Yesterday marked the end of the regular 2013-’14 NBA season. I do realize that to a great many people this day passes with the significance of a fart, but to some, April 16 marks the official arrival of a much-anticipated point in the year, the moment when professional basketball becomes VERY interesting to watch (and some non-fans will even admit to this being the moment where basketball is watchable at all), the moment that beckons all players to step up their game, because now it’s not just about the paycheck. This is about something more lasting, it’s about establishing legacy. Its about how history will end up favoring teams and players, coaches and organizations. Yes indeed, the 2014 NBA Playoffs begin this coming weekend, and to help celebrate,
Today’s food for thought: He Got Game.
Release: May 1, 1998
Given that Spike Lee directed this film, it’s a wonder there is no mention of the New York Knicks anywhere in this basketball-centric drama from just before the turn of the millennium. A true blue-and-orange supporter, you can always find Spike Lee somewhere up-in-arms on the sidelines at Madison Square Garden. The man has his viewpoints and opinions, and though that may not be something that characterizes every director, it certainly applies to him.
He Got Game is the result of a stunt Spike Lee pulled by hiring then-NBA rookie Ray Allen quite literally in the middle of a game between Allen’s team at the time, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Knicks. When Lee asked if Allen would be interested in the part of Jesus Shuttlesworth (a name that’s in the discussion for one of film’s all-time greatest), Allen walked off the floor and quit the game. The Bucks lost 90-44. Not really, but everything up to and including the conversation actually did happen.
While Ray Allen’s best performances will certainly remain on the hardwood, the 23-year-old proved to be an engaging enough presence in one of the film’s major roles. He played the son of convicted murderer Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington in his third go-around with Lee), who, upon the governor’s wishes, would receive a shorter prison sentence should he be able to convince Jesus to attend and play for the governor’s alma mater. The governor arranged with prison staff to release Jake for one week so he could track his son down and ask him to sign a letter of intent, which would officially commit him to Big State, the governor’s school. Naturally, in a week this would prove to be a nearly impossible task given how far Jesus has distanced himself from his father.
Lee framed the story with a timeline that provides the ensuing drama with just a little bit more tension. Jake had exactly one week to not only locate his son, but then somehow speak to him and then give him significant career advice. If he failed to persuade the town’s most talented star to go to Big State, back to the grind it would be for Jake.
Jesus Shuttlesworth was a phenom, although his father liked to think his incredible talent was manifested in the gene pool. In Jesus’ childhood Jake liked to push him hard and often past the brink to strengthen his son mentally and physically. Unfortunately, and the shock is mostly due to Denzel’s incredibly balanced performance, Jake has something of a dark streak in him and his competitive spirit. . .and drunkenness. . .often seized control of his calm and gentle demeanor. At the same time fierce competition drove the father-son relationship, it often brought it to a screeching halt and Spike Lee handled these ups-and-downs better than anything in his lengthy final cut.
As a writer, Lee proved to be somewhat the astute observer of conversational dialogue and human interaction. He Got Game feels organic in its development, which might explain why Ray Allen fits better into this film than many athletes who are shoehorned into a 90-minute product-placement ad. Scenes tend to linger for longer than they should at times, while others are strung together in rapid succession; journeying through Spike Lee’s late-90s sports drama is a little like flipping through the pages of a photo album — you tend to gloss over several photos and pages and stay on others, and that’s precisely how the film is paced.
Though some became a little repetitive, Lee threw in a few vignettes involving Jesus’ increasing conflict with making a decision about where to go to school; his girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) — a number of the scenes with her took place at the extremely photogenic Coney Island amusement park on Long Island — and also his relationship with his weirdo aunt and uncle who became his legal guardians following the death of his mother and the incarceration of his father. Together, these little stories merged satisfactorily to give the impression of a walking-in-his-shoes perspective. Jesus Shuttlesworth was on the verge of superstardom, yet had a responsibility to his young sister at the same time. He insisted she go to school and become educated, and by way of avoiding setting a double-standard, he came to understand he must play for a college himself.
