‘Hoop’s’ Arena Is Culture of Sports Off the Court

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

As if you needed another tip-off.

It’s the big game. Not the Spurs and the Knicks, the one deciding whether the New England Knights or the Los Angeles Legends will be champions of the mythical United Basketball Assn.

On the screen, both teams race up and down the court and slash to the basket for wide-open dunks like the Globetrotters having their way with the scripted-to-lose, professionally hapless, girdered-to-the-floor Washington Generals.

And look at those players, the snarling ones said to be UBA superstars. Yeah, yeah, baggy shorts and trash talk. But Shaquille O’Neal is taller sitting down. In fact, look at the entire UBA. Why it’s a league of Lilliputians. And not Air Lilliputians.

The pleasure you derive from Showtime’s new series, “The Hoop Life,” may parallel your tolerance for faux ball. Spike Lee could play in this league. Woody Allen could play in this league.

Yet most of “The Hoop Life” occurs off the court, fortunately, and the 90-minute premiere is very seductive while introducing several sets of characters that intersect in New England with the Knights.

That’s where hard-boiled Coach Leonard Fero (Dan Lauria) and new general manager, Eliot Pierce (Dorian Harewood), are having creative differences. Where living the high life with bare-breasted groupies is costing immature star Greg Marr (Rick Peters) his marriage and luxury home. Where Knights go-to guy Marvin Buxton (Mykelti Williamson) thinks bad thoughts about his Legends rival, Owen Davies (Reno Wilson), in a hateful feud too over-the-top to be believed.

“The Hoop Life” comes from Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, whose last co-production was NBC’s oft-superb “Homicide: Life on the Street.” This Showtime series about the rewards, temptations and stress of pro basketball doesn’t demonstrate that potential. Yet like the Legends and Knights championship game, the premiere is speedy, intense and dramatic.

The most interesting of its converging story lines concerns 17-year-old phenom Curtis Thorpe (Cirroc Lofton), a sweet dreamer of a kid who plans on earning a bundle by skipping college and jumping to the pros from high school. And as he approaches draft day, the hands in his pocket include his volatile Uncle Kenny (Raymond Anthony Thomas), who is out of his depth as the lad’s manager, and a local pastor who urges Curtis to share his good fortune with his parish. “I believe that the Lord strengthens our bonds through tragedy so that we can all share in times of prosperity.”

A stranger even asks for help with a root canal. But the ache for Curtis may turn out to be the draft.

Lofton, who played ball at Fairfax High, is a perfect fit as Curtis. Standout work by Lauria, Thomas and Lynda Gravatt (as Curtis’ grandmother and legal guardian) also help drive the premiere, which portrays the pro sports culture in ways that keep you watching, and there’s potential here for growth.

Now, if someone could just play defense.

*

* “The Hoop Life” airs at 10 p.m. Sunday on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17).