Thursday, June 25, 2009

Random Recommendation: Gunnin' For That #1 Spot

It's a beautiful day in New York City, 70s and sunny--the kind of day we've gone without for the last three weeks. How did I choose to spend the spectacular morning hours of this glorious day? I sat on a chair in my bedroom and watched a documentary on Hulu, specifically, a documentary on Hulu called Gunnin' For That #1 Spot. This 96 minute film--produced and directed by Adam Yauch, of Beastie Boys renown--follows a group of 2006's most highly-touted high-school basketball phenoms as they prepare for an elite exhibition game hosted by this country's most famous outdoor basketball court, Harlem's Rucker Park.

The film is divided into two main sections (not counting Hulu's intrusive and annoying ads; this is the first feature-length film I've watched using that site, and it might be the last, at least for a long while): interviews with eight of the high-school players along with their respective coaches, trainers, older brothers, parents, entourages, etc., and game footage of the exhibition contest. Except for a few moments, the game footage section is by far the less interesting portion. (Most of these fascinating moments involve Michael Beasley, now of the Miami Heat, as he alternates between outplaying his elite competition and trash-talking it.) It's of a high-school all-star game, which means that there is very little defense on display, but, more important, Yauch's heavy-handed directorial decisions result in quick-hitting action lacking any sense of coherence, with countless unnecessary multi-angle replays sprinkled in for good measure.

The first 50 minutes or so are much stronger, featuring interviews with high-school athletics experts on topics ranging from the business of ranking prep basketballers to the intense media scrutiny young players face today. But it's the interviews with the athletes themselves which makes this project worthwhile. I don't know if Yauch and friends deliberately delayed releasing the film for nearly three years past the date of the Rucker Park exhibition, but it turned out to be a smart move. As the introduction to an interview with Yauch on Hulu's blog notes:
If you’re a hoops fan, you may recognize some of the players featured: Four of them are pros — Jerryd Bayless (Portland Trail Blazers), Michael Beasley (Miami Heat), Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves) and Donte Green (was with the Sacramento Kings) — and another two, Tyreke Evans (Memphis) and Brandon Jennings (playing in the Italian League), are participating in the NBA draft tonight. (Kyle Singler will remain at Duke; Lance Stephenson starts college in the fall).
This familiarity is an important point, as basketball fans get to see pretty extensive interviews with prominent young NBA players. I might be alone in this assessment, but I think it's great to see an 18 year-old Kevin Love talk to his mother about the girls that throw themselves at him when he visits Los Angeles. That's really the most interesting part of this project, seeing athletes interact with the media before they're completely comfortable with it. This film doesn't document the standard athlete-interview cliches--high-school is really the last time you get to see these players before they're media-trained. This documentary, of course, functions are part of their training and some of the differences evident over the course of the movie are striking. My favorite part of the film is the footage of Jerryd Bayless announcing his intention to attend the University of Arizona for college. In the middle of the proceedings, a middle-aged man (his coach? his father?) leans over and tells the best high-school player in the state of Arizona to look up when he talks. And yet, in Yauch's interviews filmed only a few month later, Bayless looks completely comfortable in front of the camera. It's hard to tell from this film how these players develop as basketball players from the time their high-school careers end to the point when they reach the NBA or major college ball, but it's easy to see how they learn to deal with the attention that surrounds them, from press conferences, to magazine covers, to interviews, to, yes, even documentaries produced and directed by a Beastie Boy.

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