Mike O’Malley grew up in Nashua, New Hampshire, as an avid fan of Boston-area teams, and one of his bosses now is a well-known, Cleveland-based basketball player: LeBron James.
So whom does he think of as a model for the main character, Cam Calloway, a young, overachieving basketball star in “Survivor’s Remorse,” the Starz show he created and runs and on which James is an executive producer?
Now it can be told. Just don’t tell any of his old friends back in New England.
“I always loved John Starks,” O’Malley said, adding that the Knicks of the 1990s were the only New York team he ever has rooted for. “As I followed the Knicks and lived in New York and pursued my acting career, I was just fascinated with the story of John Starks, this guy who just kept grinding and kept grinding.”
O’Malley did mention other sports grinders, mostly from Boston teams, but Starks is the basketball player he most keeps in mind.
“That’s the kind of guy who I think Cam is,” O’Malley said, explaining that comparisons to James do not apply as neatly. “LeBron is one of the most famous athletes in the world, and Cam is just the most famous athlete right now in Atlanta.”
Calloway, played by Jessie T. Usher, grew up poor in Boston and went to the University of New Hampshire – a nod from O’Malley to his own alma mater – and abruptly finds himself rich and famous.
The setup allows the writers and actors to explore the complications that come with that adjustment. But three seasons into the show, which has its season finale on Sunday, O’Malley finds himself frequently asked about something that he considers beside the point:
Why is Cam never actually shown playing basketball?
Some of it is financial for a tightly budgeted show that shoots an episode in five days, meaning luxuries such as fielding fictional basketball teams and filling arenas to watch them is a non-starter.
Some of it is practical for a sports fan who knows how easy it is to spot an amateur athlete on screen.
“I grew up watching ‘The White Shadow,’ and the basketball was horrible on that show,” said O’Malley, 49. “Then I went to go see what to many was an amazing basketball show with real basketball players like Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal in ‘Blue Chips,’ and I always knew I was watching a movie.”
Some of it is simple storytelling priorities. James and his business partner, Maverick Carter, tapped O’Malley to create a show about a young man and his family confronting sudden fame and fortune.
“Those [basketball] stories when you really get down to it, what are you going to tell? What’s the story?” he said. “You going to show that he made the shot? That he missed the shot? That he fouled the guy? That he didn’t pass to a guy he didn’t like? I’m just not interested in those stories.”
He added, “I never saw it as a show about a basketball team. I saw it as a show about what happens to a guy who becomes famous and rich. How does it change him and his family when he’s a professional athlete? . . . It’s about behind the scenes. It’s about how do you avoid becoming a ‘30 for 30’ episode about how you lost all your money.”
Still, the question keeps coming up, to the point O’Malley half-jokingly admitted he only has gotten more stubborn. “At this point you will never [see him play],” he said. “I’m not even going to put a basketball in his hands.”
The result has been a show widely praised by critics, a consistently funny comedy that has not hesitated to explore serious topics, including ones of particular resonance in the black community.
O’Malley, a middle-aged, white Irish Catholic, has pulled that off with the help of a diverse writing staff and input from Carter himself.
James, who made a cameo appearance in Season Two, read the script aloud with his friends before the premiere but mostly has played a background role.
“LeBron James is not in the writers’ room pitching jokes and stuff,” O’Malley said. “But Maverick Carter is . . . He is intimately involved with the script and I’m speaking to him on a daily basis when we’re in production.”
O’Malley, an actor/writer/producer, has a eclectic resume, including acting on TV shows from “Nickelodeon GUTS” to “Yes, Dear” to “Parenthood” to “Glee,” and in recent movies such as “Concussion” and “Sully.”
Writing for the Showtime series “Shameless” exposed him to the freedom that comes with premium cable, leeway “Survivor’s Remorse” takes full advantage of in its language and mature themes. Carter and James knew how important that was.
“If you’re going to show a behind-the-scenes, tell-it-like-it-is story about how professional athletes behave when the cameras aren’t on them, you are going to have to say and do some of the things you might not do on a broadcast sitcom,” O’Malley said.
But why him?
“You know, I never asked,” he said. “It’s funny: When a guy like LeBron James calls you up and his business partner, and [executive producer] Tom Werner, who owned the Red Sox, and say, ‘Would you be interested in partnering with us in something like this?’ I’m not in the habit of turning down a lot of work.”
“Survivor’s Remorse” has been renewed for a fourth season, and NBA players seem to have taken notice – basketball scenes or no basketball scenes.
O’Malley noted with pride that “Swaggy P,” a/k/a the Lakers’ Nick Young, posted on Instagram a speech Cam’s cousin and manager, Reggie, made on the show about hard work and avoiding distractions.
“When you have an actual professional basketball player watching the show and relating to fictional words we have put into a character’s mouth and finding identifiable concepts or inspiration or validation for his own way thinking, what he needs to keep on the straight and narrow, that’s rewarding because you know you’re reaching people,” O’Malley said.
“When LeBron actually responds to the material and is supportive of the show and wanting to participate in it rather than distance himself from it, when he’s actively engaged in supporting the kinds of stories we’re telling and enthusiastic about where the show is and what we’re talking about, how a young man is trying to be, then I get really excited.”