Welcome back! As I mentioned in part one, with the 2015 NBA Finals currently happening, and the ongoing anticipation that the long-awaited biopic of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, the first Black player of the NBA, will go into production this year with actor Wood Harris (The Wire, Above The Rim) as the lead, we felt it would be the ideal time for a focus on basketball films.
As “Yes! No!! Why?!?” traditionally highlights lesser-known fare, some of the obvious films like Love & Basketball, Hoop Dreams, Blue Chips, or even Cornbread, Earl & Me (“They killed Cornbread!) will not be highlighted, but we did profile Above The Rim, Heaven Is a Playground, and (ugh) Thunderstruck in part one, and have more goodies for you now.
PASSING GLORY (1999)
This made-for-television movie has a trailer that restores my faith in a basketball movie being worthwhile. It has an extreme advantage though: Andre Braugher. Advantage number two is his booming voice taking over the entire narrative, with co-star Rip Torn accompanying his measure.
A 1960’s Civil Rights Movement period piece, Passing Glory centers on Joseph Verrett (Braugher), a Jesuit priest in New Orleans who teaches history at local Black-student attended St. Augustine High School. An ardent believer in education, he balks at being offered the position of basketball coach, but eventually accepts. Seeing the confidence playing basketball gives his team, Verrett tries to set up a game between his unbeaten team and the undefeated Jesuit High all-white prep school team, and this is where the main tension of the film takes place.
This true story of New Orleans’ first integrated basketball game may come off a bit milquetoast, but the trailer/commercial isn’t as heavy handed as similar television and feature film fare promote themselves. The supercharged 1960’s soundtrack helps of course, but so does the lack of pity displayed. There’s a strength and confidence to it which mirrors Verrett and his team and so sells this movie quite well.
Passing Glory was also directed by Hoop Dreams director Steve James, so it has an even higher pedigree to it. Also, actor/producer Harold Sylvester (best known as Griff from Married, With Children), the film’s screenwriter, played basketball for St. Augustine and was the first African-American student to receive an athletic scholarship from Tulane University. He would graduate from Tulane in 1972 with a degree in theater and psychology. He also appeared in the 1979 basketball comedy Fast Break, starring then TV comedy “it-man” Gabe Kaplan from Welcome Back, Kotter, basketball player Bernard King, and Michael Warren (Heaven Is a Playground). Laurence Fishburne also has a cameo, and I believe its him right HERE.
So yeah, I give Passing Glory a big YES!
THE HEART OF THE GAME (2005)
High school sports documentaries tend to take on a special significance in the hearts and minds of the viewer given the often fresh-face idealism of the youth involved, especially following the success of 1994’s Hoop Dreams, the pinnacle of the genre.
The Heart of the Game follows a similar tone to Hoop Dreams, but instead of focusing on two male players in the inner city it shifts to Seattle, Washington to follow a coach and star player and coach of high school female basketball team the Roosevelt Roughriders.
Darnellia Russell is said star player, full of natural yet nurtured talent for the game, and recruited right out of the junior varsity team to varsity in her freshman year. Alongside her is Coach Bill Resler, a tax law professor at the University of Washington who is recruited a few years earlier to direct the team. He often tells them to think of their opponents as prey, using animal themes to motivate them and gets his team just short of winning the state championship, largely thanks to Russell’s talent. By her junior year, Russell herself receives multiple letters of interest from major university basketball programs…but then becomes pregnant by her longtime boyfriend.
The film’s major drama involves Russell’s attempt to return to the team following her daughter’s birth, and her re-enrollment being blocked by a local sports association who contend that students can only play for four years, unless a hardship is involved. Russell’s lawyers alternatively contend that her pregnancy is such a hardship, and legal battle begins.
The trailer is exciting and condenses all the film’s major themes into a taut two minutes. It puts on full display Resler’s and Russell’s personalities, giving the audience a perfect look at why they are leaders. And it does not shy away from expressing that race may be a motivating factor for Darnellia Russell being blocked from playing the sport she finds the most passion from. Director Ward Serrill, who followed the Roughriders for six whole seasons, deservedly received major adulation for Game, and continues to work steadily as a documentary filmmaker.
So I give The Heart of the Game an enthusiastic YES! (two previews in a row!)
Before we go, we must give some Honorable Mentions to other standout basketball films:
Sneaker Stories (2009), is a documentary taking place in Vienna, Brooklyn and Accra as three basketball players – Adrian, Karl and Aziz – struggle to find a place for themselves within an international cycle of control and commodification. Trans- global in execution, and smartly directed by Katharina Weingartner sans talking heads to break up the thoughts and actions of each young man as they deal with how their dreams conflict with the business reality of the game they love so much.
Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault (1996), an HBO film of the titular real-life character whose drug addiction ruined his 1960’s basketball career, but who returned from prison to help his Harlem community. Aside from covering the storied Manigault, the film succeeded in turning working actor Don Cheadle into one of the most sought-after thespians of this generation.
Coach Carter (2005), while very much a studio film, makes this list because of the stand the titular character takes in this dramatization of a true story. Samuel L. Jackson portrays high school coach Ken Carter who benched his undefeated team after they broke his academic standards contract. While it is full of many familiar basketball movie and television tropes (bad attitude players, pregnant girlfriends, drug dealing close friends/family), the performances by Jackson, Rob Brown, Rick Gonzalez, Antwon Tanner, Robert Ri’chard, Debbi Morgan, and Octavia Spencer carry it through.
Also, check out my write-up on the powerful doc Lenny Cooke.
Go Man Go (1954) is a hard to find film about Abe Saperstein and his founding of The Harlem Globetrotters. It gets a mention here simply because of this really cool clip of a young Sidney Poitier as one of the film’s characters playing basketball in a swimming pool. Pretty cool.