A Beastie Boy and his basketball documentary   

Updated: April 18, 2008, 1:09 PM ET

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As the Tribeca ESPN Sports Film Festival approaches, Media Blitz columnist Sam Alipour will be checking in periodically and throughout the festival.

On Sept. 1, 2006, the best high school basketball players in the nation came together in New York City to play a game unlike any other.

Held at famed Rucker Park in Harlem, where street ball legends are born, the Elite 24 -- which, unlike other prep all-star contests, draws kids regardless of their age or shoe affiliation -- has become an annual event. But its maiden voyage, held under threatening clouds and before the watchful eyes of pros Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and Ben Gordon, would prove to be something of a prescient, goose bump-inducing time capsule -- and, thankfully, it was captured in "Gunnin' For That #1 Spot," a documentary from Beastie Boys founding member Adam Yauch which is premiering at the second annual Tribeca ESPN Film Festival later this month.

Yauch, the hip-hop pioneer turned maverick filmmaker who asked 50 fans to film a Beasties concert at Madison Square Garden for his first documentary, profiled eight of the game's 24 prep stars as they navigated the increasingly high-pressure world of prep hoops before taking to the blacktop, where they vied for street cred and positioned themselves for the big time.

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I recently caught up with Yauch, a Brooklyn native, to talk about the head-bobbing fan-pleasing movie, the game and its players, and the coming celebration, when the man known by most as "MCA," now 43, will get off the canvas to recommence the fight for his right to, you know, be festive.

Alipour: What was it about the tourney that appealed to you from a filmmaker's standpoint?

Yauch: Well, I thought it was interesting that the top high school players in the country were brought together at the Rucker, outdoors, unlike the McDonald's game. It was a cool setting, a little bit of a street ball element. It's also the fact that all of these different kids were matched up regardless of sneaker affiliation or ages.

The film covers the growing presence of scouting services, media interest and sneaker companies. In your mind, are these outside influences tainting prep hoops?

Adam Yauch

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

This is how we're used to seeing Adam Yauch, performing with the Beastie Boys.

I hope the film doesn't come off saying, "This must stop!" (Laughs) To me, it's just an interesting world to look at. These kids have coaches calling them, financial advisors trying to contact their families. They're high school students, but they have all of these people grooming them from such a young age, preparing them to be superstars and multimillionaires, with different AAU coaches, shooting coaches. I don't think the film is intending to pass judgment. You know what I'm sayin'?

Yeah, you're just shedding some light on it. And some of that is good, no doubt. These players are developing faster, maybe. But is it good for them?

Well, I don't know that it's necessarily bad. Who's to say that their lives would be better or happier if they didn't have this around them? Maybe it keeps them on the straight and narrow, having these people around. And a lot of these people do sincerely care, though I'm sure some are just trying to make a buck. I was also surprised by how media-savvy some of them were. On one hand, they're normal high school kids. On the other, they're very grown up. I expected they'd be talking a lot more s--- like regular high school kids. Like, "Naw, I'm a take that kid out!" But they're like polished NBA players, cautious. Of course, they're less cautious on the court. Beasley, in his interview, is very conservative, but on the court he says whatever comes to mind. We miked up the players for the game, and you can hear Beasley talking all sorts of trash.

Your background as a fan?

I enjoy seeing games at the park, but I don't care to watch basketball on TV. I mean, I'm a fair-weather Knicks fan. A few seasons when they were close to beating the Bulls, I went to a bunch of games. But I'm not a die-hard. The NBA's a little slow for my taste with the commercials.

You're a photographer, a filmmaker and a somewhat successful musician. Which is all great, I guess. But the real question is, how are your hoop skills?

"Gunnin' For That #1 Spot"
The eight players featured in Adam Yauch's documentary are:

Jerryd Bayless
Michael Beasley
Tyreke Evans
Donte Greene
Brandon Jennings
Kevin Love
Kyle Singler
Lance Stephenson

I would say my game is behind those other things. I'm probably a little better at making music. (Laughs) I have a regular game with a bunch of friends. Been playing for years. But I'm not trying to challenge -- wait, hold on. I was going to say I wouldn't challenge Michael Beasley, but I did play him. Me and my homeboy took on him and his coach.

Should I even ask how you did?

Actually, we played three games and we beat them in one. And the tiebreaker game was close, like 6-6, and they scored the last point. But I will say I don't think Beasley was giving us his best game.

He knows not to beat up on the director.

(Laughs) Yeah, that would've been messed up. He could've dunked on both of our heads if he wanted to, but he didn't.

I know that when I look back at my early work, I cringe. Actually, I cringe at my new stuff, too. You cut your teeth directing the band's music videos. Do you look at your early stuff and think, "What was I thinking?"

No, not really. I might cringe a little when I see "No Sleep Till Brooklyn." (Laughs) But I didn't direct that one. I collaborated with a lot of the directors we've worked with, and even from when the band first started I was shooting my own super-8 stuff for the band. But the first videos I directed, like "So What'cha Want" and "Pass the Mic," I like the way those came out. Most of the stuff that I cut, I like, just because I put it together the way I wanted to.

Adam Yauch

George Pimentel/Getty Images

Many people don't know Yauch is also involved in film.

If you had to choose a favorite Beastie Boys track or album -- and you do -- which is your favorite? And please, no crap about choosing between your children.

(Laughs) Um, all right, I won't give you the children line. But I will say, with all honesty, I don't have a favorite. Though I thought "Check Your Head" was an interesting period of time. We'd been a band, playing instruments like a hard-core band, and then we kinda became a hip-hop group, and I think "Check Your Head" was where we went back to playing instruments again, combining it with the hip-hop things we were doing. It was a time when we put everything together.

