Athletic shorties, helicopter mom, basketball dads and parent-coaches are in for a youth basketball bonanza as the world television premiere of Little Ballers, a two-hour sports documentary exploring the journey of four 11-year-old basketball players and their quest to win an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) championship, airs at 9 p.m. (ET) on Feb. 25, during the weekly NickSports programming block on Nicktoons.
Little Ballers is a story every parent can relate to. It’s executive produced by NBA player Amar’e Stoudemire and rapper Lupe Fiasco. The gem is directed by Crystal McCrary, who shares a son that plays on the squad (Cole Anthony) with former NBA baller and analyst Greg Anthony.
Little Ballers is the first original documentary to join NickSports, a lineup of sports-themed content including series, specials and documentaries from professional leagues and key athletes.
It’s a story of basketball’s worth and how the sport is a viable tool for the development of athletic excellence, social progression and an escape from the harsh realities of urban life. It shows how basketball can spark a kid’s competitive instinct and has value educationally and in developing life-long friendships and building character.
Little Ballers features interviews with NBA players Steve Nash, Russell Westbrook, Joakim Noah, Walt Frazier, Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Chamique Holdsclaw. The film also includes perspectives from New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden, Award-Winning journalist Roland Martin, Black Enterprise President and CEO Butch Graves, Rogue Sports agent Travis King, ESPN senior writer Pablo Torre and former HBO Sports Senior VP Kery Davis, among others.
The Shadow League spoke with Billy Council, the coach of the New Heights team that advanced to the AAU National Championships. We reflected on the film, the emotional and fulfilling journey that birthed the film and Council’s plans for the future as Director of the newly-formed RENS AAU organization.
Gambler: What inspired you to make the film and document this run with your team?
B. Council: One of the things for me that was important because I played the game of basketball and had my trials and tribulations growing up as a youth, was that we share some of the potential of these young men on the basketball court with the world…and just collectively wanted to tell a story about how everybody has this dream of becoming an NBA figure, but before they become that NBA figure, there are certain life steps that you have to conquer off and on the hardwood.
They are: Playing AAU basketball. Learning how to play on a team. Learning how to deal with an intense coach such as myself. Learning how to deal with obstacles at 10-years old. Sometimes we put so much emphasis on the kids about doing well that we forget it’s only the game of basketball.
Gambler: Who really got the ball rolling with this project?
B. Council: it all started with Crystal McCrary. I was coaching her son Cole and a bunch of other young men for a year or so and she actually asked me if I had any footage of myself coaching. I said, “No.” She said she wanted to get some footage of Cole, so she asked me did I mind her bringing a camera around and I didn’t have a problem with it.
We wound up having so much footage that when we were about to head to the Nationals she thought it would probably be a good idea if we put all of this together and try to see what could come out of it – not knowing what would come out of it. That’s when the creative process started with her. I was just very supportive of the idea and thought it would be something that was great to explore.
Crystal was a team mom. She also happens to be a great author and television producer and she just had those connections and once we were able to get the 22-minute trailer together she went on from there and was able to get Lupe Fiasco and Amare Stoudemire to join the project.
Then the great Keith Dawkins (General Manager, Nicktoons Network & TEENnick) was a fan of the project and he wanted to be the one to get it on his Network and that’s how the doc ended up on Nickelodeon.
Gambler: What was it about your team’s story that inspired Amare and Lupe to want to get involved? NY teams have won AAU championships before.
B. Council: Well, with Amare, that was something that he had been a part of all of his life. Amare played AAU basketball as a youth and the stories that we were trying to tell were just very compelling to him and he fell in love with the story line. He was interested in helping us develop the stories a little bit better and he just jumped on board. Same thing with Lupe. He was a fan of basketball and helping kids in the community and he just bonded with the project. They helped us put Little Ballers together and that’s where we are now.
Gambler: How does your aggressive coaching style sit with the parents?
B. Council : It’s funny that you say that because when we first had tryouts…some coaches get a reputation of being a yeller and making kids cry and there were probably some whispers about me, but then within probably like a month, for some of those parents -- especially single moms -- they are thanking me for the tough love. They come to me and say, “We need you to put a foot in our son’s ass” Pardon my language, but when the kids not doing well and not doing what he’s supposed to be doing in school some of the parents come to me to intervene.
