Steven Soderbergh’s Netflix film High Flying Bird explores the business side of the NBA. Specifically, the iPhone-shot basketball drama shows how modern pro athletes and agents communicate when big money is on the line. Here, we break down the real-life stories that inspired the storyline.
In High Flying Bird, André Holland plays a pro basketball agent named Ray. He’s forced to manipulate the system because of a league-wide lockout - a labor dispute and work stoppage instigated by the collective league owners. Meanwhile, a young star player named Erick (Melvin Gregg) learns about personal and professional ethics off the court, most notably through conversations with his agent, Ray. For each man to land more paychecks, they must stay one step ahead of the competition. Most importantly, however, the owners must first reach an agreement for league activities to resume.
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), High Flying Bird’s narrative is fictional yet based on very true stories. Here’s everything you need to know about the real-life events that inspired Soderbergh's new Netflix film.
- This Page: The True Story Of The NBA Lockout & High Flying Bird
- Page 2: What High Flying Bird's Fictional Story Says About The Real NBA
What Really Happened In The 2011 NBA Lockout
As shown in High Flying Bird, before the 2011-2012 NBA season commenced, the owners and players negotiated a new deal to determine how basketball-related income (BRI) would be divided. The owners wanted a more balanced split, rather than the existing agreement, in which the players earned 57 percent. In addition, the two sides negotiated new deals for team salary caps and luxury taxes, with the owners seeking more structure for league parity, and the players hoping to keep the rules loose.
The negotiations began after the NBA Finals, and the eventual 161-day lockout officially began on July 1. For several months, the two sides couldn’t reach a deal, and so the preseason was delayed, along with the start of the 2011-2012 regular season. Ultimately, a new CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) was established, in which the BRI was split 49-51. In addition, teams were afforded a flexible salary cap structure, but with more difficult luxury tax rules. This meant owners could theoretically sign three maximum contract players, but there would be financial consequences. The new CBA preceded the “super team” structure of today's NBA, and a new CBA was later established in 2016.
High Flying Bird Isn't A True Story - But It's Based On Real Events
Soderbergh loosely bases the narrative of High Flying Bird on real-life events, but it's not a wholly true story. Essentially, the film complements the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program, which is cited in the film’s opening scene. From there, High Flying Bird establishes the common mistakes that NBA players make, and why. For example, Ray is framed as a man who overcame the odds and just wants to play the game, but his behavior makes him vulnerable to constant criticism. NBA fans will notice a similarity between Erick and Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant, a player known for critiquing the media and for deflecting questions about what goes on behind the scenes.
Much like Durant, High Flying Bird's Erick also falls victim to social media manipulation. His naiveté is used again him, as his agent Ray instigates a social media confrontation between him and fellow star Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), who comes from a well-to-do Philadelphia family. Jamero’s mother lashes out on social media, which makes Erick feel inclined to retort back. In real life, Durant is known for his questionable social media behavior, most notably the burner accounts that he reportedly created to defend himself against fans on both Instagram and Twitter. This concept extends league-wide, of course, as most NBA players use social media for branding purposes, but Durant is one of the NBA’s most visible stars. In addition, his brother is known for speaking on his behalf at times, which fuels rumors and speculation about the future. The same concepts apply to High Flying Bird, as Erick doesn’t quite understand the underlying narrative that’s being used against him.
High Flying Bird also references the celebrity “hack” excuse. For example, Erick gets manipulated into a Twitter war but backs off from his statements by citing a “hack.” In private, though, his new love interest, Sam (Zazie Beetz), recognizes holes in the hacking story. Erick also doesn’t realize that Sam is Ray’s mole; she was planted to collect personal information.
In a meta-narrative device, Soderbergh references his distributor, Netflix, to comment about pro athletes and streaming opportunities. After Ray stages a meeting between Erick and Jamero at a charity event, the players square off on the court - a possible violation of league rules during the lockout. Ray then teases possible streaming options for a live sporting event, all the while gaining psychological control over Erick, who now feels vulnerable for yet another public mistake. The subplot is directly connected to real-life broadcast fails by athletes on Instagram Live, along with official events like the 2018 golf match between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, which became a pay-per-view event.
High Flying Bird reminds that public perception can translate to public reality. Erick lacks self-control, whereas Ray leaks information that will never amount to anything in real life.