I hate pimping ESPN programming because it opens me up to the whole "he couldn't have liked it that much, they told him to write that" angle. If you look at my columns from the past five years, you will notice that I rarely write about any ESPN shows or movies unless it's something I really liked; since I'm not allowed to openly criticize any of our shows (for obvious reasons), it seems fishy when I'm only praising our stuff. That's why I stay away. And sometimes, when we promote something to smithereens and I DON'T write about it, the silence can be deafening, if you catch my drift.
Well, here's a deserved plug for an ESPN movie: I watched "Through the Fire" a few weeks ago, and thought it was absolutely superb. Remember when I wrote about Darcy Frey's book "The Last Shot" last summer, the one about high school hoopsters on Coney Island? "Fire" is the TV companion to that book, a documentary that follows the latest Coney Island sensation (Sebastian Telfair) through his senior year of high school in 2004. People have been throwing the "Hoops Dreams" comparison around here, and it's definitely in the ballpark, but I think "The Last Shot" works much better. It's just an absorbing documentary from start to finish, especially as we watch Telfair subtly change from "relatively humble but flashy" to "overconfident and somewhat intolerable." At the same time, you can't really blame him -- he's coming from nothing, he's overwhelmed by the attention and responsibility, and there isn't a single role model to guide him (until his brother brings him to Greece in the stirring last section of the movie). Telfair doesn't just have his family counting on him, he has an entire community counting on him. So he's a fascinating protagonist, mainly because you're never sure whether you like him or not.
But here's the thing: When the climax of the movie happens (Telfair's getting drafted by the Blazers), it's much more affecting than you can imagine, with an entire room of family and friends practically falling down in delight. The defining moment is the sight of Telfair's little brother uncontrollably sobbing with joy; if you ever wondered why basketball means so much to the African-American community, just watch that scene. From day one, ever since I could walk and talk, I've loved basketball as much as any middle-class white kid could love it. But it was never a potential savior for me. I never looked at basketball as my one chance to escape my current situation and provide a better life for my family. I never looked at basketball as my own personal lottery ticket. I never worried that, if I failed in some way as a player, my family and community would be failing with me. You watch Telfair's brother in that final scene and everything hits home: It's not that basketball means so much to the people from Coney Island, but that basketball means too much.
Anyway, there were some holes in the movie, like Telfair's disappearance on draft day (never explained), and some one-sided storytelling in some of the basketball scenes (Scoop covered some of this in his column), and even the involvement of celebs like Jay-Z and Spike Lee (who keep turning up in Telfair's locker room during the movie). But that's more nitpicking than anything else. It's a wonderfully done movie, it's worth seeing (it premieres Sunday night at 8 p.m. on ESPN), and I hope ESPN keeps running stuff like this because there's no real reason why HBO should have a monopoly on the Great Documentary Front.
Final grade: A