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Monday, February 13, 2006
Updated: February 16, 12:20 PM ET
The next 'Hoop Dreams'

By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

Two years ago a film was made.

Not just one that Roger Ebert would review, but one that was void of faux theatrics and a major theatrical release. Sundance, not Hollywood.

Sebastian Telfair
Sebastian Telfair, the subject of "Through the Fire."
"Hoop Dreams II: The Remix" is what the streets is calling it. Another basketball doc that promised to show the rags-to-snitches story of a ghetto child using basketball as something more than just a sport -- he's using it to save himself and his family.

But the twist on this story is, that story was finished before the movie dropped. Before Friday's national release of director Jonathan Hock's "Through the Fire," (produced by ESPN Entertainment) Sebastian Telfair was already a legend in New York, already one of the greatest high school ball players of all time, already the starting point guard on the Portland Trail Blazers.

What "Fire" is, is the back story. The work before the end result. The process.

And it's not as though Telfair's story is any different than the ones we've seen on film before, but the 103 minutes spent watching the last year of the first part of his life unfold is worth the price of admission. Even if its release to the world is more "Bowling For Columbine" than "Mission Impossible III."

*****

Film documentaries on sports usually come off sappy, with no center, without soul.

And even though the endings are often predictable, the core is what sells us on the product.

The product in "Through the Fire" is a young prodigy from Coney Island in New York

One that is the younger cousin of Stephon Marbury. One that Steph warned me about when Bassy was in fifth grade. One that, before his senior year in high school, I was quoted in Beckett Basketball as saying I'd select him over LeBron if he came out the same year.

One that I was certain -- as certain as Kanye is about himself -- was going to be the second coming of Isiah Thomas. If not better.

What "Fire" does is (1) make me look like I knew what I was talking about at the time; and (2) make me look like a damn fool.

In 2003, Sebastian Telfair was the best point guard in the country not already in the NBA.

His imitation of life is the post-told version of Darcy Frey's "The Last Shot" and Spike Lee's "He Got Game." The reason Hock was able to put a camera on Telfair and predict he was going to have a Tribeca Film Festival winner was that he'd seen the story play out before in Stephon Marbury's life. And although Lee and Frey both fictionalized Steph's last year in high school, Hock's guess that Sebastian's was going to be more dramatic was easy because Bassy had already done in the first three years things his big cousin had never done.

From the time we meet Tiny Morton (the Lincoln High School coach who had the good fortune of winning two city championships with Bass, on the verge of winning an unprecedented three) to the semi-panic that hits Louisville coach Rick Pitino after one of Sebastian's games, when he realizes the best recruit he's gotten in his college coaching career probably won't ever set foot on his campus, the movie lets us in on the 300 days in which Coney Island's second finest is the ultimate oxymoron of America: a ghetto superstar.

Sebastian Telfair
Telfair had great success at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn.
We see the business savvy, as well as the immaturity, in Telfair. We see him see his future, market his marketability, embrace the trappings of fame without getting trapped. At the same time, we see him act like an 18-year-old, snapping on one team during the first round of the city playoffs, calling every player that wasn't from New York "country" during the McDonald's All-American experience, bugging on Tiny during games.

But at the same time, the scene in which Sebastian and Darius Washington -- whom he played against earlier in the film -- are in the mirror together, tuxed-up at the McDonald's game, signifying on who looked the best, it was Sebastian at his best. It was the moment you began to pull for him, even though you knew what the outcome was going to be.

The best part came when his brother Jamel -- the one whom the fam knew was going to "make it," decided his younger brother had gotten "too Hollywood," and took him to Greece to "put in work."

Up until this time, we had been led to believe that the game of basketball had come easily to Bass. We saw how easy the game came to him, but we never saw the work he had to put in to get as good as he was. We had only seen God's work.

Once in Greece, where Jamel has been playing ball professionally to handle the family's bills, we see the essence of what the sequel to "Fire" is going to be about. Although it seems as if everyone in the film is concerned with Sebastian getting to the League, Jamel seems to be more concerned with him staying there. At least through to a second contract.

