Filmmaker Mike Tollin revived SlamBall. Now he hopes to make movies about Dick Allen and Jon Dorenbos.
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Co-founder of SlamBall Mike Tollin shakes hands with KyShawn Jones, right, of Gryphons before a SlamBall game at the Cox Pavilion on July 27, 2023, in Las Vegas. (Candice Ward/Getty Images for SlamBall/TNS)
PHILADELPHIA — There’s a line in an old Monty Python skit that Mike Tollin — the Havertown native and longtime Hollywood mover-and-shaker — likes to drop to remind his staff how long some projects can take before they make it to the screen.
During the skit, one of the competitors in the “Upper Class Twit of the Year” runs himself over with a car during a race, leading the announcer to say, “He’s dead but not necessarily out of it.”
“That’s become sort of a mantra for us,” said Tollin, the co-chairman of Mandalay Sports Media. “Something to live by. Here we are. It’s perseverance. You can look up any project we’ve had and it’s often several years if not more than a decade of trying to put something together.”
That’s how Tollin revived SlamBall this summer, 20 years after basketball-on-trampolines disappeared from TV. SlamBall, which Tollin co-created, was dead but not necessarily out of it. The sport — and Tollin’s goal is to make SlamBall a legitimate sport — returned last month with a two-year contract on ESPN.
And that old Monty Python line is what keeps Tollin pushing toward making films about Dick Allen and Jon Dorenbos, two significant figures in Philadelphia sports history whom Tollin befriended after admiring from afar.
Tollin’s Allen project has been underway for more than 20 years and he optioned Dorenbos’ book before it was even released four years ago. Both films have scripts written, have long been in the works, and have been slowed this summer by the Hollywood writers’ strike. They’re not necessarily out of it.
Dorenbos, 43, had little experience as a live sports commentator before Tollin recruited him to be in the booth this summer for SlamBall. He was confident that Dorenbos — the former Eagles long-snapper who found a second career as a magician and motivational speaker — had the right personality to make it work.
“We have a game at 7:30 and he’s in the office at like 2 in the afternoon, working with the associate producer, going over the press notes, looking at old clips, and asking questions about these guys’ backstories and all,” Tollin said. “It’s really great to see. He wants to be good at everything.”
SlamBall’s original run lasted two years on Spike TV and Tollin said the sport could have kept bouncing. But Tollin and Mason Gordon, who created the idea in 1999 by sketching it onto a napkin, thought in 2003 that they were falling short of their goal of creating a legitimate sport. The games weren’t aired live and there were no stats, standings, or ways to keep up with favorite players.
“It was more of a TV show that had sporting elements on it,” Tollin said.
When the old show trended on social media during the pandemic as a bit of nostalgia, Tollin and Gordon thought maybe they could give SlamBall another chance.
They recruited investors — David Adelman and David Blitzer of the 76ers along with Michael Rubin of Fanatics poured in money — and landed a deal with ESPN, which has aired several Tollin documentaries, including The Last Dance about Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Every game in the six-week season is televised live from Las Vegas, and sportsbooks will soon post lines on SlamBall.
“Beat by beat, little by little, hopefully we are living up to the dream of creating a real sport,” Tollin said.
SlamBall consists of eight teams of seven players, many of whom were college athletes who are looking to keep their careers moving. The league’s slam-dunk leader is a 5-foot-6 former college high jumper and one of the top defenders is a former Division I wide receiver, and a player on the league’s top team dunks off trampolines at halftime for the Indiana Pacers.
Dorenbos is helping to tell their story. And Tollin soon hopes to tell his.
Tollin hired John Gatins, who wrote the screenplays for other Tollin flicks like Hardball, Varsity Blues, and Summer Catch, to write the script for a Dorenbos movie. Jeffrey Lurie, who produced movies before buying the Eagles, is among the investors. A second draft of the script is set to be completed once the writers’ strike is resolved.
Dorenbos’ book, Life Is Magic, tells the story of how he used magic as a coping mechanism after his father killed his mother. Dorenbos launched an unlikely NFL career, and then had his life saved when a physical exam after the Eagles traded him to New Orleans discovered an aortic aneurysm. It’s a movie waiting to be made.
“It’s just an amazing story that he could overcome what he went through as a kid,” Tollin said. “To me, he’s the most positive person in my life. It’s so great to be around him. You really can’t be in a bad mood when you’re with Jon. He’s one of a kind.”
Gordon was a production assistant for Tollin when he showed him that napkin with a sketch of a basketball court infused with trampolines.
“I said ‘OK, Mase. I’m going to go make a movie now. I’ll be back in a few months,’ ” Tollin said. “I patted him on the shoulder and went off to Wilmington, N.C.”
That’s where Tollin directed Summer Catch, which featured Dick Allen as a scout for the Phillies. And that’s when Tollin, who idolized Allen at Connie Mack Stadium like most Philly kids in the 1960s, started his project on Allen. The film is planned to be a hybrid project that would be a feature film with documentary elements. It is being written by Madison Turner, who has written scripts for projects involving Anthony Mackie and Michael B. Jordan.
“I found him and decided to collaborate with him because he’s a baseball fan but he’s only 30,” said Tollin, 67. “So when I asked him, ‘What are your impressions about Dick Allen?’ He said ‘Who?’ I loved that. I wanted someone to discover this guy and not just hear my version of growing up with him. It’s a great contrast for me to have this guy doing the digging and making his own impressions.”
Tollin has a deal for the film with Paramount Pictures, and a second draft of the script should be completed after the strike is resolved.
“Maybe the fact that it’s taking as long as it has could work in our favor because wouldn’t it be nice to have that happy ending that he’s come so close to?” Tollin said.
Allen fell one vote shy of the Hall of Fame in 2021, a year after he died. His next chance for election will be in 2026, which may line up with the film’s release. The project — just like Allen’s Hall of Fame candidacy — has taken a while. But it’s not necessarily out of it.
“Nothing I’ve ever done is more personal than the Dick Allen project. It’s daunting when you’re that emotionally attached to a project,” Tollin said. “The Dick Allen project sort of feels like it chronicles my life. I went from having a hero to having a great friend and now being the subject of a film that chronicles a somewhat dark time in Philadelphia and I think a really magnanimous gesture by the ownership and the team to put him in the place he belongs. Not just in Philly but baseball history.
“He’s not the guy he was portrayed to be in the ‘60s. It’s a shame he won’t be there to see it happen, but a lot of us are really determined to keep banging the drum. I’m hopeful that we’ll get there.”
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