At moments, high school sports teams hold a uniquely potent combination of skill, passion, purity of purpose and meaning for the larger community.
Bill Reynolds wrote memorably about this phenomenon in Fall River Dreams. In the book, which depicts the relationship between Lizzie Borden’s hometown and the Durfee High School basketball team, Reynolds writes about how burly power forward Mike Herren’s life may have reached its zenith in the late 80s when his team capped off back-to-back state championships at the Boston Garden with an undefeated season.
I’ve written this week about two movies that show different periods in basketball’s evolution. Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot tells the story of inaugural Elite 24 game, held in 2006 at Harlem’s fabled Rucker Park. This film builds up to the game by focusing on eight of the top players in the country, and the dominant impression is of how professionalized high school basketball has become. There are references throughout the movie to the players’ making millions of dollars within the next five years, and even some deliberation about whether to play of Rucker’s asphalt surface because of the wear and tear it exacts on players’ bodies.
Steve James’ Hoop Dreams is an extraordinary act of storytelling. Set in late 80s and early 90s Chicago and filmed over the course of five years, the award-winning documentary follows William Gates and Arthur Agee as they pursue their vision of NBA stardom and glory. The filmmakers had remarkable access to these talented, endearing and vulnerable young men and their families. We are in the room as William’s knee is operated on twice, we see Arthur hesitate as he watches his father Bo purchase drugs and see his mother Sheila weep when she learns that she received the top grade in a nursing assistant class. “I didn’t think I could do it,” Sheila says as she hugs her teacher.
The boys’ dedication to their dreams is palpable, and the film shows both how much the honor of leading their teams “downstate” matters to them. One of the film’s most heartbreaking moments comes when an injured William, whose knee had slipped out of place during the game, bricks two free throws and costs his team a chance at advancing in the tournament.
It’s not that Hoop Dreams does not convey the pull of the NBA: posters of Michael Jordan cover each boy’s room and William attends an All-American camp with future stalwarts Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and Chris Webber. Rather it’s that the path to the league is less clear in the era before Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O’Neal and others had made the transition directly from high school to the pros.
The summer before the camp William files tapes at the Brittanica office in a job his school sponsor had gotten for him. Had he played in the current era, he more likely would have worked out with a private trainer and participated in AAU tournaments across the country.
Something to Cheer About tells the story of an earlier, harder time.
The film centers on Ray Crowe and his team at Crispus Attucks High School. Starting in early 50s, they forged their way into Indiana high school basketball history, first by advancing further than any other team before them, second by losing to tiny Milam in a match immortalized in the 1986 film Hoosiers, and finally by being the first black team to win a state championship in 1955 (The team repeated the feat with an undefeated season in 1956).
The team had to over many barriers.
Playing in the state where the Ku Klux Klan was born-the film points out that the Klan had Attucks established so that it would be a separate black school-Indiana had not made much racial progress when the film began in 1950.
Several of the players explain in the film that Crowe would tell them to assume the white referees were against them and to work to get a quick 10- to 15-point lead.
White teams initially refused to play Crowe’s teams, but changed their position when the games regularly drew as many as 14,000 people (Gate receipts were not divided evenly.).
Fortunately, the team had assets, starting with Crowe, a stern taskmaster who exhibited a fatherly concern for his players. The squad also had the unwavering support of the community well aware of the greater meaning of the boys’ contest, much as Maya Angelou describes a fictional boxing match between Joe Louis and Primo Carnera in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. The team’s cheerleaders led the crowd at the end of assured victories in rounds of “The Crazy Song,” in a style reminiscent of how Red Auerbach would light a victory cigar shortly before Celtics victories.
They also had Oscar Robertson.
The third Robertson boy to play under Crowe, “The Big O,” as he came to be known, he had an unparalleled combination of talent, tenacity, courage, toughness and selflessness. He was the driving, but far from only, force leading the team to its championship.
They accomplished the feat in 1955, yet even the victory celebration was not exempt from the racial tenor of the times. Rather than holding the festivities in downtown Indianapolis as all other champions had before them, officials directed the team to a park in the black section of town. The move did not dampen the celebratory spirit, but dive provide material for later reflection for the players. In some ways, the changed venue underscored the magnitude of what the team had overcome to achieve so much for themselves, their family and the community.
I do not in any way want to get wistful for the heightened sense of community sparked by legal segregation. Yet there was an overriding sense of collective purpose in Something to Cheer About that diminished by the time of Hoop Dreams-here the unit shifted from the community to the family-and almost completely disappeared by the time of Gunnin’, in which players largely appear out for themselves.
In Forty Million Dollar Slaves, William Rhoden traces this evolution that can be seen through watching these films. Honest debate may ensue both about the accuracy of what I have written and whether the change is positive or negative, and I recommend watching these films and welcome others’ reaction to the issues they raise.