The opportunity to enjoy my two favorite pastimes in one sitting – movies and basketball – comes along once in a great while. Said fusions often take the form of lower-brow comedies like Semi-Pro, but the occasional gem like The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh or acclaimed doc Hoop Dreams shines through. The second feature-length directorial effort from Adam Yauch (better know as MCA of seminal hip-hop / punk trio The Beastie Boys), Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot lands firmly on the “gem” side of hoops / film hybrid, even if squanders opportunities to dig deeper into the fascinating issues and events it chronicles in favor of a more generalized presentation.
Flashing back approximately two years, the film documents the first ever “Elite 24” game at New York’s fabled Rucker Park court, a gathering of the top 24 high school basketball prospects for a 48-minute contest devoid of endorsements and affiliations. Yauch narrows focus to the top eight players involved, offering background on each and gathering impressions from their family on friends on what life is like for a budding superstar. The game itself unfolds at Rucker and thrills a packed house as the young players – many visiting New York for the first time – attempt to make good on their hype in front of one of the most notoriously hard-to-please crowds in sports.
Gunnin’ moves at quick clip and packs in information on the history of Rucker, the state of recruiting and endorsements among high schoolers, and the kids themselves. Creative editing abets the deluge, but it’s here that the picture’s reach exceeds its grasp. Just taken alone any of the above would make for a compelling doc in Yauch’s capable hands. Rucker, the pre-eminent spot in which many of the game’s greats have helped make their names, could easily fill a feature-length look with its rich history. The increasingly high-stakes world of high schools hoops’ upper echelon and the cast of characters Yauch zeros in on (including future NBA lottery picks Michael Beasely and Kevin Love) are equally worthy of closer examination. In order to tell the story of the Elite 24 tourney, Yauch chooses to keep his focus shallow and offer just enough on the elements at play to give outsiders a sufficient window in. From the perspective of a lifetime hoops fan, I’m grateful someone took the time to document this unique event (especially with the care and craftsmanship evident) but would’ve loved it if the angles invovled had been examined a step or two deeper. It’s a classic having-one’s-cake-and-eating-it-too scenario, I’ll freely admit.
Creative lensing and a dynamic soundtrack packed with New York hip-hop and classic funk offer contrasts in styles that speak to Rucker’s story – and the story of all who’ve succeeded there – with the lives of the youngsters hand-picked to participate in the Elite 24. Music clearance alone would probably have bankrupted any number of smaller films, but when you’re MCA it’s likely there are favors to be had. A few visual motifs grow tired after being recycled for the umpteenth time, though nothing stands out as especially damning.
I shouldn’t complain about Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot because it’s likely there’ll be three or four more Celtic Prides before something as clever and considerate as Yauch film’s bounces along again. With his last work – the experimental concert doc Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! - playing limited engagements across the country last year, it’s likely Gunnin’ will achieve at least a similar run, perhaps even in time for this summer’s Draft. The film works nicely as both a primer for round ball virgins and a 90-minute highlight reel for hardcore fans.