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One-on-one with Spike

Walking into Spike Lee's "He Got Game," I expected a couple of things. I expected that the movie would be a docudrama, gritty and real, and I expected that, like just about all sports movies, it would end with a big game. I was wrong on both counts.

No big game. Just a very little one, one-on-one between a father and his son. And no docudrama. Oh, there's a lot of information in the movie--few non-players have access to more inside information than Lee. But the information is contained within a larger story, which is about a lot more than basketball.

The film stars Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks, as a high school senior who's the most sought-after college prospect in the country. Denzel Washington plays his father, doing up to 15 years for manslaughter. His crime: He pushed his wife during an argument, and she fell and hit her head, and died.

The son still hates his father for that. So it's going to be hard for the father to convince the son to sign a letter of intent with Big State University. And yet the state governor has promised that if the kid signs with Big State, the father will get paroled a lot sooner.

That's part of the story. The other parts involve the way star athletes are recruited by colleges and by the poaching of professional sports agents. The kid, named Jesus, is offered $10,000 by his own high school coach. A relative is given a Lexus to "hold" for him. Women are thrown at him. His own girl friend turns out to be under the thumb of the high-powered agent. And here's his dad, one more person badgering him for information about "his plans."

Spike Lee was in Chicago a week ago to show the movie to a theater full of high school basketball players , including the championship teams from Whitney Young and Martin Luther King high schools--and, not incidentally, to watch his beloved Knicks play the Bulls. We talked one afternoon.

RE: The movie's last image is wonderful. It sums everything up in one bold gesture, as a basketball connects a father with his son. 

SL: I think we'd been laying the groundwork for that type of ending from the very beginning, from the opening credits where you hear Aaron Copland's music and you see images of basketball being played all over this country.

RE: All through your films you reach for big images. I feel that so many modern directors just photograph the characters telling the story; they don't realize that movies are made of images. 

SL: The person who really taught me that was Ernest Dickerson [the cinematographer on his early films]. When we were in film school, his expertise in getting the picture to say what the script said was much more advanced than mine. I knew that one day Ernest was not gonna be shooting for me. And it was gonna come down on me. 

RE: Why do you love basketball so much?

SL: Well, to be honest, I thought baseball would be my first movie. "Jackie Robinson." We still can't get the financing. With football, with all their equipment, you don't get to know the players. Basketball, those guys are out there running around practically naked; you can tell someone's personality just by the way they dribble.

RE: Watching the film, I was reminded of your speech to the players in "Hoop Dreams."

SL: That was a great film. But what we wanted to show even more s how these guys--they're not being exploited, they're being pimped. The NCAA needs to enter the 20th century because their thinking is backwards; they make millions of dollars, make the sneaker companies rich, make the networks rich. Everybody gets rich but the guys out there killing themselves in the Division One big-time basketball and football schools. As long as they give the players tuition, room and board, they think they should be thankful.

RE: You think they should pay them? At the college level?

SL: If they got a stipend, I don't think you woulda had this point-shaving scandal at Northwestern. And I don't think these guys would be signing with agents while they were still playing. I don't think they'd be taking money under the table. These kids not stupid. They see everybody's making money. The coaches make money cause they determine whether they're gonna wear Adidas, Nike, Converse, whatever. And the schools use those deals to pay for the coaches' contracts. But the student athletes get room and board, tuition....tough!

RE: Is everything in this movie is based on stories you've heard or things you've seen?

SL: We just scratched the surface about what really goes on. I mean, people might think this stuff was wild in this film but it gets a lot wilder.

RE: They really do hire women to seduce these kids?

SL: Yes.

RE: They supply girls in the dorm rooms, they offer cars?

SL: Yes! And jobs--they give their family members jobs. Women, money, cars, gold, sneakers, clothes. They know what these kids want.

RE: If an agent is found doing that, is he barred from any more dealings in professional basketball?

SL: Yes, he gets debarred. I think that happened with Marcus Canby where Marcus signed with this agent, so once he graduated, about to go in the draft, Marcus decided he didn't wanna have this guy for his agent so the agent tried to blackmail Marcus by saying, "If you don't sign with me, I'm gonna blow the whistle." So Marcus said, "Go ahead." They blew the whistle; the guy got disbarred and UMass, where he was playing, those games got voided and he had to give back like $250,000 to the tournament, because those games were forfeited because he's ineligible because he had an agent at that time. But he wasn't the only one. I would say half these guys have agents playing today.

RE: And the agents, if they're exposed, are out of the business?

