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HBO's 'Ballers' heads to California for Season 4

Rob Corddry and Dwayne Johnson of HBO's "Ballers,"

Rob Corddry and Dwayne Johnson of HBO's "Ballers," which returns for its fourth season on Aug. 12, 2018. Photo Credit: HBO/Jeff Daly

There are no guarantees in a television era overrun with big names, big money and big ideas, but “Ballers” had some good things going for it when it premiered in 2015.

It came with HBO’s imprimatur, it included several of the people behind the earlier hit show “Entourage” and its star was a guy so popular his name has been floated seriously as a candidate for President of the United States.

The lead character, Spencer Strasmore, a retired Dolphins star turned financial planner, is played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who in his spare time is one of the planet’s biggest movie stars.

"I felt like it was a pretty massive get,” said Rob Weiss, an executive producer, director and writer for the show who grew up primarily in Baldwin and also was on the behind-the-scenes “Entourage” crew.

 He recalled people at first assuming Johnson was aboard for a small part, then learning he was the lead. “It was, ‘Oh, that’s awesome, man,’ ” Weiss recalled.

Having Johnson involved attracted attention and has helped keep it as the show enters its fourth season on Sunday night, with the story having moved from Miami to Los Angeles — allowing for more of its trademark outdoor sun and fun.

"Ballers" has not enjoyed quite the pop culture resonance that “Entourage” did, but it has developed a loyal fan base drawn to some of the same things its TV sibling was known for: aspirational male-centric lifestyle and bonding.

Weiss and his pals, including “Ballers” creator Stephen Levinson, who is from Manhasset Hills, and director Julian Farino, understand why people often link the shows and another HBO program Weiss was behind, “How to Make It in America.”

But he said they also are sensitive to making every program true to itself.

"I get it, because it’s us, but it’s hard for me to have perspective on it,” Weiss said. “I think the DNA [of the shows’ styles] is organic. If anything, the effort would be to go, ‘Oh, we don’t want to do that because we did that on ‘Entourage.’ We did that on ‘How to Make It in America.’

“We’re trying not to repeat ourselves. We’re not driven by that, but we are conscious of it . . . I kind of understand the wish-fulfillment aspect of it.”

That “wish-fulfillment aspect” includes money, adult beverages, drugs, the company of attractive women and, of course, football. There is plenty of that, with Terrell Suggs as a semi-regular, former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall in the writers’ room and cameos by many real-life figures, including former Giant Victor Cruz.

The show also reflects real-life story lines, with Season 3 focused heavily on the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas. Season 4 addresses the seamy underside of college recruiting and the political hot potato of players kneeling during the national anthem.

One powerful scene on that topic features a key character, a receiver played by John David Washington, whose father Denzel preceded him in the business. There also is some blunt talk about Donald Trump, both spoken and posted on social media.

Weiss said the show merely is trying to reflect “a unique time in this country where people are outspoken about what’s going on . . . I don’t think we’re trying to alienate anyone.”

The NFL does not appear to have pushed back too hard on having its teams and people depicted on a fictional show that does not shy away from the damage the game does to players’ bodies.

"I don’t think the idea was ever to alienate the NFL,” Weiss said. “We tried to do something that’s real and enjoyable.”

Weiss, who attended Woodmere Academy with “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin, is 51, “but a very vain 51.” Hey, he lives in Southern California, where trying to look good in middle age is “culturally appropriate,” as he said, laughing.

Most of his family moved west years ago but he said he still loves Long Island and appreciates having grown up there.

L.A. has its charms, though, which the show captures as Spencer navigates yet another season of dramatic ups and downs, always looking sharp while doing it.

“He’s an incredible guy,” Weiss said of Johnson. “I love working with the entire cast, but it is kind of crazy when you have the biggest movie star in the world and he’s just, when we’re working together, super modest and humble and does the work and wants to come up with the absolute best that we can create together.”

There is a sly reference in the season premiere to talk of Johnson running for president someday, if not in 2020.

“He says he’s not ruling it out,” Weiss said. “It says a lot about people and the principle of trust that they look at who they believe in who is a natural-born leader, who they would follow. It’s kind of a nice thing to see if you’re Dwayne.”

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