Balling on the NBA stage is a dream that doesn’t come easy. In the new documentary Little Ballers, esteemed producer/ author Crystal McCrary spotlights the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and four 11-year-olds who play for New Heights in Brooklyn named Judah, Tyriek, Cole and Kevin, with diverse backgrounds and Michael Jordan-sized aspirations.
Executive produced by NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire and rapper Lupe Fiasco, the two-hour film documents the boys’ successes and struggles on the road to the National Championship game, as well as the coaches who school them on more than just basketball skills. The league’s finest, like Amar’e, Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash, Tyson Chandler and Russell Westbrook among others, make a cameo, reminiscing on their childhood and AAU upbringings.
Here, VIBE picked McCrary’s brain about creating Little Ballers and how the film’s magical moments extend beyond the court. Catch the flick during the new NickSports block tonight, February 25 at 9:30pm EST.—Adelle Platon (@adelleplaton)
VIBE: You start the film with this quote from Magic Johnson: “All kids need is a little help, a little hope and somebody who believes in them.” Does that accurately describe the frame of mind you were in when you set out to do this film?
Crystal McCrary: Thank you for bringing that up. It’s so funny because at the screening on Saturday (Feb. 14) that Nickelodeon did, Cookie Johnson (Magic Johnson’s wife) came and she was like ‘I love that quote!’ Magic wasn’t there but afterwards, she’s like, ‘Oh I told him you used that quote’ and I said, ‘The spirit of that quote was just with me as I was filming the kids.’ I’m a voracious reader, and I was reading lots of different basketball quotes and adages while I was filming the boys. I was just trying to get into the spirit and energy of what would sort of be an overarching theme of this film, and when I came across that Magic Johnson quote, it just really stuck with me and it resonated on so many levels in terms of what I wanted to accomplish with this film.
What did you set out to accomplish?
One of the biggest things that I wanted to accomplish with this film—aside from telling an honest story where I allowed the people in the film to be truthful, but also have their integrity—I really wanted a story that offered hope, in the same way that basketball offers hope to all the kids in the movie.
It’s hard not to form a soft spot for the kids. Was it working with the boys that pushed you to make this movie?
Well, I think what made me turn the camera on them was that I came across these kids because my 11-year-old son was playing for the team and I was kind of the basketball mom. Most of the kids would come and sleep over at our place, or I was always driving the kids to the game, so I just got a chance to know these boys. As you saw from the film, they are all from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and that plays a part in the different experiences they bring to the team, how they approach a situation and how they feel about basketball. But it didn’t change or affect how they felt about each other. They’re teammates and they’re brothers. When I began filming these boys, they were 11-years-old and really towards that last age of innocence. As passionate and competitive as they were about basketball, they were still kids that really just bonded with and learned from one another. They didn’t see class. They didn’t see race. They didn’t see those types of differences nor should they have. They didn’t even have any ill will towards the other rival teams. They’re at that point in their lives where they haven’t really had any major disappointments academically. They obviously haven’t had any disappointments professionally; they’re still incredibly impressionable and have this sense of hope and idealism of what they can achieve in life.
You also focus on their coaches. Why was it important to tell their side of the story?
Well, Coach Billy is a series in and of himself. When he was 10, 11 years-old, he was each of those boys. He thought he was going to play in the NBA [but] very shortly after arriving in high school, he realized he didn’t have what it takes to get to the next level and that hit him really hard. As he said in the film, he turned to the streets and almost lost his life. He made this promise to himself while he was recovering that if he lived, he was going to turn his life around and dedicate it to mentoring and coaching youth, and making sure that they didn’t go down the same path he went down.
Showing this positive role model of an African-American man in these young boys’ lives and really mentoring them, being a father figure and a big brother— even when all the boys in the film have their fathers there, except Tyriek. I just felt that was an image that I wanted to see and a story that I wanted to tell in general.
Would you consider that your personal mission in making this?
