A film comes along every so often that captures the essence of sport. Well, American sport. In this case basketball. He Got Game shows how professionalism manipulates and drags the protagonist into a Faustian pact.
You need more than talent. You need dark forces behind you, and even if all the pieces fall into place, you must possess bottomless willpower to survive. Because, from the very moment you start averaging 40 points a night, you will be surrounded by leeches.
“I pray that you understand why I pushed you so hard,” obsessive dad implores prodigious son. “It was to get you to that next level.”
In the script, the one-on-one game at the end has a future NBA player – played by a current NBA player – trashing his father and sending him back to jail for accidentally killing his mother.
Do not fret, this is a Spike Lee joint. The writer-director-producer is too much of a connoisseur to allow tragedy overwhelm the story of a phenom at the precise moment he transforms into a butterfly.
On the page, the young stud repeatedly dunks on his ageing pops, in a role reversal of what happened six years previously on the same asphalt. Spike yells "action" and Denzel Washington makes a jump shot. Then a second one drops. And a third, all net, to drive the scene in a dramatically different direction.
Sensing a brewing alchemy, Spike Lee does the right thing. He does nothing, thereby forcing the NBA star to compete for real. Jesus has to destroy his father in order to be saved. There follows a timeless piece of cinema.
Lee wraps multiple cliches into a neat package, delivering each of them via a master technician, who he previously cast as Malcolm X, and a complete novice named Ray Allen.
In 1998 that was a legitimate question. Allen went on to become the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history (Steph Curry is closing in on that record). He won two championships, with the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. Boston teammates and fans still hate him for leaving to pursue a second ring on the sport's first super team, alongside LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. All this matters as it provided a clear example of multimillionaire black athletes taking some of the control away from white billionaire owners, in an emancipation of sorts that occurred in the NBA during the transcendental careers of Michael Jordan and now James.
First acting role
This was Allen's first acting role. Kobe Bryant was initially approached to play Jesus Shuttlesworth but he passed after shooting four air balls in a play-off loss to the Utah Jazz that concluded his rookie season. "This summer is too big for me," teenage Kobe told Spike (Bryant also passed on Uncut Gems before Kevin Garnett played himself alongside Adam Sandler).
A raft of rising NBA star’s auditioned. Turns out Ray Allen could act.
There are prophetic parallels to the rise of James, right down to the state championship Jesus won with his friends. The film was out before LeBron had entered High School but the narrative is reality in continuous loop. It is a dog-eared American tale about black talent from The Projects being packaged and sold as commodities. It is a glimpse into what the 0.01 percentile who make it must overcome and more importantly what they must avoid.
Spike Lee also manages to reflect the floating aesthetic of basketball. Jesus is a teenager from Coney Island. He was not named after Christ, per se, but Earl “The Pearl” Munroe.
"Cause he was the truth on the playgrounds of north Philadelphia, " Jake Shuttlesworth informs his son. "Then the media got a hold of it and they had to call him Black Jesus."
No part of American life is untouched. The white middle-class peers in, claws at the ready, to get Jesus to attend their alma mater. Incarceration of the black man is omnipresent, juxtopositioning that likelihood with the young athlete’s fate.
The crossroad Jesus has reached is unmistakable. He can become the next Jordan or the next Len Bias.
Bryant and James went straight from high school to the NBA while Shuttlesworth is weighing up a scholarship at Big State University – where he cannot earn a cent – or any other college that tickles his fancy. The perks are tempting. He is hounded by everyone to make up his mind up. He is bribed, poked and betrayed at every turn.
Everyone wants to know the boy king’s decision as life imitates art or art imitates life.
Shaquille O’Neal: “Jesus?”
Scottie Pippen: "Jesus?"
Charles Barkley: "Hallelujah Jesus!"
Spike Lee expertly slips into documentary form by casting the coaching doyens of university basketball as themselves, with a scene stealer by John Turturro – who goes on to play a very different Coen brothers character also named Jesus – before Jordan glares into the camera: "He got game."
