Basketball is simply a game. However, in certain neighborhoods in America it is much closer to being a rite of passage, a ticket out, and a source of discipline all rolled in one. With this in mind, writer, director, and producer Crystal McCrary has successfully captured the very essence of youth basketball in the documentary Little Ballers.
Executive produced by New York Knick Amar’e Stoudemire and rapper Lupe Fiasco, the film tells the story Tyriek, Cole, Judah, Kevin and coach Billy as they travel the road to the nationals and try to become champions of their respective 11-year-old age group. Featuring commentary from NBA mainstays like Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash, Russell Westbrook, Joakim Noah, and others, the project helped McCrary get nominated to the New York State Council on the Arts by Governor Andrew Cuomo in January. “There’s a scene in the movie where my son is sitting on his bed holding his pillow pet and talking about, ‘I plan on playing in the NBA as soon as possible and for the rest of my life,'” said McCrary, whose ex-husband and son’s father is retired NBA player Greg Anthony. “You can’t write that. It’s classic.”
A screening at the Schomburg Museum in Harlem, NY, evoked emotions of hope and upliftment among those watching. The refreshing vision of city kids overcoming obstacles while growing mentally and emotionally as the film progresses, makes Little Ballers the best example of basketball Americana since Hoop Dreams was released in 1994, chronicling the lives of two high school students in Chicago aiming for dreams of playing in the NBA.
“It’s difficult for them to understand that the odds are so low. As the director of the film, that wasn’t a discussion I had with them. The way I filmed it, and the way I captured footage of them, it just happened as they were going about their lives,” says McCrary. “I asked them to share, unfiltered, what their hopes and dreams were surrounding the game without adult reality crashing in on them. All of them answered the question just as simply as any other child you ask what they want to do when they grow up. They want to play in the NBA.”
Fine tuning their young basketball chops through the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), an organization that’s been around for over 100 years, AAU basketball has gotten a bad reputation as of late. Some sports analysts believe it is fertile ground for exploitation. “As far as the New Heights team they were playing with at that time, it’s actually an after-school learning program for them,” she explained. “Their mission, as far as any of the kids they take into that program, is academics first. They have mandatory after-school tutoring. There’s cultural field trips they take the team on, there’s SAT tutoring for the older high school kids. There’s all sorts of programs in place at the New Heights organization because they do understand the odds against these kids actually making it pro. Some programs are representative of what AAU at its worst can be. That’s not what New Heights was.”
“There are pros and cons to AAU and it’s not the Amateur Athletic Union in itself, but specific programs,” she continues. “The programs that are not as well structured, the programs that are based upon, quite frankly, exploiting some of these kids. And to clarify, sometimes you can have a good program, but have individuals in that program such as a coach or a parent that becomes overzealous and greedy and see there are really some talented kids in a particular program. At that point, the machines come in and begin to try to exploit that kid. It’s not AAU itself. It provides the umbrella for all of these teams to be able to play competitively. There are certain rules and mandates that they have in place to make sure everything is on the up and up.”
Though the ranks of amateur athletics are filled to the brim with children looking to make a name for themselves in their respective athletic endeavors, none of it would be possible without the altruistic adults who volunteer their time to children who they are not related to. It takes a special breed. Coach Billy appears throughout Little Ballers. He is of that breed as well.
“Coach Billy is really a special guy, a special man and a special coach,” says McCrary. “When he’s first shown in the film, you see him in this light where he’s really tough on the kids, he’s hollering, he’s in their faces. His screaming is not the most politically correct way of doing things but, as my son said in the film, if he didn’t scream at them they probably wouldn’t listen. The kids know that coach Billy screams because he cares about them.”
Little Ballers is a must see for all basketball lovers. Currently seeking distribution, McCrary hints to suitors for the project set to appear on television, along with plans for a girls’ basketball version in the works sometime soon.
For more info on Little Ballers check out the website: LittleBallersFilm.com