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Sports Saturday

Colin Kaepernick, Kevin Durant revisit their teens in smart, engaging streaming series

‘‘Colin in Black & White’’ and ‘‘Swagger’’ dramatize the formative years of the two outspoken athletes.

Colin Kaepernick offers recollections of his life as a teenage dual-threat baseball/football prospect in “Colin in Black and White.”
NETFLIX

The NBA superstar Kevin Durant has known his fair of controversies through the years, but it’s been confined to the usual types of dustups, e.g., Durant leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors, his heated in-game conflict with Warriors teammate Draymond Green and a handful of social media-fueled embarrassments and arguments.

At 33, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the same age as Durant — but while the latter remains one of the best players in the game when healthy, the former hasn’t played a down in the NFL since 2016, despite having better credentials and more talent than any number of journeyman QB’s who find work holding a clipboard and wearing a baseball hat for team after team after team. Try to make the argument Kaepernick is out of the league because of injuries and diminished skills, but come on — if he had never sat on the bench or taken a knee during the national anthem, if he had never been such an outspoken activist, is there any doubt Colin Kaepernick would still be in the league?

By true coincidence, this week marks the release of limited dramatic series based on the lives of Durant and Kaepernick — but each show is set approximately two decades in the past, chronicling the journeys of a young basketball phenom in the Washington, D.C., area and a two-sport athlete in northern California. Both series are smart, insightful, engaging and provocative efforts, with crisp writing, some bold and creative touches, and terrific performances from young and essentially unknown actors who are working with some talented and familiar veterans.

‘Swagger’

The 10-part Apple TV+ series “Swagger” is inspired by Kevin Durant’s experiences as a prized, 14-year-old hoops prospect in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) metropolitan area, but it’s a work of fiction set in the present day. Some of the creative forces behind the brilliant “Friday Night Lights” TV series are also involved in “Swagger,” and while this new effort isn’t quite in the same league as that Hall of Fame show, you can recognize some of the influences, from the infectious soundtrack to the docudrama feel to the multiple storylines that go far beyond sports.

A coach known as “Icon” (O’Shea Jackson Jr., right) becomes a father figure for 14-year-old Jace (Isaiah Hill) on “Swagger.”
Apple TV+

Youth basketball player turned actor Isaiah Hill is a natural presence as Jace Carson, whose on-court skills have attracted the attention of scouts, coaches, pro stars and social media audiences even though he hasn’t yet entered high school. “Swagger” hits the ground running and gives us the feeling we’re eavesdropping on fully formed lives and ongoing storylines from the opening tipoff, as we’re introduced to a number of key players in Jace’s life, including:

  • Jace’s mother, Jenna (an outstanding and luminous Shinelle Azoroh), a single mom who is raising two children and recognizes her son has the potential to become an NBA superstar — but is also fiercely protective of him and leery of all the adults who come calling, claiming they only have Jace’s best interests in mind.
  • The former high school phenom turned youth coach known as “Icon” (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., in one of his best performances), who tries to instill the values of teamwork and unselfishness in his players and becomes a father figure to Jace.
  • Jace’s best friend and potential love interest, Crystal (Quvenshane Walls, outstanding), who has some mad basketball skills of her own and a loving albeit demanding nuclear family.
Kevin Durant attends a premiere of his Apple TV+ series “Swagger” on Tuesday in New York.
John Lamparski/Getty Images

As was the case with “Friday Night Lights,” many an episode features the obligatory Pivotal Game, but the most compelling developments take place off the court, whether it’s the police detaining Jace for making the mistake of being a young Black man taking out the garbage after dark, Crystal dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault by her coach, or an athletic apparel rep wooing Jace and other young talents with shoes and clothing and promises of major endorsement deals — and that’s just a small sampling of the ongoing and interconnecting storylines. Whether you’re a basketball junkie or a casual fan, “Swagger” is an instantly captivating and authentic dramatic ride.

‘Colin in Black and White’

There’s much more of a “Malcolm in the Middle” meets “The Wonder Years” meets “Young Rock” vibe to the six-part Netflix series “Colin in Black and White” which combines nostalgic storytelling with documentary footage of Colin Kaepernick as he narrates the story of his life as a teenage dual-threat baseball/football prospect in the early 2000s and appears in interstitial segments in which he delivers historical lessons and valuable insights about matters of racial and social significance.

Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Offerman play the adoptive parents of young Colin Kaepernick (Jaden Michael).
NETFLIX

In the warm and often lightly comedic but occasionally sobering dramatic segments, Jaden Michael is empathetic and enormously likable as young Colin, an outstanding pitcher and quarterback who lives with his adoptive, white parents (Nick Offerman and Mary-Louise Parker, both delivering Emmy-quality work) in a comfortable, conservative California community. The 14-year-old Colin is experiencing cultural awakenings at every turn, whether he’s getting his hair styled like his new sports hero Allen Iverson (much to the bewilderment of his well-meaning but often clueless parents); dealing with football coaches who admire his talent but tell him he’s not the “prototype QB,” i.e., he’s not white, or experiencing casually cruel racism from white hotel employees while on a road trip with his baseball team. (As Colin stands with his parents in a hotel lobby, an employee approaches and asks them if this young man is bothering him.)

From time to time, we cut to Kaepernick in present day, as he gives an ongoing Ted talk-type presentation, recounting his own experiences and offering quick lessons about phenomena such as “micro aggressions,” e.g., we see an older, white partner in a law firm interviewing a Black candidate, complimenting him on being “clean” and “articulate,” but also wondering if he’s going to wear his hair in those dreads in the office. Both the traditional fictional narrative and the real-world messages are often delivered with wicked-smart comedic touches — an especially effective means of providing social commentary without making us feel as if we’re sitting in on a lecture. My only complaint about “Colin in Black and White” is that six episodes aren’t enough.