material there to be mined.
Mike Hautamaki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.