In Praise of Sunset Park

With the recent announcement that Kyrie Irving’s Uncle Drew movie is an actual real movie it got the Lil’ Dogg thinking about basketball movies.

There have been A LOT of hoops flicks throughout the years despite the fact that making a good basketball movie is very hard and making a bad basketball movie is extremely easy. Shooting a basketball scene is unlike other sports. There’s no hiding stunt doubles behind helmets and pads. If the actor can’t dribble well there is no faking that (i.e. Leo in Basketball Diaries). And despite the insistence by Hollywood to keep on trying, shooting an actor dunking on an 8 foot rim NEVER LOOKS REAL.

White Men Can’t Jump was a cultural phenomenon in the early 90s so of course we got an absolute glut of basketball based films throughout the rest of the decade. Some were good – Blue Chips, Above the Rim. Some were terrible – Forget Paris, My Giant so basically anything involving Billy Crystal in any way. And one seems to have been completely forgotten – Sunset Park.

Sunset Park came out in 1996 and was immediately pegged as an Above the Rim rip-off. A skeptical person might suggestion that the movie itself only existed so that a soundtrack could be released and there’s no doubt the soundtrack was way more successful than the actual movie. A track listing of Ghostface, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Mobb Deep and Tupac certainly got people’s attention in 1996.

Rhea Pearlman headlined the movie as a PE Teacher who takes over coaching a NYC High School Boys Basketball Team. As far as Red Flags go this one was 50 feet wide and waving in a stiff breeze. A tiny white woman coaching a bunch of black kids and teaching them about life – that’s racist Hollywood BS 101 – the White who saves the minorities. But Sunset Park flips the script (at least a little bit).

Pearlman’s Coach Saroka never claims to know anything about basketball. She’s just trying to earn some extra cash. She basically lets the kids run the team themselves (not a great idea) and when that doesn’t work she commits to learning about hoops.

But this isn’t a movie about the coaches life and that’s what makes it a little bit of a cut above the usual fare even if the idea of the movie is better than the actual execution.

Sunset Park focuses on the kid’s lives and their struggles. And for the most part it shows them as actual people and not cliches.

That’s a young Terence Howard right there.

The kids on the team are supposed to be tough guys living hard scramble lives but the movie also allows them to be vulnerable and sensitive kids who just want a chance to be better.

Sunset Park isn’t a great movie. Far from it. But it at least tried to be something more than the usual Coach Saves the Kids (and Learns a Lesson Too) fair that Hollywood offers up time and time again.

And that soundtrack. Man that was a bangin’ soundtrack.

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