Alum wins award for docuseries chronicling Navajo basketball team

February 9, 2021

Documentarian Matt Howley, ’94, was behind Netflix’s award-winning ‘Basketball or Nothing.’

La Salle University graduate Matt Howley, ’94, was honored just to receive a Realscreen Award nomination for his work as a member of the production team behind the Netflix docuseries Basketball or Nothing.

The docuseries chronicles the efforts of the Chinle High School basketball team, in Apache County, Ariz., in its quest to bring home a state championship to their isolated community in the Navajo Nation.

Howley didn’t get his hopes up, though. After all, the Non-Fiction Sports Documentary Program category pitted Basketball or Nothing against three ESPN Films’ productions, including The Last Dance, the acclaimed 10-part series documenting Michael Jordan’s NBA career and championship seasons with the Chicago Bulls. Howley figured he and his colleagues at Workshop Content Studios, based in Radnor, Pa., stood as much of a chance at winning as the teams that faced Jordan’s Bulls in the 1990s.

“You see Michael Jordan’s picture in the nominee list and you think, ‘Oh well, let’s just enjoy the nomination,’” said Howley, who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from La Salle. “I didn’t tell many people to watch the awards for that reason.”

But Howley’s Workshop Content Studios team, which includes fellow La Salle alum Vic Carreno, ’03, did something neither Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns nor Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz could do: They beat Jordan and the Bulls to take home the crown. Basketball or Nothing received top prize in the Non-Fiction Sports Documentary Program category at the Realscreen Awards ceremony, held virtually Jan. 26.

While Howley is proud of his accomplishment, he is most excited for Chinle’s players and community, with whom he and his crew formed strong bonds while shooting Basketball or Nothing’s first season. They filmed most of a second season, which was disrupted due to the pandemic.

“I am happiest for the people we’ve gotten to know over the last couple years in Chinle,” said Howley, who serves as director and executive producer for the series. “The best part of this has been watching some of the kids we featured on social media posting, ‘We beat Michael Jordan,’ and seeing all these different people on the reservation saying, ‘We beat M.J.’ and how much pride they take in it. We don’t do this for awards. We do this to tell stories like these.”

Those bonds were slow to develop, Howley said, due to lingering skepticism among residents from previous filmmakers’ attempts to tell the town’s story from an exploitative angle, highlighting poverty and alcoholism. To earn the trust of Chinle community members, the filmmaker recalled lessons learned from longtime La Salle communication professors Sid MacLeod and Br. Gerry Molyneaux, FSC, Ph.D.

“That attitude at La Salle—to care about everybody, that everybody is important—is the most important part in what we do in documentaries,” said Howley. “How do you build the trust with these people and these families? You put the camera down. You just shut up and listen and hear their stories. They’re not impressed by cameras or that it’s Netflix. The person sitting on the corner outside a gas station in Chinle, Ariz.—that person matters. That was instilled in me at La Salle.”

Molyneaux pointed to specific sequences from the series as examples of that trust.

“When (Howley) goes to a trailer home to meet a mom and sister, or to the grave site of a boy’s father, the kids cry without shame,” said Molyneaux. “They trust Matt and know that he’s not there just to use them to make a film.”

After production on Season 2 was suspended in March 2020, Howley and his colleagues began working to assist the residents of Chinle—one of many Navajo Nation towns impacted disproportionately by COVID-19. Workshop Content Studios donated hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment to the community and sent cameras to members of the basketball team so they could film local events like drive-by graduations and college signing days to be included in the series.

“The pandemic added a layer to our story we didn’t want,” said Howley. “This community that’s used to dealing with a lot of obstacles now has this. Virtual learning for kids is a challenge on the reservation with scarce (access to) Wi-Fi and laptops. Washing your hands as much as you can is hard to do in a community where only half the residents have running water.”

—Patrick Berkery