One of my personal missions was to show that African-Americans are not monolithic. We come in many hues, sizes, shapes, colors and backgrounds. I giveNickelodeon and Nickelodeon Sports so much credit for doing this film as a world TV premiere. Now we have Blackish and other shows, but on mainstream networks, if you have a kids’ TV show, usually it’s one black kid and the rest are all white. Nickelodeon has been different. I didn’t make this movie for Nickelodeon. I didn’t make it for any network or any studio. I made this film independently and took it out on the film festival circuits and did private screenings. I didn’t know what was going to happen to it. I was hoping I would find a home for it but I knew it was going to have to be the right home.
My [other] personal mission was to show the diversity and range of folks within the African-American community as parents. In the news, we see these images like the Trayvon Martin situation, where his mom and dad were divorced. What I wanted to show was that there’s different families. For instance, in the case of Tyriek, his mom is a single mom, and he has some challenging circumstances, but the love, care, hopes and the dreams that (his mom) Michelle has for him are as valid as any white boy in suburbia America with a white picket fence and two parents.
That happens so often to black youth in this country. They get put into this category of “Other,” “Dangerous” or “Different.” The family structure is destroyed; poverty becomes a crime for us. In one scene, Tyriek hugs and kisses his mom and she talks about how he loves school and basketball, and how she knows that they live in a tough neighborhood. That’s why she likes it when he goes away on the weekends [to play basketball] and that was important for me to show.
You did a great job of doing just that, even with all the star power involved. Lupe Fiasco and Amar’e Stoudemire were executive producers of the project. What was it like working with them and how did you know that they were perfect fits for Little Ballers?
Lupe and Amar’e were extraordinary to work with in many ways. With Lupe, many know him as a songwriter and a creative, thoughtful person. He watched early cuts of the film and had incredibly valuable input in making sure that when I’m trying to get a message across, I don’t put a quote in from, let’s say an expert, because it might be provocative. It’s like putting a puzzle together when you get the experts’ quotes in and then you throw in the NBA players’ quotes. You have to move it around to get it in the right place and [Lupe] was wonderful with that. And of course, he helped with the music. There is a few of his original songs and some new music that he and Chris Paultre did in the film.
Amar’e just brought the credibility of an NBA player who came up through the AAU system, and really justifies the fact that basketball changed his life in a really positive way. This is no secret but Amar’e’s biological mother was a prostitute, a street hustler and a drug dealer. That was all around him; she’d be on one corner hustling, and his brother would be the look out saying: ‘Amar’e is on his way from school. Go to the other side of the street.’ That’s in the documentary, also. So Amar’e could really relate to say a Tyriek and even Kevin to a certain extent, of growing up in poverty. Amar’e ends up living with his AAU coach, Travis King, for a number of years, who later became his agent and is at Relativity Sports. Basketball gave him a sense of hope, family and structure.
There are so many positive things that happened to Amar’e because of basketball, but I also felt it was important to include [this quote] in the film from his agent: ‘But look, not everybody is going to be an Amar’e.’ If you look at the statistics in urban public schools, you have close to a 40% to 50% dropout rate. So I wanted to touch upon that as well and Amar’e certainly offered that perspective of coming up in basketball, to speak about basketball in other ways, to make sure I was authentically capturing moments in the film.
We also saw fun moments with the boys where the team would sing DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win.” How often was that stuck in your head while creating the film?
(Laughs) You could probably tell that was the song of the summer for those boys. I mean Coach Billy says in there: ‘I didn’t come here for third place or second place. I came here to win,’ and that was their mantra. That was their driving force and they really, really wanted to win. It’s that sense of accomplishment, and teamwork and their competitiveness— that’s what they went to the Nationals to do.
We won’t say whether they won or lost, but I will say this: One of the great lessons I think we all got from that [game] is that there are certainly great lessons to be learned from winning and losing. But there are even greater lessons to be won in losing, particularly at such a young age.
Catch Little Ballers during the new NickSports block tonight, February 25 at 9:30pm EST.