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March 01, 2019

Going Deep

Personal redemption takes the spotlight in sports doc series.

Graham Flashner
  • FoxSports

Fox Sports airs plenty of games, but for fans looking for more, the channel offers Magnify, a feature-length documentary series that uses sports to examine socio-cultural issues.

Its next offering, Q Ball, due this spring, considers the lives of inmates who play basketball at California's San Quentin State Prison.

"They're taking stories that show how sports can reverberate beyond the field of play and how it can positively impact communities," Q Ball director Michael Tolajian, an Emmy and Peabody winner, says of the series.

Like most Magnify docs, Q Ball bears the imprimatur of a famous athlete. Golden State Warriors superstar Kevin Durant and his business partner, Rich Kleiman, executive-produced the film through their Thirty Five Media firm, in conjunction with HEIST and Hunting Lane Films. The docs air nationally on FS and on regional cable channel FS1.

Unlike ESPN's groundbreaking 30 for 30 series, which revisits historic sports stories, Magnify films are rooted in present-day tales of redemption.

"We weren't necessarily trying to further what 30 for 30 was doing — moments in time you already knew," says Charlie Dixon, Fox's executive vice-president of content. "We wanted to create stories around sports that would land in the broader cultural conversation but still be entertaining."

Magnify's first offering, 89 Blocks, about a high school football team in East St. Louis, Missouri, was executive-produced by LeBron James and his business partner Maverick Carter.

Another of the docs, They Fight, about young boxers and their mentors in a tough Washington, D.C., neighborhood, had rapper-actor Common and NFL star Drew Brees among its exec producers. For the celeb producers, it wasn't about lending their names, Dixon says. "The films had to be passion projects they really cared about."

Over the past few years, Durant (with Warriors staff and teammates) has quietly made annual visits to San Quentin to speak with inmates; their stories motivated him to sign on for Q Ball.

"They are using basketball to bring positivity into their lives," he says. "I hope that viewers come away dispelling some of the preconceived notions they might have had about prisoners." Tolajian, who spent a year filming at the prison, became intrigued when he learned it had become more progressive and emphasizes rehabilitation for its general-population inmates.

"The idea of sports being a tool for rehab interested me greatly," he says. "These are men who've committed a range of crimes, but have proven to be model prisoners who've admitted to their mistakes and are in the process of changing their lives. They're worrying about who they were, who they want to be and how to get there."

Q Ball may see a limited theatrical release and film festival play, but "this is not about awards," Dixon says. "It's about effecting change."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2019

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