Celebrating 25 Years of White Men Can’t Jump

Count me as one of those people who moaned upon hearing that a remake for the film White Men Can’t Jump is in development. With today being the 25th anniversary of the original film’s release, I’m convinced now more than ever that folks just need to leave well enough alone.

Maybe I should be more open-minded, but I get the sense that the newer version will probably be a more watered- down, comedic, slapstick version, despite the prospect of having some more engaging rim-wrecking basketball footage. The original, to me, is a classic, because it was much more than a movie about some street hustlers on the playgrounds.

It examined race through the prism of our beloved game, along with the struggle for American survival outside of the mainstream. It also gave power to the narrative of what one can do with an incredible partner by your side, not only on the court but also within the domain of persevering through loving and supportive intimate relationships with our significant others.

The wonderful thing about playground ball is that, contrary to popular opinion, there is an egalitarian society that exists within those chain-link fences. If you got game, it doesn’t matter what you look like. On the street, we say, “Real recognize real.”

You can be Black, yellow, brown, Puerto Rican or Haitian, if you bring some skills you’ll belong to the b-ball nation.

I remember when I was in prep school and came back to Brooklyn (pre-gentrification, when my neighborhood was still gritty and mostly Black) for spring break one year. My high school backcourt mate joined me for his first visit to NYC. He was a 6-foot-4 white fella from suburban New England that could handle, pass, had heart, loved the game and could shoot the excrement out of the ball.

He was initially nervous when I took him over to P.S. 11 to get some half-court games in. I told him he had nothing to worry about, that his game would bring him acceptance. And sure enough, as we got busy and held the court for a few consecutive games, he lost his government name and became known around my way for the rest of the week by the nickname he was given by the observers on the park bench, who clapped and hollered after every one of his long distance Jimmy’s.

For years after that, some guys who were in the park that day would see me and ask, “Ayo Al, what’s up with your boy Larry Bird that you brought to the park a few years ago.”

Very simply, the streets had love for him. Race melted away because they had respect for his game.

But I don’t want to simplify things too much because playground ball is a wonderful place to study interpersonal dynamics that range from awful to exceptional.

Sidney Dean and Billy Hoyle were expertly presented on the big screen with the acting and comedic brilliance of Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. Sidney thinks that he can hustle Billy when they initially play against each other, assuming that he’s better because his opponent is white. After losing, Sidney proposes a partnership, which Billy accepts with much reticence.

They get their hustle on, banking some paper in the process, but when Billy loses a grip when they unexpectedly lose a game, he realizes that Sidney gave him the okey-doke and set him up. If you have somehow been living under a rock and never seen the film, or if you’re a millennial who thinks it beneath you, or even if you haven’t seen it in a number of years, please go on and que it up.

I won’t spoil it here with the plot twists and turns, because it’s worth the ride, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

And if your ’90s-era snap game is weaker than JJ Evans on Good Times, you’ll love repeating things like, “Oh man shut your anorexic malnutrition tapeworm-having overdose on Dick Gregory Bahamian diet-drinking ass up,” and “What, you still throwing up bricks? What is this, a Masons convention? Wha… clank, clank! I need, like, a welding torch to play in this league! I got an idea… let’s just stop right now and gather up all these bricks and let’s build a shelter for the homeless so maybe your mother will have a place to live!”

And word to Big Bird, Gloria Clemente, the “former Disco queen, originally from Brooklyn, New York,” portrayed by the exceptional Rosie Perez, is worth the price of admission even if you have absolutely no love for, or understanding of, street basketball and its underlying culture.

And I’m still trying to decide which Jeopardy scene in television and film gives me more joy: Gloria’s, or Cliff Claven’s on Cheers

White Men Can’t Jump really is a streetball movie that isn’t about sports at all.

Perhaps the greatest relationship advice ever in film is uttered by Gloria, after telling Billy that she’s thirsty.

“If I’m thirsty, I don’t want you to bring me a glass of water,” she says. “I want you to say, ‘Gloria, I too know what it means to be thirsty.'”

As Gloria also breaks it down to Billy, there’s much much more to his pursuits on the court, and within their relationship and life, that he doesn’t have a deep enough understanding to recognize.

“Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic mechanism, from which one extracts what one needs,” she says.

 Now how are you going to re-make that? 

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