"Hoop Dreams" is considered the defining basketball documentary, but it came out essentially a generation ago in basketball career terms, and so much of how the prep basketball scene works has changed since then. "Gunnin' For That #1 Spot" uses the introduction of the Elite 24 Basketball Classic to shine a light on many of those changes, good and bad, while giving us a glimpse of the early basketball journeys of eight future NBA players.
How you feel about "Gunnin' For That #1 Spot" depends heavily on what you think the purpose of the movie is. If it's just an interesting look at these eight players, and the factors that got them to this point in their basketball careers, then it's incredibly successful. However, the movie seems to spend a lot of time raising points, specifically about the ills of the big money world of high school basketball these days, without really ever coming to any kind of conclusion about them. I think it's telling that the last interviewee talks about how it's nice that for a weekend, these kids got to just come to New York and be relatively normal kids and basketball players, and not have to worry about all the politics of recruiting and sneaker endorsements, because in the end that kind of encapsulates the movie.
The movie sometimes ventures into "Hoop Dreams" territory with its grander themes -- and specifically with the introduction to Stephenson, which I'll hit upon shortly -- but it's really at its best when its focusing on the players. Many of these players have yet to truly distinguish themselves at the next level, but their vintage high school highlights show just how much better they were than their peers. In its own way, that sends a message as to just how hard it is to become an NBA star.
The player introductions take up most of the first half of the movie, and I thought the selection of the eight players was pretty well done, since their backgrounds were each very different. The last two players introduced were Tyreke Evans and Lance Stephenson. It was interesting, because throughout Evans's piece, the people around him talked about how humble he was, and how if you just met him, you wouldn't know how much of a basketball star he was. Then we jumped straight into Stephenson, the youngest player in the group, who seemed to be surrounded by people telling him how great he was and how he was going to be this huge star. At the age of 15, he already had hangers on, and its easy to see why, three years later, his NBA career hasn't taken off like he might have expected.
Lastly, the soundtrack for the documentary is amazing. That's to be expected, given that Yauch is one of the Beastie Boys, but the hip-hop star power on the soundtrack probably exceeds the hoops star power in the movie itself.
The game itself is shot with lots of dramatic slow motion and frequent highlight replays, almost looking like a game of "NBA Street" (the Rucker Park setting and Bobbito's announcing add to that feel). At first I wasn't a huge fan of the way they were showing the game action itself, but it grew on me. It walks a fine line between straight-up documentary presentation and movie magic, but the action itself is real at all times.
With that said, the level of basketball being played in this film was very good. Of the 24 players on the two teams, the vast majority of them have gone on to play in, or at least be drafted by, the NBA. Five of the movie's eight primary subjects were lottery picks.
Also, the movie did a great job reminding me of why, in 2008, "Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose" wasn't quite the slam dunk it seems like now. Michael Beasley, in high school, was a BEAST. Watching his highlights from this movie, both in high school action and the Elite 24 Classic, it seems obvious that if not for NBA rules, he would have gone pro straight out of high school, and he would have been picked very high. He has talent, there's no denying that.
"Gunnin' For That #1 Spot" is like the movie version of the mid-'00s Clippers. There's a LOT of talent there, and it seems like they're pretty close to putting together something bigger than the sum of the parts, but it never quite all comes together. It's fun to watch, but when it's over, you'll always wonder if it could have been even better.
BETTER OR WORSE THAN A LOCKOUT?
Better, but with a caveat. At some point watching this movie -- and it'll probably happen at a different point for everyone -- you're going to see someone do something awesome, then realize "oh yeah, he's in the NBA now... too bad I can't watch him... d'oh."