Rudy Hypolite’s documentary “Push: Madison vs. Madison,” which follows the Madison Park boys’ basketball team throughout the 2007 season, begins with Cardinals head coach Dennis Wilson crossing off opponents listed on a chalkboard. With his back to the camera, Wilson runs a line through the names of each team the Cardinals beat, with the ease that Madison Park won games during that magical season. The Cardinals had a perfect regular season and captured the coveted City League title in ’07.
However, Hypolite’s film – akin to Madison Park’s season that year – is about promises made and promises unfulfilled. And the final shot before credits roll is that of Wilson erasing Madison Park’s name from the board, following images of the Cardinals’ season-ending loss in the state tournament.
“Push” made its hometown debut in a Saturday night showing at the Somerville Theater as part of the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Although basketball is at its heart, the documentary is more an account of the struggles presented at inner-city schools and its students.
Madison Park, a vocational and technical school, hosts students from all of Boston’s neighborhoods. That creates a breeding ground for hostility. To become a team — better yet, the team that Wilson believes they could be — each of the Cardinals need to put aside the chaos that seems to befall them at every step.
They must put aside allegiances to their turf. Madison Park’s stars Malik Smith and “Radio” Raheem Singleton were raised at rival housing projects, so there’s an uneasy tension between the competing recruits. The tension isn’t fully revealed until the season’s most critical game. As Madison Park comes unglued in their playoff loss to Braintree, Singleton turns a deaf ear to Wilson’s advice, feeling he was spurned by Smith who wouldn’t give up the ball in key situations.
They also must put their personal histories behind them. There is the story of Jakeen Cobb, who lost his mother at age 12 and relied on his eldest sister to lead the family. At another early point in “Push,” one of Madison Park’s players reports to Wilson in the middle of practice explaining his absence because his mother’s boyfriend sent her to the hospital with a punch to the face.
Through it all, the grounding force that keeps the team (and the film) together is its charismatic leader, Coach Wilson. His swagger emanates through the screen. Wilson is introduced into the film as the camera follows the former history teacher (now retired) through Madison Park’s corridors. It is in this sequence that Wilson is seen in the roles he played day-to-day at “MP.” He is a friend, a councilor, a disciplinarian and a hoops tactician whenever need be. And he’s always quick with a one-liner.
In a lighter moment, we also get a glimpse of Wilson in his younger years as a member of a Harlem Globetrotters-style show basketball team with an Afro that rivaled Dr. J’s.
While Wilson is the flamboyant face of MP basketball, school police officer and assistant basketball coach Frank White is its imposing muscle. He’s seen strolling the gym, lending his advice during drills dressed in his full uniform. It is revealed later in “Push” that White is also Smith’s father. The audience is left somewhat in the dark about the nature of White and Smith’s relationship. White tells the story of breaking the news to Smith while he was in the sixth grade. Later, during the closing credits, we’re told that father and son are now on speaking terms, but it remains a subplot largely unexplored.
But what’s clear is that “Push” has a lot to say and it’s not just about basketball.
After the Cardinals’ on-court meltdown in the state tournament game against Braintree, the camera follows Wilson into the locker room as he addresses his team one last time.
“This is just a minor setback in life,” Wilson tells the dejected team.
In a relaxed but assertive tone, he questions how his team is going to confront their latest setback.
Basketball season was over, but life would move on. That’s when the test of will is truly determined.