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In this age of consumer culture, avarice and otherwise gimme-gimme, some tried and true playground homilies seem irrevocably lost to society. “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.” “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” "Don't make that face or it will freeze like that." And the venerable, “It doesn’t matter who wins or loses, it’s how you play the game.” That last nugget seems farther and farther away when it’s needed most. When young players starting off in sports today are doggedly pursued by advertisers looking to market them practically from the moment they’ve won their first elementary school tournament, exactly how they play the game seems a lot less lucrative than how many times they’ve won it. It is a great relief when one comes across fans that haven’t surrendered their interest in the sportsmanship aspect of competition. One such fan is Adam Yauch, the documentarian currently known as MCA from the seminal hip-hop group the Beastie Boys. In Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, Yauch bracingly captures the spirit and pride of what it means to compete amongst the best of your peers. Shining the light of his camera on eight of the brightest stars in American high school basketball is a refreshing and thrilling reminder of why we watch and why they play.

Gunnin’ opens with some streetball history; presenting a montage of games held in a concrete arena as venerated amongst true basketball fanatics as Madison Square Garden or the LA Forum. Framed by the Harlem housing projects for which it serves as an oasis, Rucker Park is the training ground for players to gain and lose reputations, to grow up and learn their game amongst some of the world’s fiercest and most appreciative spectators. Legends are made, nicknames are dealt – or not – and prepare to get served at the first sign of slack. Those who come to watch the play in Rucker Park have seen it all; those who approach the hoops better have a game with only one letter in its alphabet. NBA heroes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Dr. J – Julius Erving, Nate “Tiny” Archibald and Earl “The Goat” Manigault have all made their obeisance to the green concrete. It is here that the first annual Elite 24 Hoops Classic will be played, gathering the finest high school players from around the country to meet and compete, putting aside all differences in their age, location, or shoe affiliation – yes, shoe affiliation.

The eight young men highlighted in the film are from all walks, white, black, affluent, dirt poor, some already nursed by advertisers as the next big thing, some with no idea what will happen tomorrow. Each of the eight players has their own story to tell and Yauch allows them to do so wonderfully, using a basketball card motif to introduce each boy and showing us a topical view of how they are seen in terms of their playing status by Googling articles and filming grainy YouTube clips. On the side of the have-nots is Brooklyn’s Own Lance Stephenson. Silent and shy, 15-year old Stephenson is a project of the projects, walking down the street with his tight-knit family; we see the support he’s shown from neighbourhood well-wishers, all proud of his achievements. There’s Tyreke Evans from Chester, PA, an area that resembles post-riots Watts, where kids pass the ball around on playground concrete in bare feet. Both boys are surrounded by the pressures, dangers and temptations seething under any urban city, but luckily for the young men, their strong families cocoon them with good sense and concern. Donte Greene’s story is also very touching. The Baltimore player has had to grow up well before his time after the loss of his mother. All the good Donte does in his playing career as a top basketball hopeful is not for fame or ego, Donte stays on track for the sake of his little brother for whom he is a role model and surrogate parent. The teenager’s gravity and maturity is haunting. On the shinier side of the street, you have Oregon’s Kevin Love, a legacy baller whose father, Stan, played for the Washington Bullets (- as Stan’s own afro-tastic NBA bubblegum card will attest). Having a comfortable life and all the earmarks of being a very sought-after prospect have no affect on the seriousness with which Kevin plays and trains. The same goes for Kyle Singler, another Oregonian: More surfer kid than hardcourt star, Kyle found his basketball niche after several forays into other sports. The trick shot that introduces him lets the audience know not to be fooled by the long, floppy hair and wispy appearance. The film’s class clown is Michael Beasley, a geographical gypsy, Michael has attended many school throughout his high-school career. Whatever his academic curiosities may be, Beasley is the raw power of the Elite 24 competition and a trash-talking good-natured monster on the court. It’s clear why Beasley, Love, Green and some of the other players are top picks in this year’s NBA draft. 

Bringing all these boys together on the court on 155th Street is as much a right of passage for them personally as professionally. Most of the young men have never been to New York and are thrilled to have their first glimpse. Every one of the players knows what’s expected of them playing at Rucker Park and what’s expected has precious little to do with winning. There is a nice moment of “give back” the day before the match when the boys contribute to the community by painting a basketball court in Sara Roosevelt Park on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. During the tournament, Yauch’s direction makes liberal use of slo-mo, an abundance of Matrix-ian camera angles and fish-eye lenses and cannon-boom sound effects for every fantastic hoop. The director cuts the majority of the back and forth of the game to focus not only on the players and their shots, but most impressively on their passing and teamwork elevating those fundamentals to a work of art. Yauch paints a portrait of each player’s style with his cinematography and shows us why these young men are so revered as the future of basketball. The actual score is only an afterthought to the invigorating, joyful celebration of the game and the camaraderie of each these very different players.

Yauch mentions, but doesn’t linger on a rather creepy fact of life for these boys and others even younger than our teens. There is an ominous, snaky presence threaded through the frames of Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot and that is of the advertisers and shoe companies that pursue players as early as the fifth grade if they show any promise in sport. Representatives reach out to the families, fostering a relationship with constant contact and gifts of free shoes that they hope will come to fruition once the child turns professional - kind of like incubating their own pet star. It’s a little filthy and even more horrifying considering how quickly they drop the child if the potential turns out not to be there. It’s parasitic and worthy of a documentary of its own. The fact that there are no shoe endorsements behind the Elite 24 seems almost like a respite for the boys.

Not surprisingly, the music kills. With a Beastie Boy at the helm, would you expect less? Yauch’s variety of musical styles segue from scene to scene, introduce the players on court and off, and frame Yauch’s loving look at his hometown New York City. It was all I could do to keep my big ol’ elephant bum in my seat when a high-speed drive through Manhattan up through Harlem was accompanied by Afrika Bambaataa’s Looking for the Perfect Beat. Yes, there’s a new Beastie’s song in it and all the hip-hop cronies MCA could get cheap releases from, like Ludacris, Nas, Biggie, Public Enemy, Jay-Z, also some thoughtful 70’s funk jams from artists like Kool and the Gang and the Staples Singers. The placement of the Beach Boys California Girls is a cheesy giggle as the boys discuss the distractions of the girls who hang around the court and the hustlers and press who vie for a piece of them.

Another boon to the film is the inclusion of New York City hardcourt bon vivant, Bobbito, MC of the tournament. Bobbito’s lightning patter amps up an already briskly-paced film and makes you forget you’re watching a documentary.  His motor-mouthed mix of Spanish and English, his gift for the lightly lacerating put down (- his spoofing of the players’ “foolish”-looking sneakers is a scream) and spitting off the prized nicknames as each player shows off his talent is precious. Kyle Singler gets at least three different names throughout the game; “Wireless,” “Shampoo” and “The Wig.” I don’t know why Bobbito isn’t announcing every sporting event broadcast on TV. I’d watch every single Olympics event if Bobbito was calling the plays.

If watching these amazing, inspiring young men playing the game they love stripped of its expensive, auxiliary trappings shows us anything, it’s what the future of basketball should be. With Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, Adam Yauch has captured a rousing, joyful celebration of what basketball and indeed all professional sports and sportsmen could be.  


~ Mighty Ganesha

June 26th 2008



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