Jake Eiseman, Editor
Header Image: Netflix
On Jan. 26, the Netflix docuseries “Basketball or Nothing” won the RealScreen Award for Best Non-Fiction Sports Documentary Program. It beat out ESPN Films’ “D. Wade: Life Unexpected” and “LANCE,” as well as the projected winner, NBA Entertainment’s “The Last Dance.” The RealScreen Awards are an annual event held within the RealScreen Summit, a celebration of all non-fiction media run by RealScreen Magazine.
La Salle alumnus Matt Howley ’94 was the director for the series, which debuted on Netflix in August 2019. The series follows the basketball team at Chinle High, a school located in an Arizona Navajo reservation, and their quest to win the state championship. Howley believes that the reason the judges gave his series the edge over the Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” was that “Basketball or Nothing” was “more of a human story than a sports story.” The series was also nominated for a 2020 Sports Emmy.
“Basketball or Nothing” has been praised both for its work at detailing each player on the high school team’s roster, as well as its in-depth explanations of the reservation life and the ‘rezball’ style of basketball. “Resilience,” said Howley, “was the main theme of the project. You can see this player with no water or electricity at home come to school and compete to hopefully win a college scholarship.” At first, the players and their families were not very responsive to a documentary crew being on the reservation, Howley said, with one member of the community even asking them if they were “going to do a film about showing the bad on the reservation,” and warning them “if you want to exploit us, we don’t want to do the show.”
Howley and his team eventually set their cameras down and made it their goal to connect with the Navajo residents on a personal level. “Basketball or Nothing” is as much a slice-of-life story as it is a sports story, showing sections or whole episodes dedicated to life on the reservation. Howley said that “around day 12, it started to click. We started to collaborate with the community to tell this story.” Howley said that quickly his team realized that “these kids were not going to care about our project until they cared about us, and we care about them.”
For the three hours of footage that were used in the final edit, 50 hours of footage and months of on-site work were required. Howley said that day after day him and his team would shoot the players at practices and games, but the most interesting days on site were going to the players’ homes and learning about their families. “We were hoping to tell an inspiring story about these kids, their families and the team that they all united around to keep their hopes up,” said Howley.
Three of the Lasallian virtues are “faith in the presence of God,” “respect for all persons” and “inclusive communities.” These virtues can be seen through the storytelling in, and production of “Basketball or Nothing.” “Every single person is important and has a story. Investigating stories is about talking to people and learning different perspectives.” He said that La Salle prepared him for this career, and that while he was with the Navajo peoples, he knew he was on their land and that he was an outsider and refused to take that for granted. Howley says that “if you treat everybody like that, it teaches you to value your relationships more.”
To La Salle students that want to follow in Howley and other alumni’s footsteps, Howley says to “constantly be curious, ask questions and hunt down a story. Be aware of what you do not know.” He said that once he learned to let the story tell itself instead of trying to tell the story, everything fell into place, and he encourages students interested in documentary or filmmaking to attempt the same thing.
“Basketball or Nothing” season two is currently very early in development, but Howley says he is hopeful it will come out better than the first and that he is excited to return to the reservation.