‘Blackballed’ documentary gives Clippers’ perspective of Donald Sterling debacle
About four years ago, Los Angeles lawyer Sam Widdoes was part of a small group listening to Clippers coach Doc Rivers tell a story he hadn’t shared publicly.
The retelling centered on the Clippers’ first, tense team meeting in April 2014, after a recording of then-team owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks was leaked to the public and sparked outrage. Players were furious and confused. Coaches, too. A first-round playoff game against Golden State loomed, but talk of a player boycott bubbled.
Widdoes, a lifelong Clippers fan, had never heard details of what happened inside the conference room at the San Francisco Four Seasons. He found it so compelling that he immediately began considering a career change to become a documentary filmmaker.
“That’s when the wheels started turning for me,” Widdoes said. “That is a story that is beyond basketball. That is a human story, an identity story. It was so complex and revelatory to me I thought it was something that would make for an incredible story to tell on a larger scale.”
Hearing Rivers’ recollections no longer requires being part of his small circle, but a subscription to Quibi.
On May 18, the mobile streaming platform will debut the first three episodes of “Blackballed,” a documentary directed by Michael Jacobs about the first five days of the Sterling saga that ultimately led the owner to be banned by the NBA for life. Widdoes is one of the executive producers.
The film is divided into 12 chapters, all fewer than 10 minutes long, fitting Quibi’s short-form format. Following the premiere, new episodes will be released daily on weekdays until the series concludes.
Though NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Walt Disney Co. executive chairman Bob Iger appear — Garcetti describes his phone call to Sterling soon after the scandal broke as “one of the most bizarre talks I’ve ever had” — the film is anchored by interviews with Rivers and former players on the 2014 team including Chris Paul, JJ Redick, DeAndre Jordan and Matt Barnes. (Times staff writer Dan Woike also appears.)
The outline of the story and its fallout should be familiar to even casual sports fans. It generated worldwide headlines and outrage for months as Sterling unsuccessfully fought to hold onto control of the team he bought in 1981 before moving it to Los Angeles three years later. Steve Ballmer purchased the team for an NBA-record $2 billion before the 2014-15 season began. Last year, it was the subject of another retrospective in the form of a multipart ESPN podcast that featured interviews with former Clippers star Blake Griffin and Sterling’s wife, Shelly.
Filmmakers say their interviews last summer — filmed using technology created by Errol Morris in which the subjects look directly into the camera — uncovered insights not shared publicly before, because at the time players referred all questions about Sterling and his remarks to Rivers as part of a “one-voice” approach.
“Doc says it so eloquently in the documentary that, ‘Of course they’re going to throw stones at Donald Sterling, but they’re going to throw stones at us if we don’t respond right,’” said Jacobs, who previously worked on ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. “And so getting that first-person description on camera of the grappling of how to respond right, I mean that’s it right there. That’s the untold story.
“No one had ever heard from the players in this first-person account. You combine that with the lens of race in America and the intersectionality of sports and power dynamics and absolutely it resonates today and it’s still a part of conversations around the African American experience in this country and sports becomes that place where these conversations happen. I just felt like this could continue that conversation.”
An interview was requested with Andy Roeser, the former team president and top lieutenant to Sterling for 30 years who lost his job in the scandal’s wake, but he declined, filmmakers said. Neither Sterling nor his wife were approached for inclusion and that was intentional, Jacobs said. Filmmakers were explicit that they were seeking the players’ stories, not statements from both sides.
“This really wasn’t going to be about Donald,” Jacobs said. “This was going to be an opportunity for these players and these individuals to tell their side of the story without any noise coming from Donald Sterling.”
Though his father, James, has worked as an actor and directed hundreds of episodes of sitcoms including “Mom” and “Two and a Half Men,” Sam Widdoes had never created a professional film before Rivers provided the inspiration to quit his attorney job three years ago. (Widdoes’ brother, Charlie, is a Clippers employee but was not involved in the film’s production.) He thought the project might take six months. Instead, it required creating a production company and six other executive producers: Chris Gary, Ryan Simon, Peter Cambor, Will Packer and Kelly Smith and James Widdoes. It also took an initial buy-in from Rivers and Paul, whom filmmakers approached first, believing their commitments would lead others to join.
The series was shopped to multiple platforms, but Quibi, whose chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, is known to be a passionate NBA fan, was most enthusiastic, Widdoes said. The documentary’s premiere comes at a trying time for the new app. Quibi was the most downloaded app in the country on its launch day, April 6, according to App Annie, but its ranking in Apple’s App Store and Android’s Google Play Store have slipped since. The company offers a 14-day free trial before charging $4.99 a month with ads or $7.99 a month without ads.
Scheduled to debut during June’s NBA Finals, the documentary’s premiere was pushed up to May 18 because of the lack of live sports caused by the coronavirus pandemic. That led to some technical challenges to meet the deadline. Suppliers of archival footage, including the NBA, were asked to deliver earlier than originally requested. Since Quibi’s programs are created to be watched on mobile devices, filmmakers cut two versions of the film — one formatted for viewing horizontally and another for watching vertically.
The new premiere date will land one day after the conclusion of ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” the 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls season.
“I wish we were talking about the NBA Finals alongside this documentary,” Jacobs said, “but hopefully sports fans will get this opportunity to engage with the story.”
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