By Charles Cassady
Can it really be more than 20 years since the release of Hoop Dreams? Steve James’s popular and artistic hit transcended the sports documentary genre in following two black teenagers from the poor side of Chicago for five years, as they strive to escape their at-risk environment via NBA stardom. It won prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Awards, the National Board of Review and even the MTV Movie Awards.
Many basketball documentaries have appeared since then, and if none quite attained the prominence of Hoop Dreams, some have scored high enough to make the following list of features to watch during the NBA finals. These docs may have had the bad luck to play under the long shadow cast by Hoop Dreams, but I found them nonetheless worthy of MVP status. In order of release:
Soul in the Hole (1997)
As in Hoop Dreams, to which this is inevitably compared, the minimal amount of game action is nowhere near as important as what’s happening off the court. Filmmaker Danielle Gardner’s video cameras follow the 1993 summer season of New York City’s famous street basketball leagues, centering on Kenny’s Kings, a team of teenagers managed and coached by Kenny Jones in the tough Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Their undefeated status is due largely to the phenom Ed “Booger” Smith. Booger, who doesn’t talk much about his own family, has moved in with Jones, who has become an adoptive father and maps out a college career for the boy based on a basketball scholarship. But Smith still disappears on the streets for days at a time and starts to grow surly and distant, and there are fears that adolescent rebellion and the lure of thug life will be a dangerous combo.
Booger, who actually made the cover of Sports Illustrated, which is unheard-of for a streetballer, went on to star in another documentary of his own, King of the Streets. Soul in the Hole ends up being more about temperamental Jones, who is a great subject. He works any available job, including working at a liquor store, to keep his franchise afloat and flagrantly violates the no-cursing-no-N-word policies during the thick of a game, and his no-nonsense wife Ronnet knows how to take him down a notch when he gets too full of himself.
1 Love (2003)
Until Ken Burns takes on the topic, Leon Gast’s 1 Love, a Paramount release, bids to be the ultimate basketball A to Z done as oral history, from the Jewish-dominated yeshiva leagues of the mid-20th century (who confirm it: white men can’t jump) to the Women’s National Basketball Association and nets superstars like Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Leaping almost straight from the Harlem Globetrotters, whose role in popularizing the sport cannot be underestimated, to contemporary times leaves out a handful of greats, especially ones not present to speak for themselves (Wilt Chamberlain; “Pistol” Pete Maravich).
Passing controversies — did Allen Iverson disrespect Michael Jordan? — get addressed alongside major issues, such as the degree that college basketball recruits and exploits young players for the big money. The lure of drugs and talent wasted is mostly addressed in the context of Joe Hammond, an ill-fated legend of playground basketball/streetball, rather than any of the NBA greats.
Interesting to note that the career high for a player used to be lending their names to athletic-footwear brands; now, according to Jason Kidd, it’s being digitized for your own label of video game. Words to remember, if only to try and decipher the double-negatives: “Basketball is the greatest ambassador in the world. Because there’s no one with any athletic ability whatsoever who doesn’t think he can’t play basketball.”
The Heart of the Game (2005)
Not all basketball documentaries are a man’s world. Miramax released Ward Serrill’s look at several eventful seasons for the Roosevelt High Rough Riders, a girls’ basketball team outside Seattle, who after years of obscurity make it to state divisions under nonconformist coach Bill Resler (who could be a runner-up in a Paul Bartel lookalike contest) with a particularly wry sense of humor.
There are winning streaks, humiliating defeats and a sex scandal, but central to the storyline is Resler’s rocky relationship with Darnellia Russell, a potential champion who goes to Roosevelt High for the team but feels alien as one of the few faces of color in an affluent white suburb.
Yes, there are life lessons right out of Sweet Valley High, and the typical jock-drama “inspirational” moment when the coach brings in an old-time great to talk to the kids. But in this case the VIP is Maude Lepley, 95, who remembers the old days when women playing basketball weren’t even allowed to use the entire court. Rapper Ludacris does an especially all-pro job of narration.
