White Men Can’t Jump is about so much more than basketball

In Ron Shelton’s hands, sport is the universal story-teller, the great revealer of character

Wesley Snipes as Sidney ‘Syd’ Deane and and Woody Harrelson as Billy Hoyle in White Men Can’t Jump

Wesley Snipes as Sidney ‘Syd’ Deane and and Woody Harrelson as Billy Hoyle in White Men Can’t Jump

 

You can’t talk about sports movies without talking about Ron Shelton. He is Mr Bull Durham, he is Mr White Men Can’t Jump, he is Mr Tin Cup.

He made a quietly underrated boxing movie called Play It To The Bone and a grim biopic of the baseball player Ty Cobb. He has written or co-written The Best Of Times (American football), Blue Chips (basketball) and The Great White Hype (boxing).

Basically, if there’s ever an inter-planetary sports movie battle, Ron Shelton will be in charge of our entry. The protagonist will have game, plenty of it, enough for the big time if he keeps his shit together. The cracks will be wise and the smack talk will flow. There’ll be some sort of fatal human weakness in there too and the movie will surf the tension between it and his talent. It’ll all clock in under a nice, neat two hours.

Thirty years ago next month, Shelton started shooting White Men Can’t Jump on various pieces of asphalt in the rougher neighbourhoods along the Blue Line between LA and Long Beach in southern California. He hired some heavies from the Fruit of Islam group to do security, sending them in ahead of the cast and crew to minimise any incidents that might bubble up.

This wasn’t just your typical Hollywood jitters. Shelton had got the idea for the film around the time he turned up at his own weekly outdoor game in Hollywood to find the court deserted and a padlock on the gates. When he asked what happened he was told that some guy called Jesse had gone to his glove compartment.

“I didn’t know that ‘Going to your glove compartment’ meant going to get a gun to settle a dispute,” Shelton told the Grantland website in 2012.

“There was an argument about whether something was a block or a charge and he went to his glove compartment and shot a guy dead. I then moved my game indoors to the Hollywood Y.”

Shelton was a sportsman long before he was a film director. The reason Bull Durham rang so true – and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay – was that it was vaguely autobiographical. He played Triple A baseball for a year and a half and spent five seasons in the minor leagues. He was, like the movie says, a phone call away from the big time. Which, of course, is where the drama lies.

“I was an athlete,” he said in an interview one time. “I won a college basketball scholarship. I got up at 2.30 every day, and only because it was baseball or basketball practice then. The only reason I majored in English Lit was because it was the only course that fitted that schedule.

“And I make movies from the athletes’ point of view, not the fans’. You see things differently from the dugout. The fringe players in life are frequently more interesting than the winners. Those trying to reach the spotlight are more interesting. It’s a traditional element of American literature.

Idiot savants

“My baseball hero as a child was Eddie Matthews, who was from my hometown of Santa Barbara. But he kept on getting arrested for drink driving. My dad used to say, ‘Y’know Eddie has a drinking problem.’ But that meant I had to learn those other qualities from other people, which I see as a valuable rite of passage. By the time people become professionals they are like idiot savants. They can only do one thing. And when they can’t do that they’re sunk.”

Billy Hoyle’s world of hustle on the LA net-chain scene isn’t anywhere near the pro level but Woody Harrelson plays the idiot savant role to the max. When it comes to street-level playground basketball, he can run with the best of them. When it comes to having the basic amount of cop on you need to hang onto the people you love, he’s stone useless.

The movie opens with him hustling Sidney Deane – the Wesley Snipes character – out of $62 on a sun-blushed morning by the Pacific shore. By the end, he and Deane are gambling $2,000 belonging to his girlfriend Gloria (Rosie Perez) on a game against a legendary pair of playground hustlers known as The King and The Duck. They win, of course. And Billy loses the girl, of course.

Because Shelton was such a devotee of sport, he was never going to fill a basketball movie with actors who couldn’t play. Keanu Reeves auditioned for the Billy part but over the course of three days on court, it became clear that he was no baller.

