About halfway through “Summer Dreams,” the compelling documentary that premieres Saturday night on CBS, out-of-work coaching hopeful Joel Abelson goes to the Las Vegas hotel suite of Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey to talk job opportunities. Olshey is welcoming but direct in a harsh reality check that even Abelson has to appreciate through the pain of being reminded how many people with much bigger names and much longer resumés are also in town trying to get hired. Abelson practically swallows his tongue on camera.
“That’s real stuff, that is what happens,” Jon Weinbach, the program’s co-executive producer, said in remembering the scene months later. “And that is the kind of thing, I think, that appeals to a broader audience.”
It’s also the kind of thing that makes “Summer Dreams” unique. NBA junkies will appreciate the rare level of behind-the-scenes access – trailing Abelson on his interview, following Shane Larkin to the doctors to get bad news about an ankle injury, agonizing with Romero Osby on draft night – but the 2013 summer league in Las Vegas and Orlando through the prism of familiar names and relative unknowns will speak to non-sports fans as well.
There are strong female characters, bonds of friendship and inspirational family moments, money and poverty, lottery picks and the undrafted. A female referee is trying to make the full-time NBA lineup. A coach is willing to travel the world for a gig. A first-round choice wanting to make a name for himself faces an immediate career setback. “Summer Dreams” is reality TV the way it’s supposed to be.
“We pushed our characters,” Weinbach said. “We said, ‘Look, guys. This isn’t going to be 10 minutes for a puff piece.’ ”
The two-hour doc obviously included the cooperation of the NBA, as seen by the rare access to aspiring referee Lauren Holtkamp. Beyond that, the experienced production team won the trust of players and families and allowed cameras to join in private moments. Good connections didn’t hurt either — the project is from Mandalay Sports Media. Warriors co-owner Peter Guber, chairman of the company, put “Summer Dreams” leaders in contact with Vivek Ranadive, who had just moved from minority owner in Golden State to primary with the Kings. Ranadive invited a crew to the war room for the draft.
CBS and Mandalay have already talked about expanding the concept from single documentary to a series. Maybe the production that this time included six crews in Las Vegas and Orlando, at the Chicago pre-draft combine, in different locations on draft night and at several other cities along the way could follow up by tracking the 2014 summer league. Weinbach thinks USA Basketball also has possibilities, the program following the team’s pursuit of a gold medal at the World Cup of Basketball beginning in August in Spain.
A different backdrop, yes, but the same premise: summer dreams.