The Netflix original movie High Flying Bird explores the world of professional basketball from the perspective of an agent played by André Holland. He has to navigate his way through a lockout while avoiding getting fired or letting his client go bankrupt. It might be a familiar tale to sports fans, but is High Flying Bird based on a true story?
Indeed it is. Though the characters and situations may be fictionalized, the framework of the story is the 2011 NBA lockout. A lockout occurs when players and team owners can't agree about payment conditions, which can lead to games not being played and salaries not being paid. According to the Atlantic, the issue in 2011 was that the players wanted guaranteed salaries whether or not they under-performed, whereas the team owners wanted smaller salaries for players, revenue sharing, and the opportunity to let under-performing players go.
The 2011 lockout lasted for 161 days and ended with a 10-year collective bargaining deal, per CNN. Forbes reported that team owners received a lot of money in the deal, while the players were mostly able to "[maintain] a certain degree of financial flexibility and player mobility." Agents lost out the most financially, and High Flying Bird tackles every aspect of the conflict from an agent's perspective.
The screenplay for High Flying Bird was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2017 for Moonlight. He spoke to GQ about what inspired him to set High Flying Bird during the shutdown, because the movie wasn't always about that. Initially, it was just going to be about professional sports and economics, but McCraney wanted to explore a time when the characters would be under duress.
"And in the NBA over the years, there have been these moments where a lockout will happen and people start to panic," McCraney said. "There are people who are prepared for these moments, and then there are those who are new to the game, or are still living paycheck to paycheck. Like when the government shuts down."
McCraney went on to explain that, like Congress, the team owners were mostly white, older people who were able to survive the lockout because they were already financially set. However, the mostly black players were left struggling to pay their bills and were taking on debt in the process. Even when the lockout ended, they weren't necessarily able to catch up again. Holland's character isn't directly involved in the game but he saw the crisis as "an advantage," in McCraney's words.
McCraney also folded some of his own experiences into the film, though not directly. A scene in which Kyle MacLachlan intimidates Holland was inspired by something that happened to McCraney:
As a young and upcoming black person in this industry there have been moments that I have been intimidated by older white men who have said things like, 'You're going to be fine and you shouldn't be a disruptor. You shouldn't interrupt what's happening. Everything's going to be fine, get out of the way.' Yeah. Absolutely.
The complexity of the story comes from real events, even if the characters are not based on specific people. That makes High Flying Bird a mix of fact and fiction, and allows it to wade through a variety of themes that resonate on many levels.