One by one, trusted confidantes reveal their true colours. Everyone wants their piece of the action. No one can save Jesus, not his dead mother nor greedy uncle, not the drug lord who lent him cash to get his sister into a safe apartment, not his high school coach with a brown envelope nor the slimy agent with a Rolex, and not his girlfriend Lala, captured magnificently by Rosario Dawson.
We see the price of fame in its most grotesque form as Lee meanders down as many subplots as $25 million could buy him. Throughout the director's career he has pit style and substance against each other. Public Enemy's title tune, penned by Chuck D and Stephen Stiles, ensure that the rhythm section stays on point throughout.
Critics complained about “too many side streets” but they all feel worthwhile. The main artery of the story is a long shot at redemption between sinner father and bitter son but Lee splashes all the colours of the rainbow up on screen.
In 1998 the since disrobed Charlie Rose, with his hawkish authority over artists seeking to sell their work to the mainstream, prodded Lee on his TV show.
"I think of Tiger Woods when I think of this story," says Rose. "That clearly worked out ok. Tiger says 'My dad made me tough. He gave me mental toughness that nobody else has.'"
"I don't know Tiger, or Mr Earl Woods, " Lee responds, "but who knows how they really feel about each other. I mean, behind closed doors.
“A lot of fathers thought they could be in the major leagues – play pro football or pro baseball or play in the NBA – but 99 per cent of those guys were not good enough but, in their mind, if they didn’t hurt their arm or blow out their knee or get married or if the kids hadn’t come along, if they had just a couple of breaks they could have been in the pros making all this money, rather than the bums they watch on television.
“So what is the next best thing they are gonna do?”
Rose wonders if Spike thinks Andre Agassi, Woods or others like them regret the way their parent-child relationship morphed into a ruthless commercial partnership.
“I think all children have to be pushed,” says Spike, “but there comes a point where I feel the parent has to take a step back. In this film the parent pushed too hard. Way too hard.”
Rose leans into Spike's thorny relationship with his own father, the musician Bill Lee.
“He instilled his love of sport in me. This film is about that, not the conflict we had in later life.”
Rose smells blood: “That had to have fed this film, somehow?”
“I wasn’t consciously writing like that. It might be there subconsciously.”
Rose: “The critics like this movie but one thing they say is you had a great story – father and son – and a great story about almost the corruption of basketball in the recruitment of these High School phenoms…”
The Brooklyn-ite refuses to be outwitted by his Long Island neighbour.
“I know where you are leading me to…”
Rose: “You got too many side stories.”
Lee happily defends Milla Jovovich’s cameo as a prostitute: “I think people have to realize if they look at the body of my work that’s the way I tell a story. I think the human brain has the capacity to follow more than one story. I don’t see how we can have a character like Denzel Washington who has been in prison for six and a half years, and he gets a week out and he is not gonna try and get with a woman?”
He Got Game reaches a crescendo as father and son duel beneath the high rises where Jesus grew up and is now days away from escaping. Time is nearly up for Jake too. Unbeknownst to Jesus, they are playing for keeps.
"The whole time I told Ray I wasn't good with my left hand, which I wasn't," Washington remembers years later. "All I was doing every night was practicing with my left hand. Every night, two, three hours. I never let him see me practice.
“Go back and watch the movie again, all I start doing is keep going left. Then I got lucky and some shots started going in. Now the New York is coming out of me. Now I am bragging. I think I ran around twice! I knew I was already done.”
"He is banking shit in!" says Spike Lee with his infectious laughter. "The way I wrote it Jesus Shuttlesworth beats his father Jake 12-zip. I knew there was no way in the world that Denzel was not going to try and score a basket. Because he still considered himself a baller."
Ray Allen calls for a timeout instead of a cut. “Spike, the script says…”
The director shrugs, “Whatdoyouwantmetodo?”
There is a faceless crowd in the shadow of glaring floodlights, as a 22-year-old All Star walks back on the court to fillet an already gasping 43-year-old actor.
It is poetry in motion.
Twenty years later, the New York Knicks fanatic is still giggling at his luck: “I just kept rolling.”
The scene resumes with an overhead shot as Allen and Shuttlesworth mesh into one being. He scores every which way. The anger serves the plot with the physical punishment that used to pass from father on to son now reversed.
“Pay back is a bitch, huh?”