Vancouver’s Sol Irama found fame on Swagger, still has a sweet jumper

Vancouver’s Solomon Irama is making his own way under the bright lights as a star on one of Apple TV’s biggest shows

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After a gruelling regular season capped with two straight weekends of back-to-back games, UBC Thunderbirds coach Kevin Hanson planned to give his team some time off as they prepared for next week’s Canada West playoffs in Winnipeg, including some team bonding exercise.

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Attempt No. 1: A screening of the classic basketball movie, Hoosiers, one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” type of decisions.

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The fictional tale of the plucky, small-town underdogs from Hickory who win the 1951 Indiana state championship — by playing that old-school gritty, hard-nose defence and a team-first, four-pass rule on offence — is in the U.S. National Film Registry as a “culturally significant” movie and considered by many as one of the best sports movies of all time.

Those critics didn’t include most of Hanson’s team, with whom the movie fell flatter than a Joe Biden TikTok.

Even if his players — all more than a decade away from being born when the movie came out in 1986 — couldn’t relate to the clunky basketball Hickory played, it might not have been the best choice for Black History Month.

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But Hanson’s next attempt was nothing but net.

The T-Birds had a star join their practice Tuesday at War Memorial Gym— Vancouver’s Solomon Irama, who starred in Apple TV’s “Swagger” as Phil Marksby.

Now this, the players could get behind. Swagger, inspired by the experiences of NBA star and executive director Kevin Durant, is one of Apple’s most highly rated shows on Rotten Tomatoes. The basketball is realistic and creatively shot, the writing and stories go far beyond the on-court to deal with human and youth issues, and Irama plays a major role in helping raise the show above so many other failed attempts in the genre.

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On Tuesday, when the 6-foot-8 wasn’t dropping soft Luka Doncic-esque floaters and hitting threes over USports all-stars, he was slapping hands, cracking jokes and doing TikToks with the T-Birds resident social media star, Brian Wallack.

“It’s basketball. We’re all just hooping out there,” said the 20-year-old. “I just came to hoop and have fun, and that’s what we did.”

The fact he didn’t look out of place against high-level university players is part of what sets Swagger apart. He wasn’t Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries, Halle Berry and Benjamin Bratt in their epically terrible basketball scene, nor whatever the heck Double Teamed was trying to accomplish. He can hoop — and so can his castmates.

Isaiah Hill, who plays the lead character Jace, was a three-star recruit in high school. Jason Rivera-Torres is one of the NCAA’s top freshman at Vanderbilt University. Irama played basketball at Point Grey in high school and for Vancouver Coastal in the 2018 B.C. Summer Games. And if they weren’t shooting during sets at the gym, they were playing. Their ability to play basketball was also a big part of the casting process at CBS Studios in Los Angeles.

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He might be a hooper, but Irama has been acting since he appeared in a CBS movie with his mom, Marion Landers, at the age of one. He’s racked up credits in commercials, TV (Supergirl, Cop and a Half 2), and theatre, and when he was in Grade 9 — and still just a mere 6-2 — sent in an audition tape to Swagger.

“It wasn’t for the character I really got selected for. I taped tape for Jace (Carson), and then after that (writer Reggie “Rock” Bythewood), said let’s get you auditioned for a character I think you fit better for, and that was Phil,” said Irama. “I did my second monologue for Phil. And then after that, I got a call back. They said I was going to the screen test. Holy Moly, what’s the deal? I’m going to LA? No way. I just auditioned for this! I’d never flown anywhere for a screen test.

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“Then I booked it. I couldn’t believe it. I was out of control, man. I was just so happy.”

It took a year before casting was complete, and as many legal hurdles as auditions trying to get his Green Card to work in the U.S., before he flew to the DMV — what the collective area of DC, Maryland, and Virginia is referred to locally — to film the first season. He has flown down for six-month stretches over the past four years to shoot.

Growing up in the noted racially diverse community of Dunbar, there weren’t a lot of other kids who looked like the tall and brawny Irama, whose father is Ugandan and mom with South African heritage. Being in Richmond, Va., was a different world.

“Definitely different,” he said with a laugh.

“A lot more black people. It was definitely interesting being around black people, because you don’t really get that experience here. You still see black people, but it’s not in the massive amounts you see black people in the States. Here, you’re always recognizing each other, like ‘Hey, what’s up?’”

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The show was a critically hailed success. As soon as he got a chance to delve into the scripts, and learn his character’s backstory — one with a real-life roots in Durant’s past, a high school teammate who went on to be an activist — he could see the possibilities.

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“I’ve done a lot of TV shows and movies, and when you’re reading a script, you can tell the content’s good,” said Irama. “While I was reading Swagger, I’m like, ‘Man, it’s gonna be a good show.’ It talks about a lot of different things. And even though it’s basketball, it appeals to quite a few different audiences.”

While Swagger was a success, it fell victim to the same cost-reward returns that have scuttled so many streaming shows after two seasons, getting cancelled in November. But the commercial success and strong ratings means there is a chance it returns, but likely on a different platform.

“And I have to say, it’s been a gift for Solomon. It’s not always easy to grow up here as a young black man. And it’s just an opportunity that really raised his self esteem,” said his mom, Marion.

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“I think it just really show him that he matters. It’s helped him blossom and given him enormous confidence and experiences that are just nothing short of a great blessing.”

For now, waiting to hear what the fate of Swagger might be, he’s finishing up his schooling and auditioning for his next big breakthrough.

“I definitely want to mix it up at this point in my career. I’d love to do a movie … maybe an action movie. I’d love to do a Marvel movie, if I got selected,” he said.

“Maybe being in a scary movie one day would be kind of fun, too. … I wouldn’t last very long, though,” he added, laughing. “‘Hey, what’s that?’ (*Feigns death*)

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be about anything really; I’m always open in the acting world, because there are tons of different possibilities.”

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