One thing you really don't need in a drama about basketball is a lot of basketball. The producers of Showtime's new series "The Hoop Life" don't seem to realize that. On the premiere tonight, time is wasted with too much simulated floor play. If we want to see a basketball game, we'll watch a real one, not a fancy-pantsy fake.
"Hoop Life," ostensibly a look backstage at the world of professional basketball, is at its best when it pays attention to storytelling and ignores what happens on the court. Director Kevin Hooks (whose cast includes his father, Robert Hooks) tries to make the simulated game footage look interesting, with black-and-white inserts, slow motion and other technical tricks, but the fact is, it never looks as exciting as the real thing.
The series is on firmer footing when it takes us into the lives of players, owners, managers and the multitude of hangers-on who are attracted not by the basketball being thrown around but by all the money being thrown around. As is made abundantly clear in the premiere (airing at 10 p.m.), there is lots and lots and lots of money. For the highest-paid superstars, life is one big dance in the lap of luxury.
Greed is really the theme of the series, which presents the unappetizing spectacle of pigs jockeying for space at an elite trough. Even a preacher at an urban church is made to seem interested in money above souls--a detail that writer Sean Jablonski could mercifully have done without. It is a trifle ironic, after all, for people who work in television and movies to start calling other people greedy. Or to be a tad less gentle, pardon us while we throw up.
"Hoop Life" arrives at rather an odd time, and not only because the pro basketball season has just ended. Basketball fans have indicated extreme annoyance at all the groping for dough that has marred the sport. The season began late because players and owners couldn't agree on terms, meaning money. Meanwhile, when Michael Jordan retired, the game lost its most brilliant and charismatic star ever, though he lives on, of course, in dozens and dozens of TV commercials.
Viewer displeasure was reflected in substantially lower TV ratings, even for the NBA Finals.
Token notice of this is taken in "Hoop Life," presumably thanks to last-minute script changes. We see two players arguing with a comely team owner in her nearly-as-comely office. "We took enough media-bashing during the strike," she says, and the two players shout "Lockout!" in unison to correct her. "Excuse me--'lockout,' " she says, humoring them.
In the interest of not being sued, the filmmakers don't call this the NBA. It's the "UBA," United Basketball Association, and most of the action involves a fictitious team called the New England Knights. They play hard, they party hard, they negotiate hard, or rather they hire iron-willed Jerry Maguires who negotiate hard for them. They dream of retiring at 25, which, given the physical demands of the game and its lust for young players, they may be forced rather than choose to do.
Of the various stories being told in "Hoop Life," by far the most compelling is that of 17-year-old Curtis Thorpe, sensitively played by Cirroc Lofton, who was something of a high school basketball whiz in real life. Thorpe is such a sought-after high school player that he has decided to skip college and make himself available to the pros. Very available. Before long, a $10 million, five-year contract is being waved in his eager and innocent face. Unfortunately, it's with a team in Greece. Yes, Greece. The country. Over yonder in Europe.
Ever since the death of his parents in a car crash 12 years earlier, Curtis has been watched over by his grandmother Celia, played by the quite magnificent Lynda Gravatt, and Kenny, a venal uncle played by Ray Anthony Thomas. The film makes the point that a person doesn't have to be terminally avaricious in order to go nuts when millions of dollars are suddenly dangled in full view. Kenny isn't a bad man, but the prospect of all that money makes him lose his senses.
It's the preacher in Curtis's church, incidentally, who's the money-minded man of God. He tries to tap into Curtis's wealth while it's still all in the planning stages. Curtis's tale, not coincidentally, is the plot line in "Hoop Life" that seems most reminiscent of "Hoop Dreams," a hauntingly good 1994 documentary about high school athletes striving with every gene and fiber to join the ranks in the big time.
Meanwhile, other stories are being told, including that of Greg Marr (Rick Peters), one of the few white players on the team and someone who has made overkill his lifestyle. On the road he indulges heavily in wine, women and song, except never mind the song. In fact, never mind the wine, either, when beer will do. The point is, the fact that he entertains two ladies at the same time in his hotel room does not go over well with Marr's wife back home.
He arrives back at the mansion to find the wife throwing all his clothes and belongings out onto the lawn, and in full view of a tribe of reporters and photographers, too.
Also prominent in the ensemble is Mykelti Williamson as Marvin Buxton, a big star with the Knights who has been conducting a long and bitter feud with player Owen Davies (Reno Wilson) of the L.A. Legends. The two teams are pitted against each other in the UBA championship game that opens the film. Davies refers to Buxton with such terms of endearment as "alien autopsy." After they brawl during the game, they are sentenced to film a PSA together. After being told a PSA is a "public service announcement" and not a drug test, Davies agrees. But when the appointed hour for the truce arrives, another fight breaks out.
Their animosity has such passion that one suspects, wickedly perhaps, that they may end up as lover boys before the series is over.
During the off-season, Buxton conducts a basketball "fantasy camp" for kids. It sounds like a philanthropic enterprise until we learn that Buxton charges parents $10,000 just to get a child into the camp, then $1,500 a week for his expertise, which is apparently not priceless. Almost nothing in "Hoop Life" is priceless, except perhaps the love and concern that Curtis Thorpe's Granny Celia shows toward the young man who has been placed in her care. Let's hope that as the weeks go by, Granny Celia does not turn out to be money-mad, too.
Dorian Harewood plays a former player who is now an assistant coach with the Knights and is forever getting in the hair of Dan Lauria as the head coach. The higher one goes in the ranks, the less intriguing the stories are. So one tolerates scenes with Lauria and Harewood, both good actors in rather trifling roles, to get back to the sagas of Thorpe, Marr and the other players.
"Hoop Life" is caustic, cynical, sometimes funny and sometimes very sad. It's hardly a shocker to learn that basketball, or any pro sport, is all about money, but there are moments when "Hoop Life" drives home that point with a nearly poetic poignancy.
Oh, and one more thing, this from the oh-so-virtuous world of show business: "Hoop Life" emanates from a production company co-owned by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, the "Homicide: Life on the Street" team. Showtime issued critics an "important note" referring to incorrect credits on the preview tape: "The credit that reads 'A Fontana/Levinson Production' will be corrected to properly read 'A Levinson/Fontana Production.' Thank you."
You're welcome. God forbid we'd get that one wrong.
CAPTION: Dan Lauria as the coach in "The Hoop Life," which examines the big money and large egos of pro basketball.
CAPTION: The players club: From left, Rick Peters, Cirroc Lofton and Mykelti Williamson in Showtime's "The Hoop Life," which begins tonight.