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To talk to Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys and not talk about the Beastie Boys was a lot less difficult than I thought it would be.
Sure, the guy has been a planetoid in my pop culture universe ever since “Fight for Your Right (To Party)” and I have put enough money into the hit machine that they’ve kept going for years to warrant a little shout-out to the music but this was all about Adam’s film GUNNIN’ FOR THAT #1 SPOT and I was respectful of that. Although, to be completely honest, and nerdy, about it, it was a thrill to be talking to the man.
The movie, opening today, deals with some of the best of the best of high school basketballers being invited to play in an “Elite 24” tournament in Harlem, New York as Adam captures the energy and back stories of some of those asked to come out and play.
Adam’s love of music, basketball and the documentary style that made AWESOME; I FUCKIN’ SHOT THAT! all blend here for a cohesive narrative of eight of those players as the ins and outs of being so young and being courted by forces greater than the guys playing the game is an unintended rapturous commentary on the stale and fetid rigidity of NBA style of playing when you see how quick a game can be played when players are allowed to just be players.
Adam takes a back seat to what is happening on the screen and he allows his editing and presentation to genuinely reflect the lives of these eight players who love the game of basketball and see that this is their way of life and what they want to do. Forget about the odds, these men want to play basketball. As Adam mentions, even a casual fan of basketball will get something out this movie that even the most learned and steeped fan of the game can appreciate. When it comes to narratives this movie has a lot to say and the pace, the feeling and the style of this film reminds you that this isn’t your father’s HOOP DREAMS.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: I grew up in Chicago so I have been a big, big Bulls fan my entire life and when I heard that you got involved in this documentary film, it really got me going.
ADAM YAUCH: Cool. Did you grow up in the Jordan-era?
CS: Yes, I did. Got to see them in the old Chicago Stadium.
YAUCH: That’s amazing.
CS: Yea, it’s amazing to me now to think about all those guys on the court and think about how they came up, and certainly being in Chicago I watched HOOP DREAMS and watching that gives me the perfect way to start out with you – have you seen the film and was that they way you wanted it to be told?
YAUCH: Yes, I have seen HOOP DREAMS and I actually loved that film but this is a pretty different approach because it’s centered around this All Star game and really focusing on the top high school players in the country and it’s a different approach than that. I don’t know but I do like that movie.
CS: These are high school kids, so when you are doing the film when you got all the footage that you wanted and you wanted to sort of capture the moment what was it like when you got back to the editing bay to take your film and go, “Now where’s the narrative?”
YAUCH: Well, there were some ideas going into it. Basically my game plan going into it was to focus on specific players so you would get to know the players before you see the game so you are more emotionally vested watching the game because you know them and you are watching them compete against each other and I had some ideas before hand about not just getting an understanding of the world of high school basketball, it’s what the pressures are like for high school players or what their rankings or different aspects of it so first thing at the beginning of editing was to just cut these different segments for a profile of the players and all these different segments come together in the first quarter, second quarter and then the steps after that was to get it all to move, to find the right order off all these pieces and refine them and get them to flow and pace out nice as a film. Actually, it’s a long process.
CS: I would imagine there was a lot of background filming on these different athletes and you had smaller narratives within that too. As a person just looking at all these guys who are trying to compete to hopefully move on – they’ve got the college barrier and the college barrier to the NBA barrier, when you were filming this getting to know some of these individual guys were any of them emotionally vulnerable in telling you something to the effect of, “I know the odds are really not in my favor but this is exactly what I want to do”?
YAUCH: No, none of them really say that. I mean on some level they are aware that the odds are stacked against them but I think these kind of guys that are the best in the country have the kind of drive that I think – I don’t know I’m sure they know that the odds are stacked against them – the way that they push themselves is intense – the way they use that competitive drive to make things happen is pretty wild to see.
CS: Did you notice at least in the smaller profiles that these guys have balance in their life? Do they realize that basketball is just a game or are coaches and outside influences are pushing these guys harder than maybe they should be?
YAUCH: I didn’t get that impression that their coaches are pushing them too hard. I got the impression that these guys, at least from my limited experience with them, that they really enjoy the game and want to be pushed and want to succeed in the league and they know what it’s going to take to make that happen.
CS: Are they just enjoying what they do?
YAUCH: I’m sure there are times when the pressure feels crazy to them and probably upsetting but I don’t know. I got the impression that for most of them they enjoy playing basketball.
CS: What was it like at Rucker Park to have all these alpha males – the best of the best – coming together and clashing – what is it like to see that sort of concentrated talent on the court?
YAUCH: It’s cool. It’s definitely cool to see the different styles of their games and the different ways that they blend or come up against each other. People like Brandon that loves to pass the ball you almost get the impression that he’d rather make an assist and score and guys like Beasley that just talks trash all the time to everybody on the court – it’s definitely interesting to see their different games and see how they make shit happen. While they all have the crazy competitive drive, it comes out in different ways.
CS: Right. And I read an essay by Chuck Klosterman who interviewed Steve Nash – Chuck intimated that Steve was more like a communist and that he’s really out there to help his teammates be better and that works for him because he makes everybody that’s on the court better and that’s his sort of strategy.
YAUCH: Got that impression with Ray Allen too.
CS: Do these guys, they have been doing it for so long, I think the influence for these guys to be the guy with the ball, the one to score the ball, I would imagine that it would take something for these guys to say, “I gotta help these other guys.”
YAUCH: Yeah. Definitely different personalities and it’s interesting to see in a game like this at the Rucker – an All Star Game – it really is all about individuality and kind of showing off a bit – your own skills more than about the team – like a pick up game. But it was interesting to see – a lot of them were like they were there at the Rucker and needed to show people what they can do.
