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'Basketball: A Love Story' is 62 stories told in 20 hours on ESPN

Isiah Thomas during the "Basketball: A Love Story"

Isiah Thomas during the "Basketball: A Love Story" premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sept. 27, 2018. Credit: Will Lanzoni / ESPN Images/Will Lanzoni / ESPN Images

Dan Klores loves basketball, and is convinced other true believers love the sport in a way deeper and differently than fans of other sports.

That has been evident in the filmmaker’s past work, notably “Black Magic” (2008), about basketball at historically black colleges, and “Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks” (2010).

But that was only a warmup for his latest hoops-related project with ESPN, “Basketball: A Love Story,” an epic ode that begins Tuesday and will appear over five Tuesdays stretching into November, four hours a night, for a total of 20 hours.

That is not a typo. Twenty.

Klores began five years ago with the intention of compiling 10 hours. Then he interviewed 122 people, journalists helping him spoke to another 43, and he found himself with 550 hours of footage on many of the sport’s most important living figures.

“So it morphed into this double-size, 20 hours,” he said. “But 20 hours isn’t enough to tell the history of basketball, not even close, nor the history of most things.”

Not that he was trying for that. In seeking to explain what the series is for viewers confused by the premise and/or intimidated by its length, Klores focused on what it is not.

“It’s not a history,” he said. “It’s not linear. Obviously, I have great respect for Ken Burns. But this is not Ken Burns.”

It is 62 short stories related to aspects of the game at every level, including, yes, its history.

But it also covers how the sport has impacted societal issues such as the civil and women’s rights movements, and explores technical aspects of the game, such as LeBron James explaining in detail his signature drives to the basket.

There also is fun stuff. At a recent screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, an audience that included NBA commissioner Adam Silver, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a bevy of Hall of Fame players laughed at a segment on the race for the 1978 scoring title between David Thompson and George Gervin that was settled on the last day of the season.

That night’s fare also included an entertaining, light-hearted look back at the Knicks’ victory in the first NBA Draft Lottery in 1985, which landed them Patrick Ewing.

“It’s not chronological,” Klores said. “It’s like opening a book of short stories . . . Even when it was 10 hours I never intended it to be a series of mini-biographical vignettes, if you will. That would have bored me, frankly. So it’s kind of like 62 different films, just short stories. But the transitions are logical.”

The challenge in some cases is finding something new to say about events that have been covered many times by journalists and documentarians. Klores gave the example of the 1966 NCAA final between Texas Western and Kentucky, in which Texas-Western started five black players against Adolph Rupp’s whites-only Wildcats.

“I wasn’t interested in the story that has already been told so many times,” he said. “My slant on that was, what did that win mean to the black household in America in 1966? No. 2, what did that victory mean to the recruitment of African-American players by universities below the Mason-Dixon Line?”

The breadth of the interview subjects is extraordinary, preserving for eternity the thoughts of many of the league’s greats, some of them now well into old age.

“The NBA has been extremely supportive,” Klores said. “It’s my pleasure to give them the 550 hours for their library and I intend to do the same thing with the Library of Congress. It wasn’t something that I paid a lot of thought to, but why not? I interviewed Bill Russell in his home for 5 ½ hours, I interviewed for Oscar [Robertson] for six.”

Two of the few noticeable personalities missing are Michael Jordan and Bob Knight, both of whom declined to participate. There are segments on both men nonetheless.

Regarding Jordan’s absence, Klores said, “I think the reason, which they never stated so I can only surmise, is that ESPN is doing a 10-hour film with them, so I get it.” (ESPN and Netflix are collaborating on the 10-hour series, which is set to premiere in 2019.)

ESPN2 already has shown the film in a two-day marathon late last month, and it is available in digital form, diced into individual, labeled segments.

ESPN itself will show it on four Tuesday nights in October, then after a break for Election Day will finish on Nov. 13.

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