' Cinema Romantico: He Got Game (A Scene For March Madness)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

He Got Game (A Scene For March Madness)

(This post was partially inspired by Alex's fantastic post on his favorite scene in "He Got Game.")

Two items that are quite clearly of immense importance to Spike Lee are Uncompromising Films and Great Basketball. Thus, if there was anyone capable of creating a film that simultaneously captured the icky world of such a beautiful game, it was Lee. "He Got Game" (1998) is about the ceaseless and sordid efforts of every college (read: college basketball factory) in the country to land the nation's #1 recruit, Jesus Shuttlesworth (real-life basketball player Ray Allen). But Jesus's troubles reach, as they must, beyond the court. His father, Jake (Denzel Washington, rather brilliant), is in jail for accidentally killing his wife and Jesus's mother. However, the state governor is an alum of Big State and yearns for Jesus to attend his alma mater. Thus, he concocts a scheme to release Jake from prison temporarily with the promise of early release......should he be able to convince his son to sign with Big State.


Because this is Spike Lee nothing can be simple, and I don't necessarily mean it won't be simple on account of dramatic conflict (though there is plenty of that) but I mean it won't be simple on account of loads of stock footage and Milla Jovovich as a hooker who, ahem, Jesus redeems and the rambling Roger Guenevere Smith monologue because, of course, in the nineties Roger Guenevere Smith was contractually obligated to be in every Spike Lee movie. But more often than not this movie feels right, brutal and brutally believable, and at certain moments its auteur calms down and allows the romance of the hard court to seep in, such as in the pickup game he magnificently chooses to score with Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” which underscores how five-on-five in an NYC playground is an opera.

Best of all, though, is a walking and talking sequence late in the film between father and son on the Coney Island boardwalk. It doesn’t simply reveal the root of Jesus’s name, but it encompasses the entire sensation of a sports fan torn between the false purity and the willingness to still want to believe. Let’s break it down. It begins......


Jake: "My all-time favorite ballplayer was Earl Monroe. Earl the Pearl. Yeah, he was nice. See, everybody remembers him from the Knicks, you know, when he helped 'em win that second championship. I'm talking about when he was with the Bullets down at Winston-Salem Stadium.. Forty-two points a game the whole season. Forty-one point six. The whole season. But the Knicks, they put the shackles on him, man, you know, on his whole game. They locked him up, like in a straitjacket or something. When he was in the streets of Philly, on the playgrounds, he was like-"

At this point Jake mimics an Earl the Pearl move and as he does so he laughs. It's a wonderful, cockamamie, punch drunk love laugh. It's a laugh only a sports fan - whether that's basketball, football, baseball, hockey, football (soccer), curling, table tennis, etc. - knows. It's like the punch drunk laugh I still get 11 years after this. Jake's laugh makes me think of that classic exchange of that other great purveyor of New York City emotion Woody Allen with his first ex-wife in "Annie Hall."

-"What is so fascinating about a group of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop?"
-"What's fascinating is that it's physical. It's one thing about intellectuals, they prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what's going on. But on the other hand, the body doesn't lie. As we now know."

But I digress. The scene in "He Got Game" continues.


Jake: "You know what they called him?"
Jesus: "What?"
Jake: "Jesus. That's what they called him. Jesus. 'Cause he was the truth. Then the white media got a hold of it. Then they gotta call him Black Jesus. He can't just be Jesus. He's gotta to be Black Jesus. But still... he was the truth.”

At that point Denzel pauses and gets this almost mystical look in his eye and as he does you realize the moniker Black Jesus is perfect not necessarily because he should have just been called Jesus or because it always appears ridiculous to lump athletes in with biblical figures but because, in a way, whether people realize it or not, sports are so often colorblind. Even more than colorblind, they are beyond barriers of any kind. I was talking (read: drunkenly blathering) about this just last week with my friends Dave and Jessica but watching Kobe Bryant play basketball - regardless of his color, his upbringing, his off the court misdeeds, so on - is to watch an artist. Truly. Inarguably. You can discount sports because you don't like sports in the same way a film scholar can discount German Expressionism because he/she doesn't like German Expressionism, that's just fine, but I personally won't abide anyone saying Kobe Bryant isn't an artist just because what he does involves a ball and a hoop.

Jake: "So that's the real reason why you got your name."
Jesus: "You named me Jesus after Earl Monroe, not Jesus in the Bible?"
Jake: "Not Jesus of the Bible. Jesus of North Philadelphia. Jesus of the playgrounds. That's the truth, son. The way he dished, the way he..... you know, he spinned. You know how he do, coming off and all that."

I LOVE the clip Spike chooses to show at this point. It's not a thunderous dunk, it's not a feathery three, it's just Earl Monroe spinning and then making a layup. Exquisiteness in the basics. Poetry in sports comes anytime, anywhere, and not just in a ready-made ESPN highlight package.


Jake: "I want you to go to Big State, son. That's the real reason why I'm out here. That's the reason they let me out. You find it in your heart to go to Big State and they may let me out on an early parole."
Jesus: "So that's what this is all about, huh?"
Jake: "That's a part of it."
Jesus: "Jake, you just like everybody else."
Jake: "I ain't like everybody else.”

Oh, but he is. He’s like everyone else. And the scene switches from such a loveliness to hard truth, from Jesus of the playgrounds to the way in which so, so many of us make athletes out to be messiahs. A father angling for his own son to use his status to bail him out.

Jake: “I ain't like everybody else. Everybody else ain't your father. Everybody else ain't bring you in this world. Everybody else don't care about you, son. Like that girl you running with. You know her…..Layla?”
Jesus: “Lala!”
Jake: “Lala. You know her?”
Jesus: “Yeah, I know her.”
Jake: “Yeah, she know you like a book too. Many a great man, son, their downfall was 'cause of a woman.”
Jesus: “You talking about Samson and Delilah.”
Jake: “Yeah, that's right. Him too. Him too. You see I don't cut my hair, right? So you do know your Bible, huh? Look, son, just be careful. That's all I'm saying to you, all right?”

And this is where as sports fans we ALWAYS know better. We know better than anyone else, than the players, than the coaches, than the announcers, than our fellow fans, everyone, LISTEN TO US! WE KNOW! WHY DIDN'T YOU PLAY ROY HELU MORE IN THE 2010 BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME???!!!

Jake: “Do you know if you're gonna go to Big State? I mean, is that like a finalist, or the final four for you?”
Jesus: “They’re in my top ten.”
Jake: “In your top ten? All right. That's good. One out of ten. I can live with them odds.”

Of course, in the end, more than anything else, with so much bad (on and off the field/court) mixed in with the good, we as sports fans rationalize. We have to rationalize or how we could enjoy it?


Do you remember "Hoop Dreams", the unflinching and masterful documentary that chronicles two high school basketball players from inner city Chicago? There is a brief sequence at a high profile basketball camp featuring none other than Spike Lee lecturing the young attendees. He says: "The only reason you're here - you can make their team. If their team wins, these schools get a lot of money. This whole thing is revolving around money." This is harsh but not inaccurate. But last weekend at the historic Big East Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden the ESPN cameras kept capturing the image of a certain individual sitting behind the Syracuse bench, hanging on every play. Who was it? Why, it was none other than Spike Lee.

Even someone who speaks the truth can't help but give in to the allure of The Truth.

(Watch the scene here.)

1 comment:

Lesego Madisa said...

You have captured my original thoughts and emotions around this incredible sports film!!!

I always obsessed over the walk and talk scene. The stupid weak laugh. The Monroe demonstration. Over and over again.

Says Jake: 'I pray that you understand why I pushed you so hard. It was to get you to that next level.'