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The Optionist: B-Ball Stories and Ivy League Scandal
A special bonus two-part peak at The Ankler's newsletter on available IP
Welcome to our special edition of The Optionist, our standalone newsletter on available IP written by Andy Lewis that is currently in a free beta phase. Every week, Optionist subscribers learn about the best overlooked IP in publishing (current and backlist), podcasts and journalism. Several suggestions out of The Optionist already have been optioned by subscriber!. It’s free to try for a little bit longer before it converts to paid subscription. Thanks for checking it out and happy hunting for your next red hot property!
Part One: March Madness
Just last week, HBO debuted Winning Time, the story of the 80s Los Angeles Lakers, to strong buzz and it has already been renewed for a second season. But that's just the tip of a number of good basketball stories that have appeared over the last few years: There's Kevin Durant's Swagger on Apple TV+ which is loosely inspired by his own life. The criminally under-appreciated Survivor's Remorse on Starz (2014-2017), which treads similar ground to Swagger but picks up the story with the star already in the NBA and was loosely based on the life of executive producers LeBron James and his best friend/agent Maverick Carter (truthfully more Maverick than LeBron).
The real sea change is behind the camera. To go back to Winning Time, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar returned to Los Angeles in 1975 with an interest in the movie business, athletes were mostly limited to cameos ("My name is Roger Murdock" from Airplane or Bill Russell doing 10 minutes on The White Shadow to explain to the team's center that being tall is okay). It didn't really change that much over the next 25 or 30 years. There were a few exceptions — Michael Jordan headlining Space Jam, Shaquille O'Neal as the lead in Steel, Magic hosting a talk show — but most of the work was still in front of the camera.
As in so many things, LeBron rewrote the equation. In 2007, he formed SpringHill Entertainment with the goal of becoming a major producer. In addition to Survivor's Remorse, he's produced (and starred in) a Space Jam remake, a couple of docs, a couple of game shows, a Netflix series about Madame C. J. Walker, and put a host of other stuff into development (more on that in a second).
Having a production company became a thing for NBA players. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have jumped in a big way, but others like Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony have dipped their toes in as well. (Kobe Bryant was just beginning to really get involved in this when he died).
There's so much basketball-related development going on now, it is hard to follow the bouncing ball. LeBron has at least four projects in development (a comedy set an adult sports camp with Kevin Hart, another comedy about an NBA draft impostor, a drama about a woman coaching a men's college team and a comedy with Adam Sandler about a washed-up NBA scout). Steph Curry has another three (one about a retired player, a comedy about women's hoop and a female-centered Jerry Maguire-type story).
Other things in development range from the story of an American pro player caught behind the lines in Libya's civil war to Native American players on a reservation to the first girl's team to win a state high school championship to the forgotten story of the disabled World War II vets who invented wheelchair basketball. And that’s just the top of the net.
And yet there's still tons of good material. Increasingly, basketball culture IS pop culture (have you spent any time with boys and men in their teens and twenties?). I've highlighted a handful I really like, including two New York Times bestsellers, a goofy fun kid's book, the story of a father and daughter's bond over basketball as ALS ravaged his body, and the moving story of one of the most enduring friendships in basketball.
Before we start, thanks for reading. If you're here because someone forwarded this, I invite you to sign up and try us during our free beta period, coming to a close soon. And please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know your thoughts, ideas and suggestions before we turn on paid subscription. All the material below is excellent and available for option.
