‘Swagger’ examines competitive world of youth basketball

Rick's Reviews

O’Shea Jackson Jr. stars in the new Apple TV+ drama “Swagger.” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Swagger,” the new Apple TV+ sports drama inspired by the life of NBA superstar Kevin Durant, uses youth basketball as a backdrop for a story about the drive for success, setting goals and what it means to be a part of a family.

The focal point is Jace Carson (Isaiah Hill), a basketball phenomenon who is one of the top ranked youth basketball players in the country. Jace is being guided on his path to an NBA career by his mother, Jenna (played by Shinelle Azoroh). She will do anything to make sure her son reaches basketball stardom. This means the mother and son will be navigating a world of dealing with good and bad teammates, vicious rival coaches and the business dealings that go on behind the scenes with athletes even at a young age.

All of this begins to unfold when “Swagger” launches on the streaming service with the first three episodes starting Oct. 29.

That family element resonates deeply with the character of Ike as played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. He’s not only dealing with being a father figure to the players that he is coaching but Ike is also on the verge of becoming a father for the first time.

Jackson – the son of rapper/actor Ice Cube – understands his character well because he has a 4-year-old daughter and coached youth basketball before his acting career launched.

“I know you can’t be the drill sergeant you are with the team with your little girl,” Jackson says. He laughs and adds, “My baby girl does whatever she wants. She’s the first grandbaby so she gets what she wants.”

Jackson comes to the series having worked in “Straight Outta Compton” (playing his father), “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “Just Mercy.” His next acting project is the “Star Wars” series “Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

The young basketball players in “Swagger” are driven by a very lofty goal. While studying screenwriting at the University of Southern California, Jackson was not as focused on the goals for his career.

“Of course you want the trophies in the trophy case. You want the big awards,” Jackson says. “But I know from hearing actors talk about it, that’s nothing to really strive for.

“Kobe Bryant was one of my heroes and I follow a quote of his that if you are running a marathon and you are just focused on that finish line, it is going to take you forever. But if you keep your head down and just focus on your feet, when you look up you will be where you are supposed to be.”

A very pregnant Azoroh was extremely dialed into the family aspects of the series playing the demanding and determined mother of the young basketball star. She played the character not as a stage mom or a master manipulator but as a mother who just wants the best for her son.

Azoroh – whose previous work includes “Don’t Let Go” and “Nostalgia” – can see how some may see her as just a person who wants to get her way but to her the character is just being a realist.

“She is dealing with a young black man who is a baby on the inside but the world sees him as a grown man,” Azoroh says. “I feel like she believes that she has to get him to the NBA because it is life or death for them.”

“Torn from Her Arms,” 8 p.m. Oct. 30, Lifetime

Judy Reyes was well aware of the story of Cindy and Jimena Madrid before she got the chance to star in the made-for-cable film based on their story. The mother and daughter fled violence in El Salvador, only to be separated at the U.S. border.

“I’ve been a huge follower of the issues on the border for the last four years since it gained all that attention,” Reyes – who plays the immigration lawyer who worked to reunite the pair – says. “It really mattered to me as a mother. I’m completely heartbroken by the fact that a government would separate the children from their parents.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like and the thought of it always made me cry.”

Detained in different centers, Cindy and Jimena’s story gained national attention when a gut-wrenching audiotape of six-year old Jimena crying for her mother was leaked, helping to alert the world to what was happening to undocumented immigrant families at the border.

The film shines a spotlight on the harsh child separation policies in place as part of the zero-tolerance policy and the struggle to reunite families.

The task of playing Cindy Madrid fell to Fatima Molina. She found it difficult doing the research for the project because that included hearing specific details of the ordeal from the woman she is portraying.

“It was so painful,” Molina says. “It’s really important that the world knows this story, this history.”

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