Come Friday, August 2, Netflix is set to premiere one of the more fascinating docu-series of the year in Basketball or Nothing. What lies underneath that name is a powerful story of Chinle, Arizona, a town located within Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the country. It’s about hope, about basketball, and about a number of kids who overcome a lot of obstacles in order to play their high-speed, energetic brand of the sport — affectionately coined “rezball” by some of the locals.
Basketball or Nothing spotlights these players, the community, and how a team sport manages to bring together people from a difficult walk of life. You can watch the full trailer at the bottom of this article to get a larger sense of what this sport means, and how it can serve as an escape for both the players and the fans.
Before you watch that trailer, why not hear from one of the men responsible for bringing this docu-series to life? In addition to being a PGA Champion and one of the most-popular professional golfers in the world, Rickie Fowler is also the founder of Main Event Productions. He helped bring Basketball or Nothing to life alongside The WorkShop Content Studios. In this CarterMatt interview, Fowler talks about his personal connection to the project, the inspiration he drew from these kids, and what you can expect from watching the entire series.
CarterMatt – More and more athletes are getting more into production, whether it be LeBron [James], Steph [Curry], or you with this project. What appeals to you about getting into this?
Rickie Fowler – It was something so organic and just a part of who I am, being a quarter Navajo. We’re jumping into production and media and starting our own production company to set up things down the road, but we have to start somewhere.
I think a part of it too, is that with outlets like Netflix and social media, you can create and control your own content. That’s something that’s new and we’re trying to take advantage of that and share some cool stories along the way. Try to make a difference in a different way other than being on the course, helping to grow the game and getting the younger generation interested in it. That’s a part of my job, but outside of that I’ve always wanted to make a difference and not just on the golf course.
When it comes to rezball and this particular part of Navajo Nation, when did you discover that this was a story that needed to be told?
I’ve been well aware about the reservation and Navajo Nation as a whole. I hadn’t been back on the reservation in quite a while until we made the visit for this production. Inspiration came from my grandmother’s stories to being involved with [Native American pro golfer] Notah Begay III, who is also an executive producer on this, as well. He has a focus in his foundation on type-2 diabetes, so with understanding the health aspect of the reservation with diabetes and obesity, playing sports and being active is a huge part in prolonging their lives.
When you made your visit to this community and you see some of these people, what strikes you?
For me, everyone just seemed super-happy. They have a very simple life in a way on the reservation. There are a lot of kids who don’t even have running water and electricity. They’re just super-appreciative. I was talking earlier about how at one point [during production], they decided to just drop the cameras and get to know the kids a bit more on a personal level. That way, the kids would really open up for the stuff we were putting together. Once that trust was earned, they made the film. It’s not like we have someone narrating and telling the story. They’re telling the story. It’s pretty cool seeing that come together and the doors open. You feel that appreciation.
We were there trying to tell a true story about these kids overcoming a rough lifestyle with health issues on the reservation. It’s cool to see basketball having a huge impact on people’s lives.
This is set to be six episodes. Would you characterize each one as being a separate story, or are they all building towards a larger, continuous arc?
It flows throughout their basketball season. It looks at different parts and as the episodes go, it spends a lot of time with certain individuals on the team. It’s a look throughout the season, the ups and downs — the kids not wanting to play a certain style of basketball but ultimately, having to trust the coach and come together as a team. With Coach Mendoza, he’s kind of a father figure to some of these kids — he’s not just teaching them basketball. It’s life coaching in a way.
I know it’s a difficult question with art, because everyone’s always going to take something away of their choosing from a given project. Is there something you hope viewers take away from this?
I think it can inspire a lot of people. I think it will be great across Navajo Nation alongside a lot of other Native American communities. But I also think it’s going to open a lot of people’s eyes who may not know a lot about Navajo Nation or Native American communities and what it’s all about. You can talk about the health side, not having many resources, and these kids making the most of what they have. In this case, it’s basketball having a positive impact on their lives moving forward.
You talked about the inspirational factor of this and, for you, does it offer up some of that same fuel? Is the story a driving force for you?
Oh definitely. We were there and were seeing how happy they were and how appreciative they were that we decided to do this show about them. I think a lot of that came after we built that trust with them and it was super-inspirational. It makes me want to work harder. Seeing how some of these kids live makes you realize how lucky you are and how we take so many things for granted.
I know you’ve constantly got a lot going on, but are you starting to think about what you’d like to be involved with next?
We definitely have some stuff that we’re working on and seeing where we want to go. For me, it’s about making a difference, but mainly around sports for right now. We don’t have a specific project that we’re diving all-in on yet, but we’re looking at potentials and between myself and my fiancée Allison [Stokke], it’s finding areas that haven’t been looked at or spotlighted much, similar to this project, and tell some stories where we can either show someone making a difference or where we can help make a difference.
As mentioned, Basketball or Nothing streams on Netflix starting on Friday, August 2. We welcome your thoughts on this below! Thanks to Rickie Fowler for his time and his discussion. (Photo: Netflix.)