Brett Rapkin documents the agony and the ecstasy of sports legends
Brett Rapkin ’00 is an Emmy-winning producer, writer and director as well as the founder and CEO of production company Podium Pictures. One major throughline of Rapkin’s films is sports, while an emerging thread in much of his work is the importance of mental health.
Regarding these dominant themes in his films and his approach to storytelling, Rapkin notes the literal and metaphoric relevance of the “hero’s journey,” as popularized by writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell. His films center on sports greats who achieve success on their athletic journeys and become cultural heroes while also undergoing meaningful transformation through the challenges they face. True to the hero’s journey archetype, these athletes, coaches and teams benefit others through sharing what they learned along the way.
Rapkin’s most recent project, “LUTE,” highlights the legacy of late University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson, which includes coaching more than 30 players who went on to play or coach in the NBA. Rapkin was a first-year student at UArizona when Olson guided what appeared to be a middle-of-the-pack basketball team to a historic victory: The Wildcats beat a number of highly ranked teams to claim the 1997 NCAA championship. “Every game was close,” Rapkin recalls. “That’s why they called them the ‘Cardiac Cats.’”
The electricity of the basketball team spanned years and spilled onto campus. Rapkin fondly remembers meeting players at parties and even playing a pick-up game with future NBA stars Luke Walton and Richard Jefferson. Reflecting on his time at the university, Rapkin says, “It was like seeing history being made.”
While Rapkin was enjoying the sports culture on campus, he also was in the process of becoming someone who would make his own mark on the culture. Rapkin has an entrepreneurial streak and started out studying business, but he gravitated toward the creative people he met and wound up studying film and communications. “I took some really influential classes — not just film theory and documentary but also a class about producing that taught me a lot about how to put together projects.”
In addition to finding his creative passion, Rapkin had a set of formative experiences that would influence his filmmaking career: He lost two friends within six months of each other to suicide. “They both had a lot going for them. It was an experience that changes your thinking forever,” he says. “It makes you realize that it’s not what you have on paper that creates happiness or well-being.”
Rapkin’s love for a good sports story and his appreciation for the importance of mental health coalesced in his 2020 documentary “The Weight of Gold,” which began with a focus on Olympic bobsledder Steven Holcomb and expanded to chronicle mental health struggles and barriers to accessing mental health resources among many Olympic athletes, including Michael Phelps and Katie Uhlaender.
Telling these stories is important to Rapkin. “I’m at a phase of my life and career where, as a father of two young children and somebody who has been doing this for 20 years, I believe my calling is to create content that can move people to action, to take people on an emotional journey and then move them toward positive social change.”
As for “LUTE,” Rapkin became interested in solidifying Olson’s legacy as a heroic figure for countless Wildcats soon after Olson died in 2020. In part, Rapkin says, he was inspired by all Olson had offered the basketball program and the way that impact rippled out into the community. Olson, he says, cultivated a familial culture with his teams and gave generously through his dedication to coaching.
Rapkin wanted to give back as well, through telling the story of the basketball program. “LUTE” had its world premiere Sept. 30, 2022, at Centennial Hall. A portion of the proceeds from the debut screening have benefited the Lute Olson Endowment.
Making a gift to this endowment, which connects student-athletes with scholarships, is a great way to honor Olson’s larger-than-life legacy. To contribute to the endowment, visit crowdfund.arizona.edu/luteolson
— Riley Beck