The shadow of HOOP DREAMS (1994) hangs heavily over Jonathan Hock and Alastair Christopher's documentary about one crucial year in the life of inner-city high-school basketball point guard Sebastian Telfair, a personable and talented teenager from the Surfside Gardens Projects in Coney Island who hopes his athletic gifts will lift his family out of poverty. The film started life as a short commissioned by HBO but grew into a feature as buzz about Telfair the cousin of troubled hoop star Stephon Marbury and the brother of Jamel Thomas, a promising college player who was snubbed at the NBA draft lottery and was "exiled" to a Greek team mounted to a fever pitch and opened up a world of opportunities while subjecting the 18-year-old to the kind of blistering pressure that undoes many older, more seasoned athletes. Telfair spends his senior year plagued by an ankle injury, playing exhibition games and juggling his options, which boil down to matriculating at the University of Louisville, famous for cultivating top-flight players, or gambling on the draft lottery. Telfair snares the cover of Sports Illustrated and nabs a lucrative endorsement deal with Adidas, but he's also subject to ubiquitous professional speculation about his prospects, including skepticism that a 5'10" rookie with an unreliable jump shot stands a real chance of lucking out in the draft. Telfair's two great strengths are his undeniable talent for the game, and his family. Like the young men profiled in HOOP DREAMS, he has his family's steadfast support. But Telfair's family brings professional savvy and experience to the table; he's been coached from childhood by his brothers, especially Jamel, who says flat out that he's grooming his baby brother to be the Tiger Woods of basketball: clean-cut, polite and always smiling. It's a pleasure to see the articulate, disciplined Telfair succeed where so many other young men have failed, but ultimately his path to success is so smoothly upbeat that there isn't much urgency to it. Hock and Christopher try to place Telfair's experience within a larger social and commercial context, interviewing his neighbors in Coney Island about the importance basketball has in poor urban neighborhoods and alluding to the powerful corporations whose interests run the world of pro sports. But in the end they appear to have been blinded by Telfair's smile, and they shy away from seriously examining the exploitation of hungry young athletes by big business or the poisonous ramifications of ghetto culture that offers young men only two roads out of poverty sports and crime.
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