The acoustics of basketballs thumping in a cavernous gym introduce the first episode of Hoop Portraits, a new anthology documentary series produced by Taylor Sharp and Holland Randolph Gallagher of Durham’s Blue Cup Productions

It’s six weeks until the NBA Draft, and North Carolina’s Ty-Shon Alexander and Josh Hall are dribbling intensively, an aura of sweat and nervous friction in the air, as a coach instructs, “I wanna hear the ball, I wanna hear the ball—you gotta pound it hard. Be aggressive.” 

With the 2020 draft postponed because of the pandemic, Alexander and Hall were living in Charlotte and training with Jeff McInnis, a former UNC standout, NBA player (with teams like the Hornets), and native North Carolinian. In Hoop Portraits, Sharp and Gallagher offer a behind-the-scenes look at the two players and the often tense moments leading up to the draft’s uncertainty.

“There’s something to be said for pulling back the curtains a little bit and showing the human side of these big moments of athletes’ lives,” Sharp says. “Take the NBA Draft, for instance: There aren’t many industries or situations where someone’s life work culminates into one night—and it’s broadcast on national television.” 

“Two Ways to the League,” the pilot episode of Hoop Portraits, premieres at 8 p.m. ET  tonight on NBATwitch, as well as the G League’s Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook accounts. While the premiere makes ambitious virtual forays outside of North Carolina, the story all began on the downtown Durham YMCA’s indoor basketball court. 

“We actually met [Josh Hall] while playing pickup basketball,” says Sharp. “I was intrigued to keep up with him. I knew he was destined for Division I college basketball.” 

Previously, Sharp worked on the documentary Hoops Africa: Ubuntu Matters, which focused on the growth of basketball across the African continent, while Gallagher co-produced Blue Cups’ Rap Portraits. But Sharp says that for him, a love of basketball predated his passion for filmmaking, and organic moments—and relationships—paved the way for the series, which is still in development for future episodes. 

At the time that Sharp and Hollander first crossed paths with Hall, he was finishing up high school and in the process of being courted by college teams. Previous to the episode, he committed to N.C. State and then withdrew his commitment and decided to go straight to the NBA—making him the first North Carolina player since Tracy McGrady in 1997 to go directly from high school to the NBA.

That decision, Sharp says, reflects a growing shift in professional basketball, as more elite youth players forego college (and four years without a professional sports paycheck) and pursue alternate routes toward the NBA. The episode finds symmetry in Charlotte native Alexander, meanwhile, who the episode follows as he prepares for the draft, following three years at Creighton University. 

“These are two players who have walked different paths in terms of going to college and going straight from high school,” Sharp says, “But their ultimate goal is the same—to make it to the NBA. Neither of them were guaranteed that. There was going to be that tension until the very end, to see if they heard their name get called.”

“Two Ways to the NBA” reflects that tension and vulnerability, as the camera trains a close eye on two players during an unorthodox draft season. But it also reflects Sharp and Holland’s ability to capture the intimacy of the process. Some of the best moments of the short episode—which clocks in at just over 16 minutes—are of the two NBA hopefuls off the court, as they spend time fishing, talking with their mothers, and at a small family birthday party.

Sports media—often exclusively controlled by companies like ESPN and Turner Broadcasting—can have a glossy alchemy about it. But this past year has done a bit to humanize the industry, as fans watched in real time as companies and coaches made difficult decisions about tournaments, seasons, strikes, and public health protocols. Hoop Portraits is more in line with the latter.

“Two Ways to the NBA” is also a beautifully-shot episode—at times, the camera’s roving, diaristic gaze reminded me of the filmmaker Ramell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Eveningwith an instrumental score by vaycayvacayvacay that honor the emotional heft of these moments for the players. 

“There’s a lot of pressure on these kids and there’s also a lot of joy,” Sharp says. “I’d like to continue to add some depth to the fan understanding of the player.”

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