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NBA star Chris Paul has long championed historically Black colleges and universities, partnering with Harvard Business School last year to develop an entertainment, media and sports curriculum at North Carolina A&T and most recently repping a different school on his sneakers during every game in the league’s Orlando bubble last fall. Now the Phoenix Suns guard is taking his support another step further as executive producer of a new ESPN+ docuseries about one men’s basketball team at an HBCU.
Why Not Us: North Carolina Central University Men’s Basketball, premiering Feb. 12, is the first premium project to debut under The Undefeated on ESPN+, a partnership between the streamer and its race- and culture-focused sister brand. Paul’s production company, Ohh Dip!!!, originated the idea for the eight-episode series and brought it to ESPN, and filming commenced in the fall as the 2020-21 college basketball season opened amid sustained COVID uncertainty. To help promote the series, Paul also shot one-on-one conversations with famous HBCU alums, including Morehouse’s Spike Lee and Howard’s Taraji P. Henson, which will live on on ESPN+.
“Everyone in my family went to HBCUs except me. I grew up with every HBCU sort of in my backyard,” Paul, 35, tells The Hollywood Reporter. He hails from North Carolina, home to 11 HBCUs (second-most in the country), including his hometown’s namesake Winston-Salem State. But the 2003 McDonald’s High School All-American instead played college ball for the city’s other university, Wake Forest, which is part of the basketball powerhouse ACC conference.
“Even though I grew up right there with all those HBCUs, they didn’t really recruit me because they didn’t think they had a chance,” says Paul, who is now pursuing a degree at Winston-Salem State. “When I was coming up, you felt like you had to attend a PWI [predominantly white institution] in order to be seen.”
Recruitment matters because a school’s ability to land top prospects burnishes not only its on-court fortunes but also its ability to attract additional talent and resources and fundraise for the entire institution. HBCUs have traditionally remained on the sidelines as the nation’s most talented young athletes, many of them Black, commit to PWIs, motivating boosters (who add to a university’s endowment) and elevating a program’s chances of postseason glory (which comes with its own direct financial rewards). And in turn, these college athletes miss out on the potential of an educational and social experience unique to HBCU culture.
Why Not Us arrives at a time when HBCUs are enjoying a recent burst of mainstream exposure, both in the sports world (current Howard freshman Makur Maker is the first ESPN Top 100 recruit to play for an HBCU) and beyond (Howard alumna Kamala Harris is vice president of the United States). “Look at the impact that HBCUs are having on society as a whole,” says ESPN Original Content and ESPN Films vice president and executive producer Brian Lockhart. “It’s an unexplored reservoir of stories. This series hopes to give a deep sense of a program that lives in the shadows of bluebloods like North Carolina and Duke but has equally as impressive a record of success right down Tobacco Road.”
Roadside Entertainment, which previously partnered with Ohh Dip!!! and ESPN on the 2018 Black youth lacrosse documentary Crossroads, is also producing Why Not Us alongside Mr. SAS Inc., the production shingle of ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith (a Winston-Salem State grad). The hope is for the inaugural season to spawn a franchise that will delve into other sports as well as other aspects of HBCU life. “We can see this franchise branch out to step teams, dance squads,” says Lockhart. “Competition and athleticism exist inside of HBCUs in a lot of different flavors.”
Meanwhile, another Ohh Dip!!!-produced project is set to premiere soon, this one on HBO: The Day Sports Stood Still, an Antoine Fuqua-directed documentary that traces the chain of events than began March 11, 2020 when Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. The NBA’s abrupt shutdown (and Tom Hanks’ diagnosis the same day) were for many Americans the first bellwethers of the pandemic that would change everyone’s lives. The doc centers around Paul, and for good reason: At the time, he was on the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Jazz’s opponents that night, and as president of the NBA Players Association, he also was pivotal in discussions surrounding the league’s stuttered 2019-20 season that had to navigate not only the pandemic but also the athlete-led response to the racial justice reawakening over the summer.
“The added benefit of working with Chris on this film was that he was both a producer as well as a subject,” says Imagine Documentaries president Justin Wilkes, who is producing alongside Fuqua Films. “Chris was able to leverage his relationships to help land interviews with some of the biggest athletes as well as grant our cameras unprecedented access inside the NBA bubble. And at the same time, he was incredibly open and vulnerable as a subject, allowing us to document the intensely personal impact of the NBA shutdown and his family’s reaction to the social justice reckoning in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.”
The project was able to come together so quickly because Paul, sensing history in the making, had called Imagine executive chair Brian Grazer from his Oklahoma City condo the night the Thunder-Jazz game was cancelled. The two knew each other through Bob Iger, whom Paul had met and befriended after they interviewed one another for the 2015 AOL Originals series Win/Win. Fuqua, a neighbor of Paul’s during his time on the Los Angeles Clippers, came on board a few calls later. “It comes from relationships,” says Paul, speaking like a true producer.
“When he was in his mid-20s, he [already] presented like a CEO,” says Michael Levine, co-head of CAA Sports, where Paul has been a client for most of his career. The agency had already been working with Paul on his playing contracts, endorsement deals and philanthropic work when he was traded to L.A. in 2011 and began considering his prospects in the film and television industry.
“It wasn’t as if the day he arrived at the Clippers, he opened a production company,” Levine says. “He took a lot of time meeting with people that we introduced him to [like Iger] to get a sense of what was possible for him. His goal was to try and tell stories that resonated with him and to be a voice for those that he felt were being underserved. At a certain point, he realized that creating his own production company [would serve that]. That’s the origin of how this all came about.”
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