As with any basketball movie review, it is important to note that "Gunnin' For That #1 Spot" is not "Hoop Dreams." It doesn't try to be. But the temptation to compare any movie focused on the lives and times of high school basketball prospects to that seminal work is overwhelming. Such is the Jordanesque shadow that "Hoop Dreams" casts. Do "Gunnin'" justice and put "Hoop Dreams" aside. You will surely enjoy this movie on its own merits.
Directed by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, Gunnin' chronicles the lives of 8 nationally-ranked basketball prospects (Jerryd Bayless, Michael Beasley, Tyreke Evans, Donte Greene, Brandon Jennings, Lance Stephenson and Oregon's own Kevin Love and Kyle Singler). The players span the high school classes of 2007-2009 and most are pictured in the movie as they prepare to head off to college. Their lives are given snapshot treatment, which makes for some great juxtapositions (Evans is interviewed sitting on a park bench in front of a hardscrabble blacktop court in Chester, PA; Love is shown flinging shots into a hoop suspended over his family's backyard pool).
The profiles are interspersed with commentary on high school ratings services (the "#1 spot" in the title jointly referring to the top of these Hot 100 lists as well as the more familiar "King of the Court" playground designation), shoe company influence on grassroots basketball, and an homage to Rucker Park in Harlem, the playground mecca where the 8 profiled prospects, along with 16 other players, eventually will play in an "Elite 24" All Star Game.
The movie's major plotline is the illustration of exactly how many paths there are to basketball success. Every player featured has a compelling and unique (if somewhat familiar) story. Bayless (I'm from Arizona so everyone underestimates me); Beasley (I'm a troublemaker but basketball has kept me straight); Evans (Basketball is my way out of a tough neighborhood); Green (I want to succeed on the court to provide for my younger brother); Jennings (Basketball is a way for me to express my Compton-bred creativity); Stephenson (I have the pressure of an entire neighborhood, Coney Island, that expects me to be The Next One); Love (I'm the son of an NBA player and have always been bigger and better than everyone I've played against); and Singler (I'm a gym rat from the middle of nowhere ready to prove I can play). These stories, especially when taken in during the week that many of these players were drafted, are rich and authentic.
The unifying theme among all 8 stories was easy to decipher: to attain that "#1 Spot" it takes work.... a lot of very hard work. All 8 players are shown going through rigorous workouts in the gym and each has a mentor (whether it be AAU coach, brother, or father) who makes sure the player's primary focus is all basketball, all the time. Even Beasley, who was knocked in recent months for being "lazy," shows a fanatical work ethic and exudes the hyper-confidence that only a well-prepared athlete can possess in good conscience. The gym, and the work that goes on there, plays a central role in each player's life.
During one riveting interview with Tyreke Evans' older brother (himself a basketball star, the movie notes, whose team beat Kobe Bryant's team in high school but who evidently didn't "make it"), a distinction is drawn between "the gym" and "the playground." Mr. Evans talks at length about how he has always helped guide Tyreke to indoor games because the floor is easier on his knees and, more importantly, because it is a refuge from the struggles of their neighborhood. Tyreke, shown as an unassuming, quiet man throughout the movie (which was consistent with my impression when I spoke briefly with him in April), shows a glimmer of an embarrassed younger brother who doesn't quite want his older brother compromising his street rep like that. This moment lingered for me because of the recent murder charge facing Tyreke's cousin and Tyreke's own personal involvement in the murder (which the movie doesn't discuss). Of the 8 characters shown in the film, his future undoutedly seemed the most tenuous.
But Evans is the exception. The film makes clear that the "hit or miss" guessing game of tracking basketball prospects has been replaced by a science of player analysis and a relatively new-found and wide-reaching support system (AAU, shoe companies, etc.) that guides the development of Elite prospects. These guys are featured because, odds on, they will make it. And the proof is in the pudding: Beasley, Love and Bayless were all top selections in this year's NBA draft; Greene was also drafted in the first round; Evans, despite the drama, secured a full ride at Memphis; Singler is starring at Duke; and Jennings, assuming he can get his grades right, will star at Arizona (his backup plan: play professionally in Europe!). This is a far cry from the days of Arthur Agee.