When Bass gets upset that he can't make an "[expletive] jump shot," Jamel's cold-as-death comment, "Well then, make the shot," is the realest talk heard in a basketball movie since Laurence Fishburne took the stand in "Cornbread, Earl and Me."

Yet what "Though the Fire" does best has nothing to do with basketball.

The deeper the movie gets, the deeper it exposes the twisted, yet so understandable (if you live it), screwed-up priorities of broke black folks. Bentleys over buildings. Minks over moving out of the projects.

When Daniel Thomas (Sebastian's other brother, who is also the assistant coach of Lincoln's team) runs into Tiny on the street and they have their "top of the world, we told these haters, now we rollin' in baby Chrysler 300's with rims and diamonds on our pinkies" conversation, you have to love and feel sad for them in a way that only can be understood in a nonfiction film. No Paul Haggis or Don Cheadle could pull a moment off that authentic; that's "Crash."

Which, in the end, makes you wonder whether Bassy's goal is to be a star or to be an All-Star. Does he want to just make the League or make an impact in the League?

The next three to five years will answer those questions. Hopefully, Hock and cinematographer Alastair Christopher already have their HD cameras rolling.

*****

Somewhere between the original "Hoop Dreams" and the award-winning documentary of Demetrius Mitchell, "Hooked," "Through the Fire" is something that shouldn't be overlooked by anyone who stood in line this weekend to see "Firewall." Or anyone who loves "Blue Chips."

It is a basketball documentary that's all Brooklyn but not Straight Outta. It is also a study of urban youth, those that idolize Jay-Z. The difference? Bassy knows Jay-Z.

And although the summer Entertainers Basketball Classic -- where Bassy really got his rep as the "best ever guard outta NYC" while often ballin' alongside the Knicks' Jamal Crawford before the film was shot -- and the adidas ABCD camp -- where he earned his title as the "best guard in the world" after his freshman year and had to hold that down every summer he returned, especially right before Hock started shooting -- are not documented in the film, "Fire" is, as Hollywood Reporter critic Michael Rechtshaffen wrote, "highly satisfying." Or better yet, as Tim Knight of Reel.com wrote, it's "well-crafted and illuminating."

Missing, though, are the payoffs.

Sebastian Telfair
Telfair tries to keep up with his cousin, Stephon Marbury.
When Bassy plays an ESPN game against the other "best high school guard in America," Washington, even though you get to see his "man up" moment in the locker room after what should have been a season-ending sprain of his ankle right before halftime, they never show the stat line between the two after highlighting their personal battle (Sebastian had 27 points to Washington's 36). When Bassy outplays national player of the year Dwight Howard in the Prime Time Shootout, even though you get to see Bass hit the 3 to win the game at the buzzer, you never know that he outmatched Howard point-for-point in the game (30 to 23) and outassisted Howard's rebound total (numbers unofficial, but Bassy did his thang).

Again, no stats. Again, no payoff.

The film doesn't tell how in January 2004, Telfair had a "Kobe-like" experience, scoring 55 in one game, then two weeks later scored 61, then ended the month by scoring 49 to break the state scoring record. Or how his team lost in the state tournament to Mt. Vernon High, in a game that left him in tears after he scored only 14 points and had 10 turnovers.

But the biggest missed payoff is at the end. When the biggest moment comes -- the minute his name is called in the draft, something his mother has been waiting on since before Bassy was born -- Sebastian is nowhere to be found. He ghost-hosts the event at Jay-Z's 40/40 club, the cameras are nowhere around him and the filmmakers never let us in on where he was during that time.

But even with those holes, "Through the Fire" is filled with promise, pride and a product that, in the end, you pull for and have a bit of empathy for. A story perfectly hemmed up in the end when Daniel -- the morning after the draft -- is shown walking on the court outside their Surfside Gardens tenement with the next basketball prodigy in the fam. The next Bassy. The next to carry the weight.

His name is Ethan. And he's 9 years old.

It is in that final scene where everything the movie is about holds true to what we all know is the truth about the blueprint of escaping the concrete jungle: Either you sling rocks or you develop a wicked jump shot.

Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines and the author of "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here. Sound off to Page 2 here.