Real-life drama on and off the court
Film captures the highs and lows of an inner-city hoops coach and his '07 team
SOMERVILLE, Mass. -- It's just after 4:15 p.m. on what has turned into a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, and Dennis Wilson has arrived in Davis Square, ready to roll. As usual, you can both see and hear the legendary Madison Park basketball coach coming from a mile away, whether it's the shiny champagne-colored Escalade he drives or the pinstriped black pants he's donning with shiny dress shoes and gray sweater.
True to his athletic roots, he'll wait until the show starts before he puts on the matching shirt, tie and jacket -- "I figure that's how Denzel and all of them do it," he says, flashing a grin and underscoring it with his trademark cackle.
One part Coach Carter, one part James Brown, everything Wilson does is loud and proud.
Three hours from now, that unforgettable persona so influential around the streets of Roxbury will be brushing a much broader stroke, when the documentary starring Wilson and his 2007 Madison Park team, "Push: Madison vs. Madison," makes its prime-time debut at the Somerville Theatre as part of the Independent Film Festival of Boston.
The film chronicles the latter half of the Cardinals' run to the 2007 MIAA Division 1 South Sectionals, spliced with the struggles surrounding many similar inner-city high school teams. Highlighting the action is the growing rift within the team, centered on stars Malik Smith and "Radio" Raheem Singleton. Blanketing it all is the philosophizing quips of Wilson, a man never short on catchy wisdom.
Singleton is here today all the way from Orono, Maine, where he currently stars as a guard for the University of Maine Black Bears. As he walks in stride with Wilson to pick up their tickets at the booth, the coach points 100 yards up the sidewalk, to the corners of Elm and Dover streets.
"You see that?" Wilson shouts. "The line is gonna go down that street, around the corner, and then around another corner!"
"Hell yeah," Singleton says with a wide smile.
The gang's all here
Wilson is giddy as he greets a slew of familiar faces along the way to the pre-screening party at Orleans restaurant, a block up Elm Street from the theater. Chris O'Coin, one of the film's co-writers and editors, is casually dressed in a red flannel shirt, dark blue jeans and black Chuck Taylors.
Rudy Hypolite, the film's director and a longtime friend of Wilson, is casually dressed as well, donning a black hoodie bearing the film's logo and a black backpack.
"Yeah, I've been lifting weights," Singleton responds with a grin. (It should be noted that Singleton bears no resemblance to the famous boombox-toting character from "Do the Right Thing," but the nickname stuck anyway.)
Longtime Madison Park assistant Frank White, meanwhile, is dressed to the nines. Solidly built at 6-foot-3, 265 pounds and a shaved head, the 56-year-old Boston police officer is wearing a black double-breasted suit with gold buttons, and a black and white horizontally-striped tie.
"Big man, you look like a million dollars!" Wilson shouts.
White has looked up to the 59-year-old Wilson since the two were teenagers growing up in Mattapan. White played a year of football and basketball at Bethune-Cookman College before transferring to St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he is in the school's Hall of Fame for both sports.
This gesture -- "I don't know if it's overkill or what, but we're used to big occasions," he laughs -- is the least he can do for all of the influence and wisdom Wilson has shared over the years.
"One of the reasons why I did play sports was because of him," White said. "He's always been a very good athlete, and I wanted to aspire to be just like he was. I never told him this, but he's one of the reasons I played sports."
Inside the restaurant, Singleton is reunited with one of his former Madison Park teammates, Jakeen Cobb, who is finishing up his associate's degree at Mass. Bay Community College. The two share laughter, memories, and the same tingly nervousness at the thought that in some two hours they're going to be on the silver screen.
Like the others followed extensively in the film, Cobb says it didn't take long for him to get used to the camera crews. But finally seeing himself in the trailer gave him goose bumps, he said.
"It was something I felt internally," Cobb said. "Like, the power of the music, the little pieces that they put together just made me feel like, 'Wow, they really did make a documentary of me and my team.' So after watching the movie, it's just something that I feel is so powerful."
Outside the restaurant, just before Wilson and Hypolite head over to the theater for preparations, some two dozen cast and crew members assemble for a photo shoot on the sidewalk, striking various poses before Wilson huddles them all together. Their arms all leaning into the middle of the circle, Wilson unloads and does what he does best: offers a classic, five-minute "pregame" speech.
Using the words "family" and "God," he reminds them how special they are and what a unique ride the last four years have been. He closes with "God blessed us, God blessed this family. And this is only the beginning." On the count of three, they break with "Madison family."
Oddly enough, Wilson's wife, Gladys, has sat by nearly idle this whole time. For all the motor-mouthed philosophizing Wilson envelops in his daily routine, Gladys is economical in her actions, usually quiet and reserved.
