Nick Young's Story Arc: A Slam-Dunk
Monday, July 2, 2007
LOS ANGELES, July 1 -- There was a line around the block Sunday at the Los Angeles Film Festival for the premiere of the documentary "Second Chance Season," about the life and basketball times of Nick Young, the kid from L.A.'s Cleveland High whose life story and whose family, coaches and teachers are as inspirational as his joyous play on the court. The film's sleep-deprived director and editor were inserting last-minute footage into the movie hours before its screening -- because Young, whose promise and career were almost dashed before they began -- was a first-round NBA draft pick on Thursday for the Washington Wizards.
If you don't know a free throw from a three-pointer, it doesn't matter. The audience at the sold-out Mann Festival Theatre was laughing and crying -- and afterward in the auditorium, complete strangers walked up to Young's parents, Mae and Charles, and it was not enough to shake their hands. They were hugged. Heck, it made you want to kiss Young's principal -- in a culture that too often views public school administrators as the enemy -- and say thank you for giving a damn and making a difference.
"There were so many times when this kid went right up to the edge of the cliff, leaned over the cliff, and didn't fall, because the people around him wouldn't let him fall," says director Daniel Forer, a veteran broadcast TV sports producer who took out a second mortgage on his house to complete the four-year project.
His co-producer and editor, Jeff Werner, looked at some of the early footage and told Forer that he would make the movie "as long as it wasn't a film about basketball. This was bigger than basketball."
"The ending for Nick is miraculous," Werner says. "You never get this kind of dream, this kind of wish fulfillment in real life. It doesn't happen. But it did."
There's plenty of school b-ball in the film (think "Hoosiers" and "Hoop Dreams"), but what makes the documentary powerful for the audience is the tragic backdrop. When Nick was 5 years old, his eldest brother, Charles Jr., was killed in a drive-by shooting by a 14-year-old named Marcus. Marcus, who says his gang moniker was Trouble, was as he admits a remorseless killer, who in typical gang style saw Junior as a threat and a rival, even though Junior wasn't in a gang.
Remarkably, the film includes interviews with the adult Marcus, who appears to have completely turned his life around (college degree, job) and who seeks a meeting -- and some beginning of absolution -- from the Young family, who just want to know why. They also want to live their Christian faith, and forgive, as Jesus tells them in the Bible, but they confess in the film their roaring sense of rage and lust for revenge. "I wanted him dead," said Charles Sr. "Anything he loves, I hope he loses it," said Mae. "I hope he's dead."
The 90-minute documentary is as raw and real as anything on the screen, but it contains no scenes of violence, no trash-talking, no foul language. Director Forer says the filmmakers are considering offers from cable and network TV and from film distributors for a theatrical release, and promises that the public will see the movie one way or another by this fall, when Young begins his career with the Wizards. Forer says that his dream is that somehow Oprah Winfrey will buy it -- and release it -- and use it as a way to reach out to young people.
And the NBA could use it, too, because everything about the Nick Young story, as shown in the film, makes you forget about the pampered and often reckless antics of some NBA players, makes you think: Good for him. Write Nick Young a big check. He'll spend it (as he just promised) buying his folks a big house in the nice suburb they used to drive through on their way to watch him play at Cleveland High.
The documentary, in many ways, is as improbable as the arc of Young's story. Forer started filming Young in his senior year, a year that almost didn't happen -- hence the title "Second Chance Season." Young was about to begin his senior year at Cleveland High in the San Fernando Valley when administrators balked, saying that Young had already done four years of high school, which was only half true. During his troubled freshman year, Young enrolled and dropped out of two other schools, skipping class and making nothing but failing grades. At the schools were members of the gang responsible for his brother's murder.
"They said, sorry, kid, you're done. You've done your four years of high school. There ain't a fifth year," Forer says. But by then, Young had turned his life around, was making mostly B's and C's and was a star athlete on the court. So his Cleveland High principal, Al Weiner, went to the superintendent to plead Young's case. The superintendent asked Weiner if he'd guarantee the kid would graduate and Weiner replied, "Our whole school guarantees he'll graduate."
"I was fascinated by the family," Forer says. "I don't know where this is going, but I want to follow it."
Forer filmed Young during his senior year, capturing the young man's struggle to win the city championship, graduate (he has learning disabilities, worries that people think he is "stupid"), get a decent score on his SAT to be eligible to play college ball -- all while dealing with the legacy of his older brother's murder. If you don't think taking the SAT three times is dramatic, Forer shows otherwise. If Young hadn't scored above 850, he might have ended his basketball career as an asterisk in the high school stats.
After Young was accepted on scholarship to play for the University of Southern California, the NCAA let Forer continue to film his subject as long as none of the images appeared in a movie until Young left school or graduated, lest he be seen as promoting a product while still a college athlete. So Forer kept shooting -- through Young's freshman, sophomore and junior years at USC. Forer now thinks his film might be less like "Hoop Dreams" than like "Million Dollar Baby."
"I knew I was making a movie when Nick's mother, Mae, told me his nickname in the family is 'the Chosen One,' " says Forer. "I mean, can you imagine? That kind of pressure?" In the film, Nick Young, with his wall-to-wall loopy grin, says that when he plays basketball and flies through the air to the hoop, he knows that in that moment his mother and father forget some of the pain, and just watch, amazed.