There are, of course, unintended consequences to the industrialization of hoops prospects. In one funny scene, NJ Nets coach Laurence Frank tries in vain to give a motivational speech to the Elite 24. His message of hard work and dedication falls on deaf ears (even the always-engaged, wide-eyed Singler seems bored) not because the players don't care about the message but because their lives and identities are already fully consumed by the message. No one in the room lacks for dedication and, tellingly, no one in the room is impressed by the presence of an NBA coach. Indeed, some of these guys have had NBA coaches scouting them for 3 or 4 years already. Such is life at the very top of the hoops food chain.
In its last 30 minutes, Gunnin' turns from telling the stories of individual players to telling the story of the Elite 24 all star game, played at Rucker Park. The all star game scene, set amidst the Polo Grounds housing projects, is complete with NBA stars watching from courtside (Jason Kidd, Ben Gordon, etc.) and hoops legend Bobbito Garcia doing the public address play-by-play and doling out memorable and funny nicknames (Singler is dubbed "The Wig" for his mane of blonde/orange hair). The all star game, even in all its manufactured pageantry, just looks like a lot of fun. Importantly, the players are smiling.
If there is a major gripe to be found with this movie, it is the editing of the in-game all-star action. The editors got a little trigger happy with the rewind, slow-mo action which, in my opinion, distracted from the plays themselves. In high school all star games most viewers realize that there are going to be a lot of dunks and a lot of nifty passes; seeing any individual pass or dunk two, three or even four times, in slow mo and reverse, was gratuitous. The play was speaking for itself.
Also distracting, to my ear, was the soundtrack, which featured well-chosen songs from all the usual suspects (Nas, Jay-Z, Biggie, etc.) but inexcusably used edited versions of these hip hop classics. Making a movie about basketball, setting it in the jocular Rucker Park in the center of the hip hop universe, and choosing to lace that movie with profanity-free versions of songs like 50 Cent's "Hate it or Love it" and Fat Joe's "My Lifestyle" just seemed downright wrong artistically. The sound effects used in hip hop songs to cover profanity add up, over the course of 90 minutes, to a hot mess. If you're going to strip part of the creativity out of the music, why not only show the fundamentally-sound basketball plays (2 handed chest passes and bank shots only!)? Perhaps this will not bother most viewers. But I was greatly disappointed as I expected quite a bit more from Adam Yauch, a man whose hip hop credentials rightly go unquestioned .
Otherwise, the aural elements of the movie were great: sneaker squeeks, dramatica pauses, and various regional dialects all came through quite well. The most memorable moment sonically was Yauch's use of the following train-of-thought from Notorious BIG, pulled from the intro to Jay-Z's "My First Song," as the players exited the bus in preparation for the final all-star game.
I'm just, tryin to stay above water y'know
Just stay busy, stay workin
Puff told me like, the key to this joint
The key to staying, on top of things
is treat everything like it's your first project, knahmsayin?
Like it's your first day like back when you was an intern
Like, that's how you try to treat things like, just stay hungry
It was the perfect selection, framing these young men on the cusp of an all-star game that could help make their reputations as the elite of the elite and, more importanly, framing them on the cusp of a much, much larger fame and fortune. A life for which they have prepared tirelessly yet still do not now. The voiceover perfectly reinforced the players' shared trait, their unnatural desire to become the best at basketball.
The fact that it was Biggie doing the advising made the stakes seem even higher and made the scene oddly haunting. Biggie, the viewer realizes, was a man blessed with raw skills and an unnatural work ethic but was unable to escape a horrific murder. The moment made you want to root that much more passionately for these players, all of them, to succeed. And that should go down as "Gunnin's" greatest achievement.
Gunnin' For That #1 Spot is currently playing at Fox Towers.
It's difficult to gun for that #1 spot when the sun is in your eyes.
-- Ben (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PS. If you want to get excited about Jerryd Bayless, go see this movie.