CS: How was it for you as a filmmaker? You didn’t have the luxury in your film – the concert film you had a bunch of fans to make the film – it was just you trying to make it happen.
YAUCH: I was – I did have 8 cameras rolling so that it was really captured and positioned in places where I thought I could capture most of what was going on – being able to try different things – keeping certain cameras wide and keeping certain cameras tight and I think I had it pretty well covered.
CS: And obviously your presence wasn’t a big deal. Is the Rucker game something more of a private thing or were they welcoming to you to come in and capture the moment?
YAUCH: They were very cool about it. Greg Marius, who loves the Rucker, was very helpful.
CS: Did you come away with a different understanding – knowing about the Rucker before, did you have a new appreciation for basketball now that you didn’t have before you started it?
YAUCH: Yes. I was very fond of the game anyway but it gave me new insight into understanding the world of high school basketball and the path that these guys take at a much younger age and understanding that process a little more. It was interesting watching the NBA finals this year and the league that these guys are in thinking about them going through this process thinking about them when they were a junior in high school. Definitely interesting to think about the trajectory these guys are on at a very young age.
CS: Yes, they have college and they have to compete there – the best against the best and even the NBA it’s – just competitive sports – could have been football, could have been baseball but these kids are so young all it would take is just one knee injury to knock them out completely.
YAUCH: Yes, that’s certainly a scary thing – a strange aspect of the whole thing.
CS: I’ve seen you in other interviews that you’ve said you were a fair weather fan of the Knicks and that you don’t really like to watch the NBA on TV, so why did something like this really grab you to say “I want to make a film about it”?
YAUCH: I don’t know. I do love basketball – it’s an amazing game but I get a little bored with the structure of NBA games because of all the foul shots, time outs and the way they force commercials in every minute but I enjoy going to games and watching games – even strong players in the park just playing. I just thought it would be interesting – an interesting subject to look at the world of high school basketball.
CS: Do these guys look up to the Kobe Bryant’s and the big athletes?
YAUCH: They definitely do. When Ben Gordon and Jason Kidd were there these guys were psyched to be there.
CS: What do you think – there’s been a lot to do from Commissioner Stern’s idea that these guys should be in suits and ties to make these guys more presentable and then you have a lot of the smack talk, it’s corporate sponsorship for these pro athletes, is there a maturation process where it becomes like you said this rigid style of play where it’s about foul shots and what have you – do any these guys think they have to change their game in they expect to be in the NBA?
YAUCH: A lot of these kids grow up just playing in gyms and in leagues and playing for coaches and already on this path – the kids are kind of going in that direction for them it was fun to play – come to Harlem it was amazing for them. I don’t know. That’s why I like street ball – kids showing off.
CS: Something fluid about it.
YAUCH: There’s something fluid about seeing the anarchy of street ball.
CS: The only thing I can compare it to, because you don’t see it on television, is the And1 tour that goes around. It might get bagged on a little bit but there’s something electric to see these guys doing things with the ball and their bodies that make it seem a little more alive and I’m at a loss for words to try and explain why that is the case.
YAUCH: I know what you mean. Sometimes the And1 stuff can get a little goofy but it’s cool to see that anarchy, that kind of freedom.
CS: Now, with the film being done, did you get everything you wanted to get out of this?
YAUCH: Yes. Even though a lot of these guys grew up playing in leagues, in gyms, they are aware of that style of play. You really see it in like – they were really psyched to come to the Rucker and play.
CS: How did these kids get selected to come to the Rucker?
YAUCH: There was a committee that selected them to come to the Elite 24 game.
CS: This game seems so underground, this is the first I’ve heard of it, not that means anything, but did these kids know about it?
YAUCH: About the Rucker?
YAUCH: They definitely know about it. This was the first annual Elite 24 game, but these kids knew about it and were psyched. There is so much history it’s like the basketball mecca. The street ball mecca. To come and play meant a lot to these kids.
CS: Did you get to be on the court and play one-on-one with any of these guys?
YAUCH: Yeah, I was shooting around with them at the Rucker.
CS: How’s your game?
YAUCH: My game’s alright but I’m not making myself eligible for the draft this year.
But I had fun playing.
CS: Did you - being in front of it – was it just a sight to be in front of these guys just being themselves? I can’t imagine what a full street ball game like this would be – I’ve just never been around that kind of raw talent.
Yeah. There was definitely something cool about looking at these guys – how good they are. They are just unbelievable players and you have to keep reminding yourself that these are high school students. You look at Lance Stephenson standing there and he’s like 6’5”, built like an NBA player and you have to just remind yourself that he’s 15 years old. The way they move and play they look like they are already in the NBA.
CS: Guys like LeBron James got picked up when he was quite young. Do these guys think they can bypass the college system and go right into the NBA like LeBron did?
YAUCH: I’m sure a lot of them would love to but they made it a RULE not too long ago you have to go to one year of college to be eligible for the NBA. So, they all have to do that but now a few of these guys are old enough and have done one year of college and made themselves eligible so Jerryd Bayless, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, Donte Greene, these guys have made themselves eligible NBA draft happening on June 26th. Most of them will be in the top ten lottery pick.
CS: I know I only have a minute left but I did want to ask, you’ve finished your film, it’s showing, it’s bowing this week. What do you hope, when people watch this, people will get out of watching your film?
YAUCH: My hope from the beginning going into it was this film would be interesting to people who were obsessed with basketball and knew everything there was to know and that it would be interesting to people who don’t even like sports. That it would be interesting to look at this culture, this world, this lifestyle…and from what I can tell the people’s reaction I’m hearing is that it does work on both those levels.
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