For Tim Crothers, what started as a “good story” from a stranger in a crowd at Squid’s in March 2010 blossomed into an ESPN The Magazine article. It then became a book and now, a much anticipated, star-studded film, “Queen of Katwe.” Tim, a UNC School of Media and Journalism lecturer, has made a career writing about sports culture (see his other books “Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court” about Roy Williams and “The Man Watching: A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever”). But when a man came up to him at an event with Roy at the seafood eatery to share the story of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess champion, Tim switched gears to tell a whole new kind of story and quickly hopped on a plane to Africa.
“As a UNC alum and a resident of Chapel Hill for the last 17 years, my first two books were more natural fits for me because I had followed Coach Dorrance and Coach Williams since I was a student, and I did most of the research and interviewing for those books without ever leaving Chapel Hill,” Tim says. Besides never having been to Africa and not knowing as much about chess as other sports, Tim also felt challenged focusing on Phiona, who was quite shy at first and didn’t speak English very well. “Phiona was monosyllabic during our initial interviews until one day in Russia when I challenged her to a game of chess,” he says. “She really enjoyed clobbering me and after that we bonded.”
The result of their bond was the completion of “The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion.” The book, which is now a Disney film starring the likes of Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, tells the remarkable and true story of Phiona – the underdog of underdogs, says Tim – whose discovery of chess propelled her to a new path in life.
“She has broken down so many barriers, and I hope that her story has the capacity to inspire people all over the world to dream as big as she has,” Tim says. “I can’t imagine anyone reading it or watching this movie about a 9-year-old slum child who can’t read or write suddenly discovering chess and becoming a champion and not being inspired to believe that absolutely anything is possible.”
Add “The Queen of Katwe” to your reading list and see the film, premiering Sept. 23.