In 1974 Sports Illustrated writer Rick Telander spent a season observing life on New York City's public basketball courts. The resulting memoir, Heaven Is a Playground, is a fascinating document that weaves sports into sociology with its depiction of disenfranchized young Blacks for whom the game of basketball is no mere diversion but a self-defining discipline,...read more
In 1974 Sports Illustrated writer Rick Telander spent a season observing life on New York City's public basketball courts. The resulting memoir, Heaven Is a Playground, is a fascinating document that weaves sports into sociology with its depiction of disenfranchized young Blacks for whom
the game of basketball is no mere diversion but a self-defining discipline, an extended family, and--if they're good enough--a ticket out of the ghetto via college athletic scholarships. It's an illuminating read for sports fans and non-fans alike. This movie version relocates the action to
Chicago's Cabrini Green neighborhood and spreads a thick layer of fiction over the book's themes and personalities. Despite some dramatic fouls, the material retains enough interest and insight to score.
The author here is clumsily reinvented as Zack Telander (D.B. Sweeney), a whitebread type who, despite his unlikely background as a law school grad, has always wanted to participate in the street basketball leagues of the inner city playgrounds. He presents himself to local legend Byron Harper
(Michael Warren), a ticket scalper by trade but freelance talent scout by avocation. With zeal bordering on obsession, Byron organizes trouble-prone kids into disciplined teams and sets up exhibition matches on the asphalt courts, with college recruiters present if any player shows promise.
Initially Byron and his boys don't trust the strange Caucasian dude loitering on their turf, until Zack demonstrates his knowledge of contract law. Byron's adopted son Truth (Victor Love) looks like he has the right stuff to turn pro, and Byron wants all the legal counsel he can get as he
maneuvers to sign Truth with high-powered sports agent David Racine (Richard Jordan). Meanwhile the subplots proliferate. Zack discovers another basketball prodigy, Matthew Lockhart (Bo Kimble), a player of near-mythic prowess who's been practicing alone and unseen following a knee injury. Zack
also finds himself reluctantly in charge of one of the playground teams, a seemingly hopeless collection of troublemakers who want so much to shoot hoops that they'll take coaching from a white outsider.
Eventually Zack and Byron clash over how to manage the unpredictable Truth. The boy has a drug habit fed by his inflated but fragile ego, and after Matthew bests him in an impromptu one-on-one Truth dies of a cocaine seizure behind the wheel of his luxury sportscar. In the wake of the tragedy Zack
and Byron reconcile, forming a permanent partnership to cultivate and guide young champions out of the projects.
Despite lapses into melodrama, HEAVEN IS A PLAYGROUND succeeds in capturing the allure and urgency that basketball holds for these street partisans, especially when Zack's team of misfits finally pull together and hold their own against more seasoned players before rain stops the game. Theirs is a
completely insignificant playground match, but one senses the pride they gain through the minor victory.
Admittedly, there's an element of racial condescension in the Zack character and the way he functions as sort of a guide for white viewers into the heart of darkest Afro-America. Voiceover narration attempts to flesh out the role, and that Zack ultimately elects to remain in Cabrini Green is an
unexpected touch, but the whole thing would have seemed more sensible had it remained faithful to the source material and made Zack/Rick the reporter he was. (Rick Telander himself makes cameo appearance as a bartender.) D.B. Sweeney's (EIGHT MEN OUT, MEMPHIS BELLE) insistent good nature brings
likability, if not believability, to the role.
Michael Warren's strong performance sharpens but doesn't resolve the ambiguities in Byron Harper, put forth as either a selfless humanitarian helping underprivileged kids to succeed, or a hustler basking in the reflected glory--and profit--of his homegrown champions. There's the lingering
suspicion that Byron adopted and raised Truth more for his athletic potential than anything else, and the lack of parental feeling contributes to the boy's downfall. As Truth, Victor Love (NATIVE SON) was cast for his thespian talents rather than his fast break; despite Truth's ballyhooed feats on
the court he's barely shown playing the game onscreen. But the penalty goes to Richard Jordan's hammy Racine, a Grinch-like corporate villain better suited to chasing Little Eva across the ice than exploiting Black sports talent.
Real-life basketball stars took part in HEAVEN IS A PLAYGROUND. At one point Chicago Bulls sensation Michael Jordan was cast as loner Matthew Lockheart, but when he backed out the filmmakers scouted Bo Kimble, who made all-American during his days at Loyola Marymount University and was later
picked up by the New York Knicks. He turns in a fine performance, but devotees should know that Lockheart's superhuman hang time--he can snatch a dollar bill from atop a backboard and leave four quarters in change during the arc of a single jump--was staged with the help of a few apple crates
stacked out of the frame. Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets has a scene as an NBA professional used as a ringer to humble the playground leagues, and college luminaries Terry Bradley and Kendall Gill appear. Extras were recruited from the Chicago division of the Midnight Basketball League, an
association of ex-gang members who channel their energies into sporting competition.
In a case of home video coming to the rescue, HEAVEN IS A PLAYGROUND--which saw theatrical exhibition only in Chicago during 1991--did strong business as a 1992 cassette release, and by early 1993 there was talk of developing the film into a network TV series. (Violence, substance abuse,profanity.)
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