You have some sick music in your flick, from hip-hop legends to the Beach Boys. Did you consult with the players in choosing the tracks for their profiles?

No, not at all. I cut what I wanted. Just finding stuff that fits the mood of the scene, and playing around until it feels right. I feel the music works well. I think the Jay-Z ["Lucifer," "My First Song"] and Biggie ["Hypnotize"] and Nas ["Made You Look," "Halftime"] stuff works really well. Then there's the Jimmy Smith track ["Root Down and Get It"] during Kyle [Singler's] profile, which was nice.

From what you've seen of your subjects, who's going to be the biggest star on the NBA stage?

Man, I don't know. People tell me all the time that Beasley's going to be the No. 1 draft pick. The way he plays, he already looks like a pro. Kevin Love seems like he can step right into the NBA. All of the guys have a way of stepping up to the competition.

At the moment, some pundits aren't feeling Kevin Love's pro potential, citing the color of his skin and the shoddy track record of recent white pros. Now, historically, white rappers haven't fared well, either, but you're white …

This sounds like a loaded question. (Laughs)

Maybe. How do you feel about white players, like Love, being judged by their skin color?

It seems crazy to me. You gotta judge people on who they are. I mean, I've been going crazy watching these elections. Every comment about the Democratic Party is about how Hillary Clinton is a woman and Barack Obama is black. It's crazy to me that we don't listen to what these people have to say, what their motivation is, and what they plan to do. Same thing applies to basketball. Who cares about their ethnic background or gender? It's about what kind of guy he is on the court, right?

Michael Beasley

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Beasley, who's featured in Yauch's documentary, is the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft.

In the film, you cover guys from all over, both coasts, different backgrounds. What did you learn about how a player's background and geographical location inform his game?

I don't know if it's a racial thing, but as you see in the film, there's one time where Kevin Love goes up with the ball and doesn't dunk it. He just nicely drops it in. And some heckler in the crowd is like, "You gotta dunk that s--- Kevin!" And Bobbito [Garcia, the Elite 24 MC] goes, "They don't like light around here Kevin. You gotta dunk that!" Then, it's funny, a little later Kevin dunks the hell out of the ball, and the crowd roars. Same thing with Kyle, who put it up gently at one point, and Bobbito says, "Yo, you gotta slap boards or something, kid!" I don't know if that's a coastal thing, or racial, but it's definitely funny.

Brandon [Jennings'] story was cool to see. He grew up in Compton, and his dad wasn't around, but in a way, he has the happiest game when he's on the court. Some of the guys get dead serious -- like, Jerryd Bayless looks like he's ready to kill somebody when he's on the court -- but Brandon looks like he's having a blast. Flying, making these crazy passes, just having fun. They're all incredible players, but it's cool to see the different ways these guys approach the game. And it was interesting to see these guys hanging out together. They come from different backgrounds but I didn't get the impression there was any tension between them. They all got along.

You go by MCA and Nathaniel Hornblower, but at the Rucker you earn your nickname. What was yours?

Oh, I don't think I got one. And Bobbito clearly says in the film that, at the Rucker, you don't nickname yourself. You get branded. So I wouldn't be so bold as to give myself one. Although I will say that at our own basketball court at Atwater, our recording studio [in Atwater Village, Calif.], the guys would call me "The Praying Mantis."

Wait, what?

I don't know. (Laughs) It's just my Atwater nickname. Maybe it was my technique -- praying mantis-style. [Note: Mantises are superb ambush predators who wait for their prey -- flies, lizards, frogs and birds -- to approach and then lash out at incredible speeds. They also look funny.]

Kyle Singler

G Fiume/Getty Images

Kyle Singler may not dunk very often, but he had an outstanding freshman season for Duke.

Your future plans as a filmmaker?

I started my own distribution company, Oscilloscope Pictures, so we've been going to festivals looking for stuff to distribute: documentaries, narrative, foreign, domestic. I just want them to have some kind of creative integrity to them. In terms of what I personally want to make, I'm not sure, but I'm a bit documentary-ed out. There's a script that I wrote with a friend about graffiti writers in the early '80s that I may make if I can find the loot to do it.

So, word is the Beastie Boys are working on a new album. How 'bout some details?

Nope. It's top secret. I'm not allowed to. It's actually in my contract with the NCAA, so it's a violation, and I could be suspended from a couple of recording sessions. But, we are recording. I'm in the middle of it now. The studio is just across the hall from where I'm sitting. It'll probably drop early next year. But I'm not sure. Whenever it gets done.

The festival is taking place in your stomping grounds. What advice would you give to us Tribeca-bound West Coasters on how to do it right?

You should check out the Rucker, for one. We're also going to have a pretty cool party with a pingpong tournament. You're coming, right?

I am, but here's my concern. You may have a song about fighting for your right or what not, but -- and no disrespect -- you and your partners-in-rhyme are getting up there in age. Are the Beastie Boys still partying?

Honestly, not so much. When most people are getting ready to party, I'm reading books to my daughter to put her to sleep, then passing out on her bed. But they'll be at the party, trying to beat me at pingpong. I think the last time we played was in the recording studio in, like, '89, so it should be interesting. I'm just glad to have my friends come out, have some of the players there, and to premiere the film at Tribeca. It really is a New York-based film -- the point of the film is all these different players are coming together in New York. It all makes sense.

Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at sam.alipour@gmail.com.



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