If ESPN’s Last Dance docuseries waxed nostalgic about basketball’s past, then Apple TV Plus’ Swagger is gimlet-eyed about the sport’s present and future. This exciting new biographical drama is inspired by Kevin Durant’s adolescence and own meteoric rise in the NBA, but offers incisive commentary on the wider industry and the way hoop dreams can be commodified. And yet, the series is unwavering in its optimism about what can be accomplished through unity.
Swagger is both grounded and buoyant as it follows 14-year-old Jace (Isaiah Hill), who, though he’s only in eighth grade, is already on the radar of scouts and sportswear companies. When the series opens, Jace is a phenomenon without a team in the youth basketball circuit, but through some strategizing by his canny mom, Jenna (Shinelle Azoroh), he’s soon under the tutelage of another one-time NBA hopeful, Ike (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Jace is already convinced of his talent, and is merely looking for a stage (or court) from which to dazzle everyone. Ike immediately recognizes Jace’s potential, but he also knows all too well that talent only gets you so far. Early on, he challenges his new player: “A lot of kids can ball. Can you get better? Can you learn?”
Jace and Ike butt heads intermittently throughout the season, as hotshots and level-headed coaches are wont to do in sports dramas. They just as quickly develop a sense of mutual respect. Swagger hits several of these familiar beats, especially as the cast and narrative expands. Jace struggles to fit in with his new team, who don’t want to yield all of the spotlight to their new star player. The addition of an in-house rival (Jason Rivera as Nick Mendez) upsets the team dynamic once more, but mostly Jace and Jenna, who aren’t interested in seeing Jace become the “Pippen” to Nick’s “Jordan.” Even with two of the highest-ranking players in the area on their roster, Team Swagger still faces losses, some more devastating than others.
What helps distinguish this story, aside from several powerful performances and ace directing, is the setting—rarely have basketball dramas focused on the youth circuit. These aren’t college students or even high schoolers, but kids in eighth grade. Some of them haven’t even had their first kiss, but their futures are already being mapped out. They don’t know how to drive, yet they’re expected to show incredible grace under fire, both on and off the court. Many of them, like Jace and Nick, already have a rigorous training regimen, as well as fans and detractors.
Swagger creator Reggie Rock Bythewood—whose expansive career includes writing for A Different World and New York Undercover and directing the hyper-ambitious limited series, Shots Fired—knows that being forced to grow up too soon is often the reality for Black and brown kids. His series reflects that reality, and the sense that all these acts of dazzling athleticism (and there are ever so many here) still might not be enough for these teens to go pro. But Swagger also captures the wonder of these years, when lifelong bonds are established and first love is burgeoning.
This is no grim drama; Swagger is as hopeful as it is honest. Like his teammates and friends, including Crystal (Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis), Jace faces obstacles, but he does so with the support of his mother and sister, Jackie (Jordan Rice). He soon finds a new family on the court, and a father figure in Ike. The show’s many lived-in relationships provide a strong foundation for the teen-centric drama, but its potential is most palpable during game time. The basketball scenes are electrifying, with 360 shots, seamless editing, and a whole host of promising young athletes. A profound love and understanding of the game fuel these dynamic sequences, which take the viewer deep into the paint.
But Bythewood, who wrote and directed the premiere, keeps an eye trained to the business side of things—the boardrooms where predominantly white executives view kids like Jace and his teammates as products or, in a dubious step above, brand ambassadors. Even many of the coaches, like Coach Bobby (Marc Blucas), are just looking to hitch their wagon to these kids’ stars. The Wire’s Tristan Wilds co-stars as Alonzo, a rep for a mid-size sneaker company who first suggests moving into the youth circuit, so they can cultivate a relationship with tomorrow’s Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
As its name suggests, Swagger has an abundance of style and confidence, but it’s also a deeply thoughtful show, one that engages with the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020, and systemic inequities in this country. Each major character gets their due (sometimes at the cost of focus and momentum), but Ike and Jace anchor the show as mentor and mentee; has-been and rising star; expectant father and a son eager to show his own father his worth. Jackson Jr. is endlessly charming as a man who refuses to be bitter about his dashed hopes; he’s been in Jace’s shoes, and is determined to help him make the most of his life, not just his basketball skills. Hill moves easily from laconic teen to budding superstar with just a change in tone and a flash of his big smile.
They’re surrounded by endearing supporting players in Solomon Irama, Caleel Harris, and James Bingham. But it’s Azoroh and Wallis who give Jackson Jr. and Hill a run for their money—Jenna’s and Crystal’s journeys are every bit as compelling as Jace’s and Ike’s, and equally primed for expansion in a second season. Apple TV Plus has already produced a winning sports comedy in Ted Lasso; now the streamer gets to add one of the best sports dramas in recent years to its programming.