The question remained, though: which one to select?
Spike Lee intertwined (arguably too) many subplots to create his realistic depiction of a chaotic time in a young basketball player’s life. It blended curious social commentary with sports politics to induce the headache athletes undoubtedly feel while going through the college selection process. But for Jesus, that was only part of the picture; his father being back around bothered him deeply yet at the same time forgiveness wasn’t what was being asked of him. Jake finally came clean and told his son what the conditions were for him being on the outside. And it was just one of many moments that played out with a painful realism.
Adding to the film’s dedication to keeping it real (damn, there’s a ’90s expression for ya), Lee managed to get a hold of several noteworthy names, including NBA Coaches Rick Patino and George Karl, and the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Bill Walton and even MJ himself literally get a word in during a brief montage. Can’t forget “yeah baby!” Dick Vitale, either.
He Got Game is Spike Lee’s ode to the late 90’s; from the romanticized settings at the amusement park to the dimly lit courts in the city where the one-on-one showdowns happened, its a visual treat as much as it was in tune with reality. It paid off to hire a top-talent athlete as well, as Ray Allen offered the film a vulnerable soul to care for, even if his acting chops likely won’t earn him anything more than bit parts. I’m sure that sits perfectly fine with Allen, as his role on the real courts is anything but a ‘bit’ part. I can’t wait to see how he performs in the Playoffs this year.
Go Jesus Shuttlesworth!!!
Recommendation: As a non-fan of Spike Lee (typically), He Got Game appealed to the basketball lover in me, and there’s no doubt this is the audience it serves best. But anyone who has followed Spike Lee should see this as well. A Celtic fan? Then you must consider catching a piece of your boy’s acting career if you haven’t already (and if you don’t hate him for going to Miami).
Running Time: 136 mins.
Quoted: “People veer off the path, so what? God forgives them. When will you. . .?”
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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com
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Spot on review, Tom. Great perspective and you get the movie very well. I have watched it a few times and it grew on my despite my ambivalence towards Lee and his films. He’s just become a shadow of his former daring self. I wont even approach “Oldboy” but damn is Washington ever epic in this flick. Good work!
Hmmmm, I vaguely remember this from many moons ago… maybe it is time to revisit it.
Maybe it is indeed! It’s worth it more I think if you’re a fan of who Ray Allen is and like him as a basketball player. But it has its appeal obviously for fans of Denzel. Either reason is good enough to give this one a shot! 🙂
I was about to say you totally missed me on the basketball front, but I am there for Mr Washington!
Always had a lot of time for this Spike Lee joint. Great TBT Tom; need to see it again now!
Cheers. Not a big fan of the man, I have to be honest. But here’s a film of his I really enjoy, even if it’s 1 of 2 films of his that I’ve seen hahaha.
One of the best sports movies ever made, if only because it shows you what’s great about being in professional-sports, but also what’s so bad about it as well. In perfect, cynical Spike Lee-fashion. Good review.
Wow, cool man. Nice to read you give it such praise. It’s up there for me for sure, I think I might still call Hoosiers one of the all-time greats but I’d agree Spike Lee does a very very good job of showing us both the athlete’s perspective in this and of all the other competing interests like the schools he’s looking at, his family, and his friends. It’s very interesting.
Despite not watching many sports, basketball has always been one that I enjoy the films of. Want to hear something embarrassing? I used to love Like Mike as a child. It may be a horrible film if I ever decide to watch it again but back in the day….it was fantastic! This one looks quite decent but I am as much as a Spike Lee fan as you. Meaning not much….mostly considering his recent “Oldboy” version!
Spike Lee is a joke man hahaha. Ever since reading your review and I think a couple others about his Oldboy remake its just been easier for me to think less of the guy! lol. I do think he does have a few good tricks up his sleeve. He Got Game is remarkably realistic in the dialogue and the situational drama.
I haven’t seen Like Mike myself but I’m sure it’s good! As far as sports movies go, this one is definitely worth checking into but it also does take for granted the fact that maybe not all viewers are quite as into basketball as Spike Lee.