Basketball diary

Showtime's sorry drama "The Hoop Life" and its young writer want to dramatize the sporting life, but on the court or off, reality is always far more interesting than fiction.

By Robert Wilonsky
August 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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There is no more dysfunctional basketball team. The coach-general manager has the owner by the Spaldings. He wrote his own contract, traded away the team's superstars and filled the roster with, among others, an 18-year-old ward of the state, a 20-year-old German and a member of the Chinese army.

The star forward/center, supposedly the next Michael Jordan, was suspended several times for drug infractions and received a rare lifetime ban from the league. The team president, who came from Nike, was investigated for sexually harassing several female employees, most of whom have since left the front office. (He was, of course, cleared of any wrongdoing.) The team is a laughingstock among laughingstocks already, and that was before it announced that its games will be broadcast on a TV channel whose only other programming consists of Home Shopping Network loops.


You can't make up this shit. It's all true, the sordid details of the Dallas Mavericks, one of the worst -- and most comical -- teams in the history of the sport. By comparison, the New England Knights, the team at the center of Showtime's new series "The Hoop Life," are a boring set of undergrown centers who play the game with Pop-a-Shot skills. And no wonder. The series (airing Sunday at 10 p.m. EST on Showtime) was created by 29-year-old Sean Jablonkski, a Barry Levinson protigi, who told Salon Arts & Entertainment that he's never even visited a locker room. Too busy.

Unlike the current crop of ultra-gritty reality shows that popped up after "ER," "The Hoop Life" ignores the most important thing about basketball: winning and losing. Most of the show's action takes place off the court -- and usually in a hot tub, a swimming pool or a satin-sheeted bed. Or on what appears to be an old "21 Jumpstreet" backlot.

The series stars Mykelti Williamson, best known as Forrest Gump's shrimp-loving pal Bubba Blue. He plays Marvin Buxton, a player haunted by his fear of winning. He missed a shot and instigated a bench-clearing brawl during the Big Game in the series' initial moments. He's convinced himself that he blew the shot on purpose, which has prompted a half-season's worth of Marvin playing one-on-one with his demons. (Williamson's an old pro at these behind-the-scenes sports dramas: He was a cast member on "Bay City Blues," the 1983 now-ya-see-it-now-ya-don't minor-league series that starred Sharon Stone, Bernie Casey and Dennis Franz -- and made "Bull Durham" look like a D.A. Pennebaker documentary.)


Also on the team is Curtis Thorpe (played by Cirroc Lofton, Jake Sisko on "Star Trek" spinoff "Deep Space Nine"), the Knights' straight-outta-high school rookie sensation, who wears the most realistic blank stare this side of Kirstie Alley on "Veronica's Closet." Completing the team's Holy Tortured Trinity is Greg Marr (Rick Peters), who also lost the Big Game -- and his wife. (He's got a penchant for illicit poontang.) Trying to hold down the moral fort is head coach Leonard Fero ("The Wonder Years'" Dan Lauria), who hates the general manager (Dorian Harewood), hates the team's new corporate owners and seems to hate most of his players (or, vigorously, at least the Russian one). The man is, quite simply, tired of playing nanny to a bunch of spoiled millionaire children.

When these guys do play ball -- in a Canadian minor-league arena, no less, which only underscores the show's rinky-dink brand of fiction -- you wonder how they ever reached that fabled Big Game. The New England Knights play so far below the rim that they might as well be a WNBA team. (And by the way, why is it that all fiction writers name their teams the Knights? Apparently it's the 555 of sports.) But again, the show isn't really about basketball. Ostensibly, the plot is building toward the next Big Game -- toward Marvin's redemption, toward Curtis' coming of age, toward Coach Fero's firing by the Big and Evil Media Corporation that now owns the Knights. But the show cares less about fleshing out characters and more about plopping them in the middle of overblown soap-opera plots, none more ridiculous than the episode in which Curtis' uncle is threatened by Eurotrash gangsters when the kid gets drafted to play in the show's fictional American league, the UBA, thus reneging on his promise to play ... in Europe.

Jablonski insists this is the point: Basketball is just a backdrop for the Bigger Human Drama. "The team is a foundation for the show to explore the players' lives," he told Salon Arts & Entertainment. "What the team does is separate from what the characters do. It's like the doctors on 'ER.' They have personal lives, and all of the sudden, a body gets thrown in front of them while they're talking about a mother-in-law. It starts with the characters; team arc is secondary to the nature of the show. You can even take a show like 'Homicide.' A lot of what cops do on a day-to-day basis is boring: It's paperwork, phone calls. That stuff is not interesting. The obligation you have is to dramatize that and show people the moments they want to see."


The premise of "The Hoop Life" -- that sport is rich with narratives of human drama and contemporary culture hot buttons -- obviously isn't entirely invalid or unnecessary. It's just that sport itself usually does it better than any dramatized account. "When a world of clichis runs into reality, somebody gets hurt," columnist Thomas Boswell wrote in June 1986 when real-life basketball phenom Len Bias really died from a real cocaine overdose. "Too often, athletes are given an adult's body, an adult's desires and a child's morals." "SportsCenter," Sports Illustrated, the dailies and even the chorus of talking heads tell stories like Bias' every day, and they're full of intoxicating detail, real tragedy and honest ethical questions. In these tales, children win millions before they ever suit up and celebrities are made before they ever touch the ball.

"Shit, when I was 17, I didn't know which end was up," Jablonski said, "and these guys are millionaires just coming out of high school, behaving like rock stars." But the director, and the series itself, only pretends to touch on these issues, using them as an excuse instead of a reason. The plot thrust seems much more reductionist: You can show titty on cable. It's a bad "Dream On" set in a gym, or any other made-for-cable series you can think of dressed in a jock strap and a T-back.


Showtime knows it. The show's Web site features a logo of three luscious babes (well, their arms) surrounding a virile stud ball player. Earlier this season, there were hooker girlfriends and sports groupies (strippers) everywhere. And last Sunday, high-school phenom Curtis went to see one of his teachers about getting a better grade. She offered him three choices: Take the exam and hope you don't flunk, retake the class -- or do me. Cue softcore porn soundtrack, cut to teacher and student double-dribbling on the desk, wan-wan-WANH. He shoots, he scores.

The hype surrounding "The Hoop Life" (OK, so there isn't much) comes from the fact it's produced by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana's production company -- the same folks responsible for the canceled "Homicide: Life on the Street" and HBO's prison-rape drama "Oz," the most overrated television show this side of ABC's fetishistic and benign "Sports Night." (Face it: "Oz" is little more than ass-fucking for the curious straight male.) Fontana apparently looks over the young writer's show, but none of the veteran's sense of hyper-realism seems to have rubbed off. Jablonski began his career answering Fontana's phones, typing his scripts and doing his fact-checking. While developing "The Hoop Life," he interviewed former NBA player John Salley and two other pro ballers. But for a guy who spent his "early" career fact-checking, Jablonski sure gets a lot wrong.

His blessedly awful show reflects that ignorance: It's an hour-long unintentional comedy of fouls and bricks and double-dribbles, and just about every other basketball pun that comes to mind. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if it were written by someone who actually cared about the game; but right now, the stiff characters and vague dialogue give the show an effect you would imagine "ER" possessing if the writers never opened a medical dictionary. Imagine, George Clooney in blue scrubs, yelling at anyone who will hear him: "Uh, give me some more ... whachyacallit? ... blood."

Robert Wilonsky

Robert Wilonsky writes for the Dallas Observer.

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