The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End by Gary M. Pomerantz (Penguin Books 2018) Bob Cousy had as rough a childhood as anyone but he became one of the NBA’s first true superstars — the prototype for all slick passing point guards to follow. Now in his 90s, he’s been reflecting on his life and his — and there’s no better word for it — guilt over not being a strong voice for civil rights and supporting teammate Bill Russell. That journey has been fascinating. Russell’s grace and empathy for his friend’s apology has been moving. The friendship between Cousy and Russell (and add Red Auerbach as a crucial third leg) from their playing days to the present could be the basis for a really great drama about race, the evolving idea of masculinity, and friendship. Think a basketball version of David Halberstam’s The Teammates, but better because of the way it intersects with big ideas. Add a great lion in winter vibe to two aging heroes grappling with their past and this thing would be amazing. REPS: Lucy Stille
Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope by Carmelo Anthony (Gallery Books, 2021) I bet few people had "New York Times best-selling author" on their Carmelo bingo card, but he's absolutely earned it with this moving and revelatory memoir about growing up in the projects in Brooklyn and West Baltimore and making it to the NBA. Reading this changed my view of Anthony. Even if you think the broad outlines of Melo's story are familiar, his telling of it is fantastic and could be the basis for a great dramatic adaptation or doc. REPS: CAA
Lizzy Legend by Matthew Ross Smith (Aladdin, 2019) Sports fantasies are fun for everyone not just kids. (I'll still stop on 1993's Rookie of the Year, about a kid who pitches for the Cubs, if it comes up on cable.) This is a cute story about a 13-year-old girl who gets her wish — every shot is a swish — that helps land her a spot on a pro team. And then a mishap (texting related, of course, this is 2022) brings the fantasy ride crashing down. The book has a fun four-quarter structure and interstitials with secondary characters describing the rise of Lizzy Legend. This could be a fun kids’ movie in the tradition of great kids movies like Rookie of the Year (which in '93 grossed over $56M on a $10M budget). REPS: Stonesong
Sooley by John Grisham (Anchor, 2021) Basketball seems off the beaten track but Grisham has been a big fan all his life (and a huge supporter of Little League baseball around his central Virginia home). With Putin's Ukraine invasion creating more than two million refugees, this book, which topped the New York Times bestseller list when it first came out has new resonance. Here a young Sudanese boy, Samuel Sooleyman, and his team come to the U.S. to play in a tournament and get scouted by American college coaches. But while here, Sooley's village is ransacked during the country's civil war, his father is killed and the rest of is family is in a refugee camp. Out of sympathy, the coach at North Carolina Central offers him a scholarship. Sooley's skills are raw but he works hard and when he's called off the bench, he saves Central's season and a legend is born. REPS: David Gernert
The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority by Ellen D. Wu (Princeton University Press, 2013) I haven't been able to get this picture out of my head ever since I first saw it: Who are they? When was there an all-Asian Team USA? How have I never heard of it? To answer the first two questions (the third is harder): It's the 1956 San Francisco Chinese Basketball team, which was wearing Team USA uniforms because it was sent on a goodwill playing tour in Asia by the State Department. Turns out there was a ton of Asian-American teams on the West Coast in basketball’s early years and the best barnstorming teams were as good as anyone. I'm a pretty big basketball fan, more knowledgeable about the history of the game than a lot of people, and yet I knew nothing about the history of West Coast Asian-American basketball before this. If you grow up on the East Coast, you learn about the original Celtics, the Harlem Rens, stuff like that. West Coast basketball doesn't come up until basically Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) shows up on the UCLA campus in 1965 and Asian-American basketball begins with Jeremy Lin and Linsanity of 2011-12. This book — it deals with basketball more tangentially than head on — is more a starting place than a final destination, but the stuff about the relationship between sports and Asian American’s ideas about demonstrating their “Americanness” is invaluable. There's an insanely great doc to be made about the forgotten history of Asian-American hoops on the West Coast. Insanely great. Speaking of Jeremy Lin: Somebody should team him up with Justin Lin (whose production company has a basketball-themed name) and the two of them should make this doc. Maybe they could interest Steph Curry (who after all lives in the Bay Area) to join in. REPS: Ping me and I'll connect you.
Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team That Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory by Lydia Reeder (Algonquin Books) Think a League of Their Own for hoops. Sam Babb (the author's great uncle), lost a leg as a teenager and became a school superintendent and a high school basketball coach. In 1929, he took the head coaching job at tiny Oklahoma Presbyterian College and discovered Doll Harris, a farm girl with “game”. With just Doll, they almost won the AAU championship so the next season Babb recruited an all-star of the best women he could find (luring them with scholarships) in hopes of winning the national championship and to raise money he took them barnstorming around the South where they won every game, including beating Babe Didrikson — generally considered the greatest female athlete of at least the first 75 years of the 20th century and definitely the most famous — and her national champion Dallas Golden Cyclones. The book is full of great characters from Sam to Doll to Babe to the OPC players and great stories about the hurdles of being a female athlete at a time when women playing sports was a novelty. REPS: UTA
All the Colors Came Out: A Father, A Daughter and a Lifetime of Lessons by Kate Fagan (Little Brown, 2021) Fagan, who writes for Sports Illustrated, bonded with her dad over basketball. He had been a small college star and then played professionally in Europe. But her love of the game faded after she accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Colorado. But she couldn't come clean to her dad and on top of that she feared telling him she was gay as well. But she finally did. And he not only accepted it but welcomed her girlfriend — and future wife — into the family. Then her dad was diagnosed with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease), and from 2018 until he died in 2019 she made weekly visits to see him, describing in detail the tough progress of the disease. Fagan also has Hoops Muse, a compendium of great stories from the history of women’s basketball, coming out next year. Great art, fun stories that could be the basis for a fun series of short docs. (I think animated would be cool). REPS: CAA
Part Two: This Week’s Picks
First, if Shonda Rhimes is looking for a follow-up to her Netflix con-woman hit Inventing Anna, she needs to look no further than her own backyard. Definitely the weirdest story of the week is this tale (broken exclusively on The Ankler) of a Grey’s Anatomy writer who may have faked details of her own extraordinarily traumatic medical history. Those details helped her become one of the most public faces of the show. Now she’s under investigation by Disney. No doubt, more facts will come out, but anyone who wants to get a head start should definitely read Peter Kiefer’s piece that came out yesterday.
Until then, I have a great selection of stories this week, including a Magnum P.I.-esque 80s-set detective series, a dark modern fantasy with The Craft vibes, a sweet YA romance and a possible Varsity Blues-adjacent doc.
BOOKS I LIKE (current)
Peter Colt, Death at Fort Devens (Severn House, June) This 80s-set, Boston located gritty detective series (this is book three) has a bit of a Magnum P.I. vibe — the period plus he's a Vietnam vet — with some Spenser thrown in. What I like about this is the well-developed main character Andy Roark (think a well-grizzled Chris Pine-type), who can't shake the stink of Vietnam off of him, and the settings. Colt does a great job bringing alive '80s Boston from the gritty Combat Zone to the posh environs of Nantucket. Colt's background — he's a Rhode Island army vet who’s lived on Nantucket for a decade and is a working cop — really informs the books and gives the story an insider's authenticity. Feels like the kind of mass procedural that could capture that kind of old-school broadcast feel with new IP. REPS: Kohn Agency
Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took On a World at War by Deborah Cohen (Random House, March 15) Surprisingly this thrilling — and timely — joint biography of the reporters who chronicled the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s (John and Frances Gunther, H.R. Knickerbocker, Vincent Sheean and Dorothy Thompson) by an esteemed historian at Northwestern hasn’t been optioned yet. There’s great globetrotting adventure here mixed with lots of details about the private lives of these reporters who helped invent modern conflict reporting. With so much here, there's a ton of directions to go. I'd consider pulling the thread on Dorothy Thompson, who became the first reporter banned from Nazi Germany (she framed the letter) and then snuck back into the country to do more reporting and was also married to writer Sinclair Lewis. REPS: The Robbins Office
