Can you tell the story of America in the 1970s and 80s through basketball?
This question powers Death at the Wing, a brilliant new podcast that examines a series of deaths in the NBA and basketball at large. Hosted by Adam McKay—director of iconic films like Anchorman, The Big Short, and Vice—the show features a variety of guests like Jerry West and Jackie MacMullan. DATW bounces from the War on Drugs to gun violence and mental health, exploring these topics in connection to a series of untimely deaths of famous and unheralded basketball players.
McKay and his team use the lens of these losses to tell the story of the United States, from Len Bias’ shocking death to the tragic suicide of Ricky Berry. The connective tissue of these tragedies to the broader social, cultural, and political forces power every episode.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Raghu Manavalan, the show’s senior producer, and Brian Steele, the show’s producer. Steele and Manavalan exude a genuine passion for this subject matter, a love for the game and the stories that they’ve been able to tell. They’ve managed to create something that appeals to seemingly incongruent fandoms, where everyone from NBA obsessive and political junkies to fans of well-told stories can appreciate the scope and level of detail put into every episode.
What inspired this show?
Steele: For years, Adam had kind of noticed the connection of these disparate players who all passed away in a period of time, and he thought it was an interesting story to explore and unpack. That’s really where it started, with him asking the question like is there something there, what is the connection?
Manavalan: The discovery kind of inherent in the show isn’t a podcasting device. We’re gigantic hoops people—I’ll talk your ear off about the 1992 through 1996 Los Angeles Lakers team—but Adam was really the one that said, I think there’s something here. It’s not a surprise that athletes reflect what’s happening in society at the time, and this is an excellent example of that.
Steele: I will say that the connections even surprised us. You can really tell the story of modern America through the NBA and basketball to a degree that I don’t think we even realized when we started.
You covered Len Bias’ death in one of your episodes. I knew the story only as a young man tragically dying at a party. Your episode taught me that the then Speaker of the House, Massachusetts’ Tip O’Neill, pushed for harsh anti-drug legislation in part to firm up his political standing in Boston.
Manavalan: It makes sense. The Celtics are gods in Boston within the fabric of the city, even though that’s complicated with Boston and race. The Len Bias law, when we kind of discovered that, this isn’t even oh this thing is happening on this side and this thing is happening here. The law is called the Len Bias law.
Steele: One of the things we’ve heard a lot, feedback from that episode, is people saying I never tried cocaine because of Len Bias. We’ve been hearing that a lot more from Boston fans. It feels like there’s a generation of Boston kids who that was the bogeyman story that they were told as a kid. Look at Len Bias and never do cocaine. It’s been an outpouring of personal stories about that that we even realized how influential that was on a personal level.
Did you have an audience in mind when you started sketching out the show?
Steele: I think we were prepared to cast a wide net. We never thought of this as purely a sports podcast. [We hoped to attract] a cross section of people who shared these interests.
Manavalan: To answer your question about audience, it’s all of the above. There are people who say I knew these stories and I love basketball and I never thought about the Reagan Revolution or who say I have lots of thoughts about Ronald Reagan but I never thought about the implications in basketball. There’s kind of this reputation that if you like sports you’re kind of this simple person who doesn’t read books, right? That’s always been an absurd construct to me.
Steele: We have a very specific thing that balloons into much broader subjects. When you dig into history, you really do see the whole phrase “history repeats itself.” You really start to see the connective thread of, we just keep on doing these things over and over in different ways. When you can do it through the prism of the NBA, it just becomes so much clearer because it’s such a smaller subject. You see that this happened to Bill Russell, this happened to Michael Jordan, and each generation experiencing the same thing in a different way. It’s been really fascinating digging into something we’re so passionate about and finding all these weird connections.
Has there been a connection or something that you had no idea about before the show that has been surprising or that you had no idea about?
Manavalan: The show’s basically dedicated to stuff we found out about from reading and learning and talking to people. To be honest, I never really knew about the Ricky Berry story at all. He was a little bit before my time when I started watching basketball, and we went deep into his highlight reel. He was an incredible player and was going to be an amazing player. It’s completely covered up that that even happened.
There’s people that wrote in to us saying: I remember when he died, I couldn’t comprehend it, I just cried because I never understood the concept of suicide. You kind of grow up thinking these [athletes] are these super heroes on television who can fly through the air. Of course they dealt with tragedy, of course there’s racism everywhere they went. It’s almost like your parents telling you Santa Claus doesn’t exist anymore. Why would you think that it existed that way before?
I also had never heard of Berry before, and I was shocked to see that he really was ahead of his time. I pulled some data from Basketball Reference, and back then, the only guy his size shooting that many threes that well was Larry Bird!
Steele: People didn’t play like that. He had a game that was tailor made for where the NBA was moving, with his size and shooting ability and his ability. He’s Reggie Miller with handles. He could put the ball down, he could drive to the hoop, he could shoot the three. He was really coming into his own, and it’s such a sad story.
I’m really proud of that episode and how we explore mental health, and I’m really proud of society and the NBA for their destigmatization of mental health.
The Berry episode seemed much more upbeat than others, where it’s clear the NBA and the world have made serious progress on mental health.
Steele: I think that particular episode illustrates the importance of athletes in the changing of culture, even more so than your typical entertainer. Athletes traditionally, in modern history, have been in the center of every major change that’s happened in our society. It really is impactful that these players have started speaking out about anxiety, and depression, and getting help and treatment, getting medicated, and having dark thoughts.
Manavalan: We were riveted. It was a two and a half hour conversation. If you didn't understand the political elements of being a basketball player in America, that was it laid out in front of you.
Steele: Jerry West is just the sweetest man, but a tortured man, and he talked about what he went through in a time where you could not express it. He had a hard life and hard childhood. But, just hearing the pain he’s gone through and still experiencing to this day, and seeing how far we’ve come, it really is one of more positive episodes.
This is a man who is arguably the most successful in totality person in the history of basketball, the man who is the logo of the league! It was very moving to hear him open up like that. You want to give him a hug, honestly.
It is incredible that he’s gotten to a place where he can talk about it, and that is so important for destigmatizing things. Yes, it’s hugely important that players today are talking about this. But, for him to say no this has always been around, this has always been happening, this isn’t a new phenomena, I was going through and we didn’t have the answers, is also hugely important. He’s definitely a part of that bigger story about how society is changing.
He [also] talked to us about Kobe for a little bit; he was just devastated by that. They clearly had such a real connection, it was just incredible to hear his perspective on Kobe as a person. He talked about the initial tryout or workout before the draft that he said was the greatest workout he’d ever seen in his life. He just told a bunch of really cool stories like that.
Manavalan: When Jerry West talks about basketball, you listen.
Are there stories or tangents you wanted to explore further and might in a future season?
Steele: There is an unending supply of stories and characters and tragedies and inspirational moments connected to the sport of basketball and the NBA. We’ll see what happens—there’s plenty more stories that could be told. It’s unending in what we can do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Cover art: Death at the Wing from Three Uncanny Four