The Year of the Yao (2005)
New Line Cinema, the future Hobbit-mongers who were also instrumental to the success of Hoop Dreams, teamed with NBA Films for this upbeat-in-spite-of-itself chronicle of towering basketball star Yao Ming, the first Chinese NBA basketball star, recruited right out of the Shanghai Sharks as a first-round draft pick for the Houston Rockets in 2003.
Year of the Yao was never released to theaters as widely as planned, even though director James Stern’s narrative has plenty going for it, what with Yao’s culture shock, his relationships with his translator, teammates and coach (who suffers a cancer crisis), and the star’s occasional lackluster performances on the court. Turns out the Asian athlete has to re-learn his technique to become more aggressive against American competitors — especially L.A. Laker Shaquille O’Neal, whose politically incorrect mocking and baiting of Yao puts him in the villain position.
What really comes across, though, is the sense of pro basketball as an overhyped, global big-money enterprise, with the dignified Yao stuck in commercial pitchman roles and paraded before the media like a freakish commodity — his disappointing stats here blamed eventually on the exhausting PR circuit. The question is: was this movie part of the problem or part of the solution?
More Than a Game (2008)
With the ascension of LeBron James as a basketball megastar, documentary filmmakers practically submitted bids to be the ones to tell the Authorized King James version on film (in fact one guy who claimed he had early assent to follow James actually sued when he lost out). It was the relatively unsung Kristopher Belman — like James, an Akron, Ohio, native, which counts for a lot — who won the rights to direct this Lionsgate release with the subject serving as executive producer.
The twist: in a there’s-no-I-in-team theme, Belman resists turning the feature into the LeBron show, instead dividing the narrative equally between the “Akron Fab Five.” That’s the nickname for the childhood friends, including James, who came up in the St. Vincent-St. Mary school lineup under celebrated coach Dru Joyce until their 2003 graduation. The other four, whose fellowship had to overcome the LeBron hype machine, being Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton, and Willie McGee.
They’ve all got backstories, too, and especially striking is that of Dru Joyce III. Not only the coach’s son but also the shortest of the quintet at 5’2”, he had to do the most to prove himself, time and time again. Of course, it was after this film that James went through his leaving-Cleveland/returning to Cleveland soap opera. Documentary filmmakers have been all over that one as well.
Fathers of the Sport (2008)
Although the technical quality with this one is uneven, director Xavier Mitchell’s passion is evident — and so is the deliberate hip-hop aesthete — in giving props to the legends of old-school playground basketball before the era of big-money NBA superstars.
Most of the narrative centers on the golden age of streetball in the 1970s, especially in Rucker Park in Philadelphia, where some of the finest athletes to ever to slam dunk played the game for the sheer joy of it all day long, even in 100-degree heat. They are revisited and reunited here, and it’s nice that the late Wilt Chamberlain is more remembered for a friendly standing offer to box Muhammad Ali rather than the astronomical sexual conquests he claimed.
The flip side of the milieu, however, is that many of these luminaries, including Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland and James “The Destroyer” Hammond, never rose above the criminal pathologies of the slums — despite being neighborhood superstars who would square off against a visiting Julius Erving — and did jail time rather than making NBA drafts. Yet, amusingly, on camera here they still retain the egos of champions and rail against young stars like LeBron James for not knowing the game “from the neck up.”
The film is produced and shot by Cris Borgnine, who is indeed the son of Ernest Borgnine.
Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (2010)
Appearing in tandem with the book When the Game Was Ours and telling much the same story, this slick, satisfying HBO Sports documentary serves as dual bios of two NBA greats linked together by racial politics, headline hype and their own fierce competitiveness to be best. Michigan’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson, playing for the L.A. Lakers, and Indiana’s Larry Bird, recruited to the Boston Celtics, were two basketball phenoms who dominated the game throughout the 1980s — in this telling, virtually saving the NBA from fouling out commercially — leading their teams to championships against each other.
The very private Bird was one of the few whites to dominate the game — he himself utterly indifferent to matters of color — while Johnson was ingratiating and popular. They ultimately became friendly with each other, but both were opposites in temperament and ruthless when it came to winning. Johnson’s shock-disclosure of being HIV-positive is paralleled with Bird’s career-crippling back injury suffered during a DIY home project the fiercely independent Hoosier could easily have hired others to do.
