Growing up a die-hard basketball fan in Manhattan, I’ve known about the lore of Lincoln High School for many-a-year. The “Garden” (a fully equipped, impeccably maintained basketball court in Coney Island where all the area stars gather; its reputation is so great that real referees often come, and crowds gather in bushels to ogle the skills); the ballin’-is-life mentality; the endless stream of talent, of which 99% fall to the wayside…I’ve followed it intensely for years. The latest artistic endeavor to capture the desperation and sense of community that Lincoln basketball forges in Coney Island is Through the Fire, a documentary about current Portland Trailblazer Sebastian Telfair’s senior year at Lincoln, one full of difficult decisions, selfish acquaintances, and the weight of carrying a neighborhood’s hopes on his shoulders. Though occasionally overwhelmed, Telfair does an admirable job of facing the pressure head-on, successfully making his way through the challenges to forge professional career, and getting his family out of the projects.
Through the Fire plays like an unofficial sequel to 1994’s “The Last Shot,” a riveting book by Darcy Grey about Lincoln’s great hopes at the time, and their dreams of college and the NBA. Its epilogue left us wondering, after another crop of close-but-no-cigars, if Stephon Marbury—then a freshman—could finally get it done. That question was answered with a resounding yes, as Marbury was drafted fourth in the 1997 NBA draft after one year at Georgia Tech, and now plays in his hometown for the Knicks at the big garden; Madison Square. Given that Sebastian Telfair, the documented star of Through the Fire, is Marbury’s cousin (and Steph actually appears in the film), the film feels even more like a follow-up to Grey’s work, as well as the masterful Hoop Dreams. So, for those with knowledge of Coney Island basketball and aura, Through the Fire has a lot to live up to, and it does an admirable job. It primarily focuses on Coney Island’s sense of community—whenever someone as talented as Telfair comes along, the entire ‘hood gets behind him, living vicariously through his highs and lows. Director Jonathan Hock takes full advantage of this, with a wide mix of interviews that capture the area’s impassioned hope that one of their own will once again make it (post-Marbury). The detailed analysis of Telfair’s brother Jamel Thomas’ heartbreak (Thomas was a star at Providence College, destined for glory, but went undrafted…now he plays in Greece) adds an important layer to Through the Fire—while Thomas wasn’t able to fully climb the mountain to greatness, he didn’t let his crushing disappointment destroy him. International hoops don’t pay NBA-esque salaries, but they certainly beat the life that most Coney Island youths live, and Thomas’ determination, and the love he gives Telfair during Sebastian’s toughest emotional times is heartwarming. It’s all pretty predictable, almost a fairy tale arc (whether you had prior knowledge or not), but Hock dives into the rotten underbelly of the system enough to add plenty of spice.
The most fascinating aspect of Through the Fire lies submerged within Telfair’s difficult decision on whether to turn pro or attend Louisville. Far too many shallow extremists—many of whom, whether they realize it or not, are racist—say that these boys jumping straight from high school to the pros are “stupid,” and should be getting their college education. But who are the people saying this? Mostly middle-to-high income citizens, who rant while sitting on their plush couches, discussing those reckless kids and their short-sighted tendencies. Well, considering that Telfair had to endure a family getting gunned down in his hallway—and it became increasingly clear throughout his senior year that he’d be able to score a major payday if he were to jump straight to the NBA—I think he absolutely did the right thing getting the money as soon as possible, before his mother or cousin was next. Many of the aforementioned extremists whine that the money will always be there, and they can get their schooling first, but they fail to realize that 1. one torn Achilles tendon and the cash goes POOF, and 2. those four years could lead to familial deaths for these lads. They need to get their loved ones into a safe neighborhood as fast as possible, and the recent age limit imposed on the NBA draft is a stereotypical debacle; where’s the limit on the white high school baseball players who bypass Duke and Maryland? Through the Fire does a superb job emphasizing that Telfair’s ultimate decision to go pro isn’t based on a selfish desire to get a quick buck, but out of love and a burning passion to help his family and neighborhood. Telfair’s killer smile and honest persona (my fiancée actually taught him for a semester, and said he stood up for her when a punk tried to harass her in class, so I believe that Hock’s editing wasn’t manipulative, just accurate) don’t hurt the effectiveness of the story. It’s hard not to shed a tear when Telfair’s selection in the draft was announced, and the nail-biting audience in a club, consisting of his closest family and friends, erupted into a mixture of deafening cheers and throbbing sobs. Who wouldn’t root for someone like that? And Through the Fire earns the tears; admittedly, it’s a particularly important and personal topic to me, but Hock does a genuinely admirable job with it.
Though substantially less ambitious than Hoop Dreams, Through the Fire has plenty of soul, plenty of competitive fire, and plenty of food for thought. It displays the capitalistic, bloodthirsty approach of slick Caucasian agents, cutthroat pricks who will do anything to get their finger in the pie. While Through the Fire doesn’t delve deeply into this, it doesn’t have to: anyone who knows the piggy nature of corporate suits will understand, from the brief sequence at ESPN Zone, that Telfair was doomed to line many executives’ pockets vis-à-vis his gritty tale. Of course, since money won’t ever be a problem for him, it raises the interesting question of, given that only one-in-a-million Telfair’s actually make it, whether he should even care.