"I make enough noise for everybody," Wilson would say later. "You know how they say opposites attract? My wife is quiet, and I like that. Once in a while, she gets bubbly and in a talkative mood, but she's more of a laidback, quiet kinda lady. I make enough noise for the whole family."
Rivalries and tension
Just as Wilson predicted, the line goes all the way to Dover Street, makes a right turn and extends halfway up Meacham Road, the equivalent of a 270-degree rotation around the building. Hypolite is walking up and down the line, mostly an urban crowd, thanking people for coming out to see the film.
"It really is beautiful," he tells them.
The show gets underway just before 8 p.m., in the building's main 900-seat, two-level theater, to a loud applause. Wilson and Hypolite are standing in the back of the theater, alternating between the floor and balcony, watching the crowd.
There isn't an empty seat in the house. Wilson stands at attention in the back -- full pin-stripe suit now -- with his hands folded in front. It takes only a few minutes until the first time we hear the Cardinals' famed "MP" call-and-repeat pre-game chant, before he busts out with fist bumps to Hypolite, O'Coin, and the rest of the crew in the back.
The audience cracks up with all of Wilson's quips, and at his photos from his days playing semi-professional basketball in the 1970s.
Singleton laughs at seeing himself for the first time on screen, letting his cornrows unfurl for a Randy Moss-like afro, drawing huge laughter around the theater.
"Aw man, I remember that day, I really thought that was acceptable," he laughed later. "Now I see myself, what was I thinking, right?"
The storylines develop. We learn of the schism between Smith and Singleton, borne of their roots in rival housing projects -- Smith of Bromley-Heath, Singleton of Academy Homes -- and how that rivalry played out on the hardwood.
We learn of Jakeen Cobb losing his mother at 12, then his father at 14, and how "my sister is strong." His sister, flanked by a dozen family members, stands up and shouts, "That's my brother!"
We learn of the shaky relationship between Smith and White. We are reminded of the passing of one of the program's all-time greats, Lloyd Industrious, who was shot to death following a party back in 1993 while home on break from college.
In one of the movie's more powerful scenes, Industrious' aunt, Mavis Evans, reminisces tearfully outside of her Dorchester home. A round of applause is given.
"This year it's been 18 years, and sometimes it still feels like yesterday," said Evans, now in her early 50s, her eyes watering. "He would have been 40 in June, and you wonder what he would have been doing. Just some of his shots, it brings up a lot of memories. It makes me feel good to know that he's not forgotten. Especially that he was part of the movie, to know that he still meant a lot to him [Wilson]."
The film's theme song, "Push" by local rapper Knoclan, plays as the final scene chronicles the players and coaches in where-are-they-now fashion. Wilson is slowly getting louder in the back, repeating the lyrics -- "Thank God you alive... PUSH!"
As the film ends, Hypolite leans over and thanks me once again for coming out. I ask him how he feels about the audience reaction, and his response is genuine -- "everything, everything I was hoping for."
When the lights come on, the crowd rises and delivers an ovation. Wilson, Hypolite and the rest of the cast and crew come on stage for a question-and-answer session with the audience. What was supposed to be 15 minutes turns into 45 minutes of storytelling and praise from the audience. The crowd finally disperses at 11 p.m.
Emotions rush back
In the back room at Medford's Pizzeria Regina, where the after-party is being held, reflections are strong. Hypolite says he thinks the film is at "98 percent" and admits the music drowns out the speech during the film.
Seeing his face up on the screen, David "Double D" Daniels quips, "It was a chip off the old block."
For Singleton, watching the climactic Braintree game on screen, it's clear the scene still holds emotion four years later. Smith, who transferred to Notre Dame Prep the following year and is currently playing basketball at South Plains Junior College in Lubbock, Texas, is not in attendance for the film.
Asked if he has tried to make amends with Smith since, Singleton said, "We haven't had the time to... we're both away at school, and in the summer we don't really see each other.
"But I'm not saying I'm against it. I wouldn't not try to make everything right between us. But I never had a problem with Malik. Malik had a problem with me."
Wilson addresses the crowd at Regina, with more praise and thanks to all who showed up, as they chow down on pizza and chicken wings. Three hours after pouring his heart out on stage, he is still gushing. And it doesn't stop there; once the patrons are shooed out at 1 a.m., Wilson stays up until 4:30 a.m.
"I really felt the love and support from Boston man," Wilson would say later. "From the Boston community, family and friends, it really meant a lot to Rudy and I. Not only to sell out -- I understand people couldn't get in -- that's a good thing to sell out, and the response of the crowd when it was over, man, I never got a standing ovation in my life. That was very moving.
"I felt the love. You make sure you put that out there to Boston, put that out there that Coach Wilson thanks everyone for the support. I felt the love."
Brendan Hall covers high school sports for ESPNBoston.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @BHallESPN.