Reservation Dogs duo Sydney Freeland and Sterlin Harjo are reteaming on the Native American basketball movie Rez Ball, which LeBron James will produce for Netflix. The coming-of-age sports drama is inspired by Michael Powell’s nonfiction sports novel Canyon Dreams as well as the New York Times articles that preceded it.
Described as “Friday Night Lights meets Hoosiers,” Rez Ball explores the raw and exhilarating world of “reservation basketball” with its unique, lightning-quick pace that is rumored to have influenced top NBA teams and coaches throughout the years. The story follows the Chuska Warriors, a Native American high school basketball team from Chuska, New Mexico that must band together after losing their star player if they want to keep their quest for a state championship alive. It’s an all-American underdog story about Navajo kids and coaches told by people from that community, as Freeland herself was born and raised on a Navajo reservation in Gallup, New Mexico.
She’ll direct Rez Ball and co-write the script with Harjo, and the film will be a co-production between Maurício and Katie Mota’s Wise Entertainment (East Los High) and James and Maverick Carter‘s The SpringHill Company, whose Spencer Beighley and Jamal Henderson will serve as executive producers. Production will take place in New Mexico, and Rez Ball will be shot on actual reservations with the permission and support of the local sovereign tribal nations.
“Basketball on the Rez is like high school football in West Texas. It has a fanatical following that few sports can rival. I’m also excited to be working with Sterlin Harjo on this. He has brought so much insight, humor, and heart to this story,” said Freeland. “This is a story that’s commonplace on Indian reservations all over the U.S., but most people aren’t even aware it exists. What we want to do is bring people into our world, to tell a story about the people and places we know, and what better way to do that than through a sports movie?”
“We could not be more excited to bring this beautiful, powerful story to life with this amazing team. We are eternally grateful to the strategic guidance and advice of the Native American community inside and outside of Hollywood, especially Jodi Archambault (Hunkpapa/Olgala Lakota), Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache), and Notah Begay III (Navajo/San Felipe/Isleta). It was through this community that we were connected with the extraordinary multi-hyphenates Sydney Freeland and Sterlin Harjo whom we spent the last several years developing the script with. We are so honored to be working with them and the brilliant team at The SpringHill Company,” added Maurício Mota. “Rez Ball aims to be a love letter to the contributions Native Americans have made to basketball and also a launchpad for Native talent both in front of and behind the camera, ready to make their mark in the industry. We want this to be a blueprint for how to balance excellent storytelling with impact and pipeline development.”
Freeland is an Emmy-nominated film and TV writer and director whose debut feature Drunktown’s Finest was influenced by her experience growing up on the Navajo reservation. The movie premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and was executive produced by Robert Redford. Freeland followed that film with the Netflix movie Deidra and Laney Rob a Train, which premiered at Sundance in 2017. In addition to writing and directing episodes of FX‘s upcoming comedy series Reservation Dogs, Freeland‘s TV directing credits include Grey’s Anatomy, Fear the Walking Dead, and Rutherford Falls, among others.
Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee Creek) serves as showrunner on Reservation Dogs, which he also executive produces with Taika Waititi. The show follows four young teens in rural Oklahoma, and all of the lead actors are Indigenous along with the writing staff and the show’s directors. Harjo has additional projects set up with Amazon, FX, and Showtime.
The SpringHill Company recently produced Space Jam: A New Legacy and its upcoming projects include Adam Sandler‘s basketball-themed Netflix movie Hustle and a reboot of House Party for New Line. Meanwhile, Wise Entertainment has a first-look deal with Amazon for TV, where they have several shows in development in addition to projects with Imagine Entertainment, HBO Max, and Wiip.
Freeland is represented by Luber Roklin Entertainment, the Gersh Agency and attorney Nina Shaw, while Harjo is repped by APA, Circle of Confusion and the law firm of Del Shaw Moonves, which also reps Wise Entertainment along with CAA. James is repped by WME.