The Crooked Hearts by Melissa Albert (Flatiron, June) A creepy engrossing contemporary-set coming-of-age fantasy about 16-year-old Ivy who discovers her mother is a witch, and then battles a malevolent entity as she tries to uncover the secrets of her mother's past. The intertwined dual timeline narrative — Ivy today and her mother Dana as a teen — offers a rich foundation to tell this as a movie or a limited series. (The Dana story definitely has the feel of The Craft.) Ivy is the central character but it is easy to see teen Dana being the scene-stealing star of an adaptation as you just know all that messing with dark forces and making bad decisions are gonna lead to disaster. REPS: The Book Group
The Charmed List by Julie Abe (Wednesday Books, July) Imagine this as Sabrina the Teenage Witch by way of Jenny Han (To All the Boys I've Loved). Here, a teenage witch/wallflower in Palo Alto sets out to improve her life with a 13-item anti-wallflower bucket list plan to get cool. When number four (revenge on friend-turned-enemy Jack Yasada) goes sideways she finds herself stuck with him on a road trip down the California coast to attend a magical convention and unexpectedly romance blossoms. Very fun, very cute, very YA. REP: UTA
BACKLIST GEMS (worth a second look)
Desert Reckoning by Deanne Stillman (Nation Books, 2012) Stillman, who expanded this book from a Rolling Stone article, is a great chronicler of the West, including a great book on the relationship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill (under option). In this earlier book, which is getting a 10th anniversary re-release and an audiobook adaptation with narration from Frances Fisher and Band X frontman John Doe, a desert hermit in the Antelope Valley kills a deputy sheriff after a brief encounter, and sets off the largest manhunt in California history. There's lots of great characters here from hermit to the surfer-turned-deputy who was killed to the hermit's punk rocker son (who's straight out of Euphoria). Stillman delves deeply into the history of the Mojave Desert (sections which make up something like half of LA County) and the clash between an Old West and creeping subdivisions of Los Angeles, which are bringing new people and a different life to the Antelope Valley. Her descriptions of the sweeping vistas of the Mojave (and the crime setting) called to mind the visuals of Breaking Bad's desert scenes. Could be the basis for a great modern Western with a timely edge about development and the tensions it brings. (Her 2001 book, Twentynine Palms, about another Mojave murder — this one of two teen girls by a troubled marine — has also been optioned.) REPS: Aevitas
“U.S. News Ranked Columbia No. 2, but a Math Professor Has His Doubts,” by Anemona Hartocollis (New York Times, March 17) The Varsity Blues scandal showed the public has a real itch that for stories that exposes the mess that high-stakes elite college admissions is today. Central to that is the fraud that is the U.S. News and World Report college rankings and the power they have. I'm flagging this article but I'd go right to whistleblower Matthew Thaddeus, the Columbia professor (sure hope he has tenure!), who revealed how Columbia may have cooked the books on its data it provided for the rankings. Thaddeus could be the central hook in a great documentary expose about how these rankings came to be so important and how schools have been massaging the data for years to goose their position. What Columbia did to move to second place on the list, tied with Harvard and MIT, is a story in itself that could challenge the elitism of academic institutions (huge endowments, selling the idea of exclusion), and why parents care about the status of a college so very very much much, even as a minute shifts in the data can shuffle rankings. REPS: You can find Thaddeus in the Columbia faculty directory
“My High School’s Secret Fantasy Slut League,” by Lena Crown (Narratively, March 17) For someone looking for a Euphoria-like spin on high school, here's a great story about a wealthy Bay Area high school where a hookup “game” that had the boys “drafting” girls and scoring points for sex acts caused a scandal in 2011. (Definite shades of the Owen Labrie scandal at elite private St. Paul's School.) What I particularly like about this story and what I think gives it a fresh take is the potential for dual timelines (a theme this week?) that toggles between 2011 and the present day as these kids, now in their late twenties and getting ready to start their own families, trying to make sense of what happened. A really fascinating drama would probe that fallout, which is a story we don't often see. Think Euphoria: The 10 Year Reunion. REPS: APA
New on The Ankler:
It’s the story that’s got the whole town talking. Read our exclusive scoop on scandal in the Grey’s Anatomy writers’ room. Then listen to the new Hot Seat podcast as writer Peter Keifer tells how he broke the story shaking Shondaland.
ESG on Netflix’s Drip Drip Decline.
Richard Rushfield asks the 14 Big Questions for Now.
Then go deeper. For an understanding of why so many of us feel this way, start with The Pit in Your Stomach is Real, and continue on to “It Feels Like the Last Days of Rome” from new contributing editor Nicole LaPorte.
The Glossy is up! Men, ditch your jackets for the shacket! And Power of the Dog’s Kodi Smit-McPhee has a surprising new player in his corner.