To misquote a memorable lyric from Beastie Boy turned filmmaker Adam Yauch, when it comes to dribbling towards NBA glory, eight of the twenty-four high schoolers prominently featured in his latest doc Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, take it to the hoop because they can’t, they won’t and they don’t stop until they come to Rucker Park and rock the sure shot. Think of it as a cinematically trip/hip-hop infused journey (stylistically influenced by both music videos and Requiem for a Dream like repetition) that takes a Mad Hot Ballroom, Wordplay, or Spellbound like narrative documentary approach. In Gunnin', Yauch acquaints us with eight very different, versatile, and amazingly athletically gifted players from across the 50 states who—regardless of age, creed, color, background, connections, or income level—are invited on sheer talent alone to play in the now legendary Elite 24 Hoops Classic.
The three day event which culminates on Game Day (9/1/06) at Harlem’s Rucker Park is known throughout the land by those "who've got game" as the “Mecca” of street basketball and its location has resonated for sixty years like no other state-of-the-art arena in the world, according to interviewees who explain that it’s the same park that makes or breaks dreams, launches careers, introduces kids to those with connections, offers them memorable street cred in the form of often hilarious nicknames by the MC/Narrator Robert Garcia, and perhaps most importantly helped cement the court to greatness taken by Dr. J, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain.
While the odds are against the young men with shrinking statistics regarding the numbers of high school students who make it into division one or two universities and colleges let alone the NBA, throughout the U.S., the teens in Yauch’s film do what they can to separate from the pack to level the odds and climb upwards in the questionably political and ever-changing online rankings those in the film say may be dubiously crafted by men who look like they’ve never shot a ball in their life. However, with little complaint, the students go through the craziness it all brings and find it's more than worth it, especially when offered the ultimate reward of an opportunity to don a white or blue team jersey annually at Rucker's Hoops Classic.
Yauch fills Gunnin' with blaring hip-hop and rap tracks that—while distracting to the mainstream viewer—seem to be an ideal match for the hyper editing and subject matter. Nonetheless, when Gunnin' slows down from its frenetic and sometimes overly hip pace (reminding us of players who showboat a bit too often on the NBA court), you’ll find yourselves genuinely drawn in by the individual stories of the various athletes.
Although the three rival shoe companies of Reebok, Adidas, and Nike along with trainers, recruiters, financial advisors and coaches begin scouting students as young as elementary or middle school, the recurring theme running throughout each boy’s story is their love of the game, loyalty to the tireless family and friends who support them, and dedication to be the best they can be on the court. While some have experienced tragedies in their young lives losing one or both parents and/or being raised by either single parent households or grandparents, every student we encounter has an unflappable support system rooting for their player-- thus their confidence is infectious.
Taking great pains to humanize the players in refreshing ways other than just offering us statistics we would normally see on ESPN or the way they’re coolly ranked online or in the professional world, Yauch brings viewers into the lives of eight as one player dubbed the “future of point guards” admirably takes his position as role model for an adoring younger brother seriously, another promises to take care of his younger sibling if he makes it to the professional level, one embraces yoga to stay in peak condition, another plays several sports including holding the position of starting quarter back the prior year and one enjoys goofing off making Blair Witch like spoofs with his video camera. However, the most surprising revelation is repeated throughout as several share that they knew they were in love with the game when they first held that round orange ball in their hands whether they were three years old or in first grade managing to outscore their older brother and his friends and in the end, that's what we see beyond the numbers, magazine covers and hype-- just a great group of guys eager to play ball.
Intriguingly, it does raise some valuable questions about the morality and legitimacy of putting such enormous pressure on young men when they’re just getting out of elementary school as one laments that he’s been unable to get his cell phone company to turn off text messaging since he’s constantly bombarded by scouts, agents and others. In fact, it's an underlying issue which permeates just underneath the hip hop editing that makes us wish the topic would have been explored further, however admittedly it's so vast that it would probably fill an entire second documentary.
An official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival, Gunnin' earned a great rave review from Cinematical critic Scott Weinberg who called it “easily the best movie of its kind since Steve James’ Hoop Dreams." While I think that's overstating it slightly as Ward Serrill’s underrated Heart of the Game should hold that title, as Gunnin' stands, it’s a far better basketball picture than one would assume, refreshingly intimate despite its overtly masculine, testosterone-fueled bravado. Additionally it’s one that—despite being essentially a sport themed niche-picture—will manage to interest a larger audience should they take the time to seek it out.
Or in other words-- filmmaker Adam Yauch couldn’t, wouldn’t, and didn’t stop as Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot came and rocked the sure shot.