Earlier this week, the Utah Jazz’s players and coaches set aside 29 minutes to watch “Two Distant Strangers,” the short in part produced by Jazz All-Star Mike Conley.
On Sunday night, the short won an Oscar — meaning that Conley joins the very short list of athletes who have won an Academy Award.
The Jazz’s viewing couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. With Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict being announced midweek, the message of “Two Distant Strangers” struck a chord. The film tells the story of one Carter James (played by rapper and actor Joey Bada$$), who, on his way home to feed his dog, finds himself in a dangerous encounter with a white police officer (played by Andrew Howard). James then relives that day, “Groundhog Day”-style, trying different strategies to avoid his fate.
“From outside looking in, if you’re not African American, you immediately think of what the individual might have done wrong in those situations to give themselves, you know, give the police a reason to shoot,” Conley told SLAM magazine. “I think that’s huge to kind of show that, visually for the general public and people to [help them] understand what my uncles and my grandparents taught me — sometimes when you get pulled over, you just pray, man.”
The short drew positive reviews from his teammates and coaching staff this week.
“The movie itself was certainly impactful. It was tremendous, and in many respects it was it was haunting,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “And I would encourage everybody to see it.”
Snyder’s review was echoed by Tribune film critic Sean Means, who wrote that the film “sticks in the memory stronger than the other” live-action short film nominees. Written and directed by Travon Free, the short’s quality came through to the Academy Award’s voters.
Snyder also said that he supported his players’ taking action publicly to drive the conversation on social justice issues and racism in policing to a public audience.
“If there is ever an example of someone taking action to create change, to spur a conversation, this is it,” Snyder said. “It’s an unbelievably impactful example of that process. And I think it shows the opportunities that we have both in sport and in this case, art and filmmaking to continue to find common ground or where there is common ground to learn about one another and to have those conversations.
“It’s one of the great things about being on a team: that you do learn from each other. And a lot of those things happen organically. The amount of time that you’re around each other ... it happens a lot and it happens organically. From everything from food, to upbringing, to where guys went to college, to how they play on the court,” Snyder continued. “It’s a neat part of being in a group and particularly a group that’s willing to interact and willing to share. I think it’s grounded in respect.”
Conley appreciated his teammates’ time to watch his film. “We had a lot of situations in that short film that are still going on, even as of last week. So I’m just thankful for the guys that sat there and watched it, [that we] have the conversation, ask questions and just keep the dialog going.”
Conley, who joined Kevin Durant, NBA agent Rich Kleiman, and even Sean “Diddy” Combs as producers on the project, knew how he’d be spending his Sunday night — watching the Oscars. “I’ll definitely be tuned in and watching,” he said.
“Guys in the locker room were giving me grief about it the other day, just like, ‘You might win an Oscar before you win a championship’ " Conley said told CBS Los Angeles. “I was like, hey if I could win both, that’d be great, but obviously an Oscar was not something I thought I’d ever be a part of.”
Conley and Durant join Kobe Bryant as Oscar-winning athletes — Bryant wrote, produced, and narrated “Dear Basketball,” an animated short that won that category’s Oscar in 2018.
“Two Distant Strangers” is currently available on Netflix.
JAZZ AT TIMBERWOLVES
When • Monday, 6 p.m. MT
TV • ATTSN