Can it really be more than 20 years since the release of Hoop Dreams? Steve James’s popular and artistic hit transcended the sports documentary genre in following two black teenagers from the poor side of Chicago for five years, as they strive to escape their at-risk environment via NBA stardom. It won prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Awards, the National Board of Review and even the MTV Movie Awards.
Many basketball documentaries have appeared since then, and if none quite attained the prominence of Hoop Dreams, some have scored high enough to make the following list of features to watch during the NBA finals. These docs may have had the bad luck to play under the long shadow cast by Hoop Dreams, but I found them nonetheless worthy of MVP status. In order of release:
Soul in the Hole (1997)
As in Hoop Dreams, to which this is inevitably compared, the minimal amount of game action is nowhere near as important as what’s happening off the court. Filmmaker Danielle Gardner’s video cameras follow the 1993 summer season of New York City’s famous street basketball leagues, centering on Kenny’s Kings, a team of teenagers managed and coached by Kenny Jones in the tough Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Their undefeated status is due largely to the phenom Ed “Booger” Smith. Booger, who doesn’t talk much about his own family, has moved in with Jones, who has become an adoptive father and maps out a college career for the boy based on a basketball scholarship. But Smith still disappears on the streets for days at a time and starts to grow surly and distant, and there are fears that adolescent rebellion and the lure of thug life will be a dangerous combo.
Booger, who actually made the cover of Sports Illustrated, which is unheard-of for a streetballer, went on to star in another documentary of his own, King of the Streets. Soul in the Hole ends up being more about temperamental Jones, who is a great subject. He works any available job, including working at a liquor store, to keep his franchise afloat and flagrantly violates the no-cursing-no-N-word policies during the thick of a game, and his no-nonsense wife Ronnet knows how to take him down a notch when he gets too full of himself.