‘He Got Game’ Shows Life in a Real Disturbing Way

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If I wasn’t so adamantly opposed to folks yakking during movies, I’d have jumped out of my seat four or five times and shouted like a Baptist church deacon during Spike Lee’s “He Got Game.”

If you care about high school or college basketball, see it. If you know a high school basketball player who can’t otherwise go, take him. The movie ought to be required viewing for every schoolboy star in America. It probably would be the first and definitely the most jolting reality check for the kid.

Now, this is no movie review because I am no film critic. I’m not versed in the subtleties of cinematography and direction, and I couldn’t tell you the difference between a grip and a best boy if my life was riding on the correct answer. But I know a little bit about college basketball recruiting and in “He Got Game,” Lee got it right. He told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, no matter how unflattering it might be to some, and no matter how uncomfortable it seems to make some paying customers. Every scene, every line, every nuance is dead on. And he did it without making anybody an extremist, or cartoonish. Anybody who doubts as much as one word of Lee’s story is clueless about the importance of basketball and basketball players in urban America, and about what happens with a high school star once the recruiting process begins.


What I like best about the flick is that one by one, Lee picked off everybody, nailed ‘em to the wall. I mean everybody. He got the highest of the high-profile high school and NBA coaches to appear -- from George Karl to Rick Pitino to John Thompson, even Dean Smith -- but got them to speak true-to-life lines that give you great insight into a coach’s shtick. He got the girlfriend/groupie-type whose primary purpose, even in high school, is to get paid, which often means getting pregnant. He got the super-slick agent. Boy, did he get the agent. He got the smooth-talking neighborhood hustler/athlete protector. He got the coattail-riding opportunist high school coach. And most important, he got the low-life, leechy relative. Got him right between the eyes.

That was my favorite part, seeing the uncle of young Jesus Shuttlesworth turning into a money-grabbing slimeball right before the kid’s eyes. You think that’s the exception? It’s not. It’s happened to nearly every kid who isn’t Grant Hill or David Robinson, and I’m sure even they could tell you stories.

I know, from the players themselves, two NBA players who go to great lengths to avoid their mothers because mom fleeced ‘em for years. One guy doesn’t go to his home town because he has to avoid his relatives. This very season an NBA all-star, at the end of an interview, told me not to leave him alone with a guy who had been standing nearby. Who was it? “My first cousin,” he said.

You know where this starts, don’t you? High school. At least for the ones who reach stardom early. Late bloomers have no idea how lucky they are. There’s one reason everybody around a kid wants him to turn pro out of high school: money. If he got game, they get paid.

The leeches attach themselves so early they actually expect to get a paycheck from the team drafting their boy. Or shoes from the apparel company he endorses. I swear I’m not making this up. Kids coming out of high school, or out of college after one or two years, ask agents to help them incorporate themselves so their “people” can draw paychecks.

Spike Lee got all that. He even managed to create a player who, while a decent kid, was no angel. Shuttlesworth did have quite a bit of virtue, but he took money when he deemed it necessary, and he took a manufactured grade when it helped. I think most of these kids start out pretty much like Shuttlesworth, played by Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks, then learn from everyone around them how to stick their hands out and develop this notion that having these particular physical talents means the world owes you. Without making the kid a saint or a thug, Lee got that, too.


(The only people I wish he’d have stabbed harder are the folks in my business, the media, who compile those vile “Top 100 Prospects” lists and constantly call to ask, “Have you decided yet?”, adding to the kid’s inflated sense of self.)

I’m ecstatic that Lee didn’t make a politically correct, feel-good piece of fantasy junk that would have pleased everybody and enlightened nobody. I’m glad he didn’t cut scenes -- particularly the ones where Allen’s character is tumbling in a waterbed with two white “coeds” during a recruiting trip -- because white men and black women objected during pre-release screenings for target groups. They didn’t like the scenes? Too bad. It’s real. High school recruits being provided women for sex on campus is standard operating procedure. And on a lot of predominantly white campuses, where the only black students are athletes, guess what color their partners are? Get real.

That Lee didn’t overload us with basketball game footage is also to be commended because it gave him more time to show us a world that -- at least on the screen -- has gone largely unexamined. And it leaves time for us to appreciate an insightful, enlightening, compelling piece of work that does a great job of leaving us appropriately disturbed.