I guess the aggressive style is something that certain kids buy into. Especially when they know it doesn’t come from a malicious place. A lot of times those kids need that tongue-lashing. No matter what sport it is, the coach plays that father figure. That big brother figure. He plays that mentor and plays all of these important roles. I remember in the documentary one of the players (Cole Anthony) said it himself that if I spoke in a soft tone, “they wouldn’t listen.”
Gambler: Did the process of filming interfere with your steez as a coach or affect the kids in any way?
B. Council: The kids didn’t even know the documentary was being made. We kept it under wraps, but to be honest, I didn’t even know the documentary was being made until we had over a couple hundred hours of footage and Crystal was like, “I’m going to do something with his project. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with it, but we are going to do something with this project.”
Gambler: Where did you find those kids? What was the process in getting them to the next level, because in the film you say that a lot of your kids were second and third options for other elite AAU teams.
B. Council: We were all together at a program called Fast Break before we went to New Heights, but Fast Break wasn’t one of those programs that wanted to hit theAAU market. They were just kind of like a pay-to-play program. I wanted a little bit more out of the experience, so a good friend of mine Kimani Young ( Now an assistant coach under University of Minnesota coach Richard Pitino) was running the New Heights program but was entertaining college coaching offers, so he asked me to come back and work under him at New Heights and see what happens.
We were always very competitive as rival coaches and became great friends. Young asked me to come back because I was previously a coach for New Heights when I started coaching 16 years ago. One of my conditions was that I could run my own program and bring my team back. I wanted to put them on the AAU circuit. They agreed.
The kids were not considered the top players in their communities or boroughs or whatever. We just worked hard. Because basketball is so saturated, especially in the NY area, you get kids that can play and be developed from anywhere. In this group of kids, I got a group of kids that wanted to learn. Wanted to play. Wanted to compete. Wanted to get better. And they committed themselves to me. I committed myself to them and I promised them that we would win an AAU championship together.
Everyone has to watch the documentary on Feb 25th on Nickelodeon to see how it turns out, but the lesson that I wanted to emphasize to them was about hard work, dedication, family and staying together. And that’s what they did.
Gambler: With the negative connotation surrounding the potentially exploitative AAU culture and the win-at-all-costs attitudes of some parents and coaches involved, why is this movie a positive reflection of that culture?
B. Council: I think one of the things that we all forget is that when we are dealing with our kids we all want the best. Also, mothers and fathers become very competitive and good coaches...winning coaches most of them dream of triumph on these circuits with players and teams that they developed. It’s the challenge every great coach embraces. There are a ton of great coaches on the circuit who want to see these kids advance to the next level and have great intentions. I’m just glad that I'm one of a million coaches that are trying to do something to keep the culture of basketball alive.
You do have those parents that are a bit boisterous. Some of them you love and some of them can take it to the next level, but it’s part of that passion for the game.
Gambler: How are the kids from your New Heights team doing now? You have helped launch The Rens organization so I would assume all of those kids didn’t make the switch with you. Which kid from that New Heights AAU squad has the best future?
B. Council: I think all of them do. I can’t single out one kid because I think they all have unique talents. We have some kids who ultimately want to be lawyers, some want to be educators and some want to be in the NBA. Those kids all develop into their own lanes. I don’t really think one has a better chance of making it than the other because they all are very competitive against one another and they all want to see each other do well off the court especially. To me that’s more important than anything they are doing. They are using the tool of basketball to get an education. Two of the young men are about to go to school on scholarships.
One of the things I always wanted to do was be a part of starting and running my own organization. Before I got the opportunity to take the next step with New Heights, I got the opportunity to co-found and start a program called The RENS along with Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and RENS founder/sponsor Dan Klores. So that was my next step. Everything for me is a stepping stone. I always wanted to put my own program together and I was able to have that opportunity with the Rens and grow.
Gambler: Where did you grow up?
B. Council: I grew up in Harlem, across the streets from St. Nicholas Projects and I spent all of my days and time around that area.
Gambler: You’ve been through some hard times in life, even getting shot six times and surviving. How does your past help you in building these young men for the future?
B. Council: I do motivational speaking and I speak to young men often and always give advice. The main thing I always tell them is that it’s good to learn from mistakes you make but it’s better to learn from the mistakes of others. These young men today feel like they are doing things that are totally new and have never been thought of before. I try to let them know that everything you did, I did it first and it’s not new. Everything in life comes back 360. If you don’t do well in school and in life no matter how great your athletic talent is you won’t be able to use it. But moments like the ones featured in this documentary lasts forever and can be passed down from generation to generation no matter what race, creed or color you are.