But if there’s any dirty laundry here, it belongs to the media and misguided fans who turned the faceoffs into racially tinged duels. The two here come across as human-sized but always respectful of each other, and given the modern tendency to spotlight foibles of sports heroes, it’s about as sterling an example of good sportmanship as one could want.
The film also features interesting color commentary from Pat Riley, Bryant Gumbel and Arsenio Hall.
Elevate is a nicely understated verite portrait of four African would-be college basketball players — from Dakar, Senegal, precisely — looking to America for their hopes of higher education via sports scholarships. Assane, Aziz, Byago and Dethie are young men and friends, of mixed Muslim and Christian backgrounds, serious about careers and bringing sustenance to their families and honor to their continent, not just Yankee bling and shoe-endorsement deals.
Bit by bit, with one heartbreaking VISA denial, the quartet find their assorted ways to schools in Connecticut and the Heartland, in a four-year narrative arc that follows academic ups and downs (in Senegal they’re in the top of their classes, but American standards are tougher), culture shock, athletic injuries and joyful reunions. There’s no big-game nail-biter climax, just a very apt carpe diem ending that’s immensely satisfying for being part of an ongoing saga of better-living-through-hoops on a global scale.
The Iran Job (2012)
Filmmaker Till Schauder, who is married to an Iranian, said he made this less out of love of basketball than fear that Iran was next in the U.S. government’s military invasion playbook. Meet Kevin Sheppard, of the U.S. Virgin Islands, a “journeyman” basketball player accustomed to short-term contracts with teams around the world. He signs up for a season with A.S. Shiraz, one of the harder-luck teams in Iran’s thriving basketball league.
With a fellow outsider player from Serbia, Sheppard sees not only anti-American murals and slogans and but also the fun-loving side of the Islamic nation. Appreciative basketball fans, segregated by male and female sections, treat matches more like community celebrations than high-pressure rivalries. Braving possible arrest for being without male escorts, beautiful ladies arrive at the two westerners’ Christmas party — no groupie stuff; Kevin has a loyal girlfriend back home, so we’re told.
Some Iranians in the film have even visited the U.S. and speak of it glowingly. The narrative transpires against a backdrop of the Bush and Obama Administrations, Washington’s strained diplomatic relations and the Tehran dictatorship fighting and putting down grassroots “Arab Spring” democratic uprisings in 2009. Farsi hip-hop provides a soundtrack to an especially captivating cross-cultural entry about athletics as a humanizing window into an “enemy” culture.
Lenny Cooke (2013)
Brother filmmakers Joshua and Ben Safdie offer a cautionary tale of hoop dreams gone sour. The New Jersey-born Cooke was a high school basketball phenom during a heady period of the NBA and basketball-driven colleges combing through largely inexperienced urban kids for the next potential Kobe or Shaq.
The narrative follows Cooke’s participation in corporate-sponsored basketball camps, Vegas trips and scouting events, a dizzying milieu of potential big money, privilege and fame (in the film, Mike Fratello states that a player spends $300,000 per year, conservatively, just on entourage, family and baby-mama drama. Cooke is even seen at one point as a rival to the rising LeBron James. But, after some poor professional choices, he’s passed over entirely for the 2002 NBA draft.
Six years later, Cooke, approaching 30, is out of the game and out of shape. With no money saved, he works as a chef in Virginia, putting on a brave face for a reporter doing a where-are-they-now piece. Privately, Cooke rues his treatment by the pro-sports establishment, saying he was packaged as a commodity called “Lenny Cooke” (he actually prefers “Leonard”), offered the world, then abandoned by cohorts and sponsors alike.
In an interview insert, coach Mike Jarvis compares the scouting system to the economics of slavery, the buying and exploiting of human beings for the most profitable deal. And even though NBA reforms in 2006 curtailed the practice of catapulting high schoolers straight into the pros without completing their education, Cooke is shown here still telling basketball-minded young people his story as a warning.