SL: But they have buffers. You can't get to them very easily. And we're trying to show that the women are being exploited also. The women use their bodies. That's not to say all women are like that. But in this case they're gonna use what they have and that's been like that since the beginning of civilization.

RE: The girlfriend has a nice speech on the bench.

SL: Lala, played by Rosario Dawson. This is what I was trying to explain to my wife, who was wondering about the depiction of some of the women. I said, look, we're in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York. Highrise projects, stuck on the edge of Brooklyn facing the Atlantic Ocean. They see no way out. For the guys--I'm gonna be a rapper, I'm gonna make it in NBA, or I'm gonna sell drugs. For the women--I'm gonna hook up with one of these guys whether he's a rapper, going for pro athlete, or drug dealer. To them, that is the perception. Those are the only options they have. And Lala, she truly loves Jesus, but as she sees him being torn in more directions, it dawns on her that when he leaves, that's it. When he goes away to college, that's it--she's lost him forever. And if that's the case, she's gonna cash in like everybody else and try to get a piece of Jesus.

RE: Ordinarily, with a movie that is about a sport like basketball, we expect that the last scene is gonna be a big game. You must have made a decision that wasn't what you wanted to do.

SL: I made that decision because there's no way we would've been able to duplicate what people see for free in the NBA.

RE: So you use one-on-one instead.

SL: Right. And I give a nod to "The Great Santini" for that memorable scene where Robert Duvall and Michael O'Keefe go at it, and at the end of the game, Duvall's bouncing the ball off O'Keefe's head and they go back to the house.

RE: I was disappointed you didn't win an Oscar this year, for "Four Little Girls." How did you feel?

SL: We were not disappointed. The minute I found out there was a Holocaust film, we knew what was what. Automatic. Shoo-in. Better odds than saying the Bulls will win the NBA Championship. When they're talking about the Holocaust, I was with them, but when they switched gears and became a propaganda piece for the state of Israel, and it's put out by the Wiesenthal Center, I mean, how you gonna win against that?

RE: I was disappointed "Eve's Bayou" didn't get any nominations. I've been getting a lot of letters lately from people who've rented it and really liked it.

SL: Casi Lemmons should've been nominated for screenplay. Debi Moore should've got Best Supporting Actress.

RE: I've read that you had problems with Samuel Jackson's use of the n-word in Tarantino's "Jackie Brown."

SL: I never really talked about Sam. I talked about Quentin Tarantino and Sam turned on me which was disappointing, but I understood why he did that. I never said that Tarantino can't use the n-word. The n-word is in "He Got Game." My problem was, he killed it. It was excessive. And go back to "Pulp Fiction," same thing. Go back to "Reservoir Dogs," same thing. Include his screenplay for "True Romance," same thing. This is not just one film. We're talking about the man's entire body of work. And the stuff Quentin says. Statements like, "Me and Rosie O'Donnell are the most well-liked white celebrities in the black community." Is there a fried chicken poll that he took? To get those results?

Then he tries to hide behind, "I'm an artist." Okay, you're an artist, fine. But my counterpoint is--okay, you're an artist. You've directed three films. Well, Michael Jackson's been an artist 30 years. Michael does a song called, "They Don't Care About Us." Has the lyrics, "Jew me, sue me, kick me, kike me." What happens? Whole brouhaha. Michael has to recall all the CDs and tapes in the stores. Re-record new lyrics and issue apologies. There's something wrong here. Why can the word "nigger" be out there in a film 38 times, and that's all right? Okay, we know Quentin Tarantino's an artist. But is not Michael Jackson an artist? Why is Michael Jackson anti-Semitic? I called Harvey Weinstein, who runs Miramax with his brother Bob. Miramax releases Tarantino's films. I said, "Harvey, let me ask you a question. If I submitted a script to you with 38 Jewish slurs, would you do make that film?" You know what he said? "No." I don't know if I'm crazy or what. But something's wrong here.

RE: Tarantino has a black guy say it and it's supposed to take the curse off.

SL: Black people aren't saying that in "Reservoir Dogs." Black people weren't saying that in "True Romance." The way I saw it, Michael Jackson's use of those words in that song--I mean, it wasn't him saying that. Scorsese, my favorite filmmaker, he can make a film like "Taxi Driver." Nobody says he's Travis Bickle. Why can't Michael Jackson be allowed to reflect the world like other artists are?

RE: What are you going to do next?

SL: Don't know. But I gotta do a musical pretty soon. I want the artist, the right music and the lyrics. A full-out singing and dancing musical.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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