“I was lucky,” Harrelson said in 2017. “If Keanu had played any ball as a kid, I think he would have gotten the part.”

As it was, Harrelson could play well enough to be coachable. Snipes was no Dr J but he was an athletic specimen and he had enough charisma and patter to make it impossible to take your eyes off him. Throughout the basketball sequences, he carried himself like the best payer anyone had ever seen. Even when he missed shots, he kept on jabbering and preening himself as if they had all gone in.

Wesley Snipes as Sidney Deane in White Men Can’t Jump
Wesley Snipes as Sidney Deane in White Men Can’t Jump

For anyone who knew their basketball at the time, those scenes were made extra funny for the fact that some of the dudes that Snipes and Harrelson were taking to town were genuine top-rank ball players.

Marques Johnson plays Raymond (the guy who goes to the glove compartment) but in a previous life he was a five-time NBA All Star. Duane Martin and Freeman Williams both had decent NBA careers, Nigel Miguel was signed by the New Jersey Nets but got injured before ever playing a game.

“It’s all choreographed within an inch of its life in order to look unchoreographed,” Shelton told NPR in 1992.

“That’s the real trick. We had a four-week basketball camp with real coaches. We had a big playbook that I had worked out with my assistants, there were Xs and Os everywhere. And a wonderful thing about working with athletes and athlete actors is that they’re used to hitting their marks. And they can do it over and over again.

“We ran plays endlessly. We ran them for days. And it was all to make them look as if they were spontaneous. That’s the whole trick of this type of choreography, to make it look spontaneous. Because if you just throw up a ball and let them play, there’s no way the camera can be in focus and there’s no way the camera can follow them.

Basketball scenes

“The playbook was just basic pick-and-rolls and backdoors, basic fundamental basketball. But they had to learn it from the left side of the court and the right side of the court so that at any time I could say, ‘Run play 16 from the left side’. Then after I had all that footage so I knew I had precise moments, I would let them play freelance for three magazines of film so I would have fumbles and things that wouldn’t have looked natural if you staged it. I could then cut that into the staged stuff.”

Beyond the basketball scenes, White Men Can’t Jump lived on in popular culture through the endless Yo Mama jokes traded back and forth as the players jaw through the games – “Yo Mama’s so fat, her blood type is Ragu”, etc, etc. Shelton had written a few into the script but when the actors started improvising their own, he gave them a homework assignment, telling them to come in the next day with as many of the best ones they could gather up.

They came back with hundreds. Shelton shot them all, even though maybe only a couple of dozen make it into the movie. Some were dropped because they were too over the top for the rating he was looking for. Some got cut because they just didn’t have the music.

“The rhythms of the movie are really important,” Shelton explained. “Because I wanted the dialogue and the whole drama of the movie to have basketball rhythms. Which are frenetic, kinetic, reverse direction a lot and are not classically dramatic, three-act rhythm.

“So in the Mama joke sequences, I was more concerned in getting three or four of them in a row that had a rhythm than whether they were all the best Mama jokes I heard. So sometimes the funniest Mama joke was surrounded by three flat Mama jokes and I would end up taking all of them out. It had to be, I tell a Mama joke, then you top me, then I top you, then you top me and we get out while the rhythm is still alive.”

Like any good sports movie, White Men Can’t Jump is ultimately about so much more than basketball. Partly it’s about the eternal stickiness of race in America. Partly it’s about addiction, as Billy’s reckless ways with money mean he ends up alone even after he wins the final game. Partly it’s about the struggle on the margins, the things you do to scrape by and to save yourself having to grow up.

“Sometimes when you win, you really lose, Billy,” says Gloria in the film’s pivotal speech. “And sometimes when you lose, you really win. And sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie. And sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic mechanism, from which one extracts what one needs.”

It’s the ultimate Ron Shelton life lesson, in the ultimate Ron Shelton movie. Sport as the universal story-teller, the great revealer of character.

And a spoonful of Yo Mama jokes to make the medicine go down.

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