In the world of elite youth basketball, the pinnacle of achievement is to get to the AAU National championships. But what happens there often strains relationships to the breaking point and forces raw emotion to erupt to the surface.
That’s one of the lessons of Slaying Goliath, a new documentary, which follows a team of Harlem-based 11-year-olds to Florida for the 2005 national tournament where their fortunes … well, we’ll let you see the flick to find out what happens.
As we learned in the Voice‘s article on youth basketball last week, the world is largely closed to everyone but parents, coaches and organizers. So, naturally, it took a couple of parents from that team, the married couple Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, of Brooklyn, to get the access necessary to make the film.
It’s the second feature-length documentary by Brewster, 55, and Stephenson, 43, and their largely self-financed company, the Rada Film Group.
“We were just parents, our son was on the team, and then we thought, ‘my god, we might have a story here,'” Stephenson says. “Once the coach was on board, most of the parents signed the releases as well. A couple wouldn’t sign. And, there were moments when people walked away from the camera or wanted the camera shut off.”
What emerges is a rare and painfully intimate portrait of parents and kids, and the high pressure, high stakes nature of elite youth basketball.
One of the sources of stress was money. The team had lost its sponsor, so the parents had to spend their own money or raise it themselves. That investment created both expectation of success and fear of failure.
Some of the parents are depicted as so emotionally wrapped up in their child’s success or failure that they lash out at each other, question the coach, and get into confrontations with people they meet along the way. In one scene, a parent who believes her 11-year-old will end up in the NBA shows up in a jersey with his nickname on the back. Another parent objects, and they have a verbal scrap.
The team’s coach and the film’s central character, Steve Harris, is depicted as a complicated man, who tries to be a kind of surrogate father to the kids, who devotes his time to them, who is religious, yet who loses his temper on the sidelines and screams and swears at the kids.
“We had 12 families, and 12 different agendas and nobody’s agenda was to win,” says Harris, 39, a Harlem native who is coaching three teams now with the New York Gauchos and studying accounting. “And yet, at the end of the day we pulled it together and got to nationals.”
During filming, Harris says he was a young coach, who “needed to be tamed.”
“I was kind of wild, and I thought that was the way you had to coach because these were kids who didn’t have backyards, who had seen police tape and bodies with their faces covered,” he says. “But I’ve matured. I still have the same passion, but my delivery is different. I’m more of a teacher now.”
In one memorable scene, a referee tells Harris to get himself under control. Harris complains to the tournament organizers instead.
“He don’t know what it took for us to get down there,” he says. “We were on a bus 18 hours with no bathroom. And he’s telling me how to act?”
In another scene, Harris whispers a prayer to himself to have the strength to remain calm during the games.
The boys, who were mostly being raised by single moms, are on an emotional roller coaster. A couple of the kids get into trouble. Others seem to withdraw. Still others are dealing with absent fathers, and the crucible of being held to incredibly high expectations.
In one scene, a boy who has been pulled from the game, loses it and just runs out of the gym. The referees stop the game and insist that Harris retrieve him. Harris has to pick the boy up and carry him back to the bench.
Harris says he stays in touch with most of the kids, and almost all of them are still playing competitive ball as 9th and 10th graders. A number of the kids play in the Catholic league, which is one of the top high school leagues in the country.
“When I first got that group as 8-year-olds and I saw the talent, I told them they would play for top high schools, and I didn’t lie,” he says. “I had a kid call me recently. He said he was going to cut school but he remembered what I told him.”
“If I ever catch a kid cutting school, I would bring them to school and embarrass them in front of everyone,” Harris says.
For Brewster and Stephenson, the experience was a strain on their relationship. “I had this fantasy of having my son comfortable in all environments,” Brewster says. “When it was dysfunctional, I wanted him to be able to make adjustments, but it was probably over his head. I also didn’t want to just run out because it was difficult.”
Brewster says the lesson for his son was that “he had to deal with reality.” “If you want to play at this level, it’s not twice a week. It’s five times a week.”
Stephenson also acknowledges the strain. “It made me realize how different I am as a woman,” she says. “My priorities were totally different.”
So, bottom line: is all of this good or bad for the kids? “I think if channeled properly it can be a positive and important experience for kids. It has to done by keeping it in perspective,” Stephenson says.
Did folks on that trip succeed in that? “I think some lost perspective,” she says.
The film DVD can be ordered at: www.radafilm.com, or at
www.createspace.com/261493, or at Amazon. The trailer is at: youtube.com/radafilm. Brewster and Stephenson are seeking broader release either in theaters or on television.