This ambitious feature film is the first for Webster Groves native Matt Krentz, and it plays on subject matter close to home. Krentz was a fifteen-year-old point guard at Chaminade High School (class of 1995) when his friend and former teammate Billy Coby first took him to the public basketball courts in Richmond Heights, just south of Highway 40. The event made a lasting impression.
"We arrived at the courts when all of the sudden there was this explosion that threw everyone to the ground," recalls Krentz, now 31. "One of the players made a homemade bomb and used it to stage a grand entrance. He emerged from the smoke screaming: 'I hope ya'll motherfuckas are ready to play some ball! Put your money down!'"
Krentz would return to the same courts innumerable times during high school and college, often the sole white kid on the floor. After graduating from Kansas City's Rockhurst University, Krentz spent the several summers volunteering at Robert Redford's Sundance Summer Filmmakers' Lab. When he decided to write his own screenplay, Krentz found his mind returning to the old asphalt courts in Richmond Heights.
Those courts — and other St. Louis sites — figure prominently in the fictional Streetballers, which draws on some of the events Krentz witnessed on the blacktop. The movie also leaves room for more fantastical tales. Like ghosts, for example.
Early in the film the brother of main character John Hogan (played by Krentz) kills a young boy in a DUI accident. The boy and other poltergeists show up later in the film to serve as netherworld shrinks to Hogan, who's struggling to deal with his dysfunctional Irish family, his vanishing hope of playing Division I basketball and a temperamental girlfriend whose idea of foreplay is to sit on her windowsill and pelt him with a BB gun.
Looking for someone who'll help improve his basketball game, Krentz's character soon forms a bond with fellow protagonist Jacob Whitmore (played by former Vashon and Mizzou hoopster Jimmy McKinney). A product of the North Side (read: "ghetto"), Whitmore must pass a junior-college Shakespeare class if he has any hope of earning a big-time college scholarship. So it is that the two characters make a deal: If Hogan helps Whitmore pass the class, Whitmore will teach Hogan some on-court moves.
The plan isn't exactly a slam-dunk. There are external forces at work, including the local gang leader (played convincingly by former SLU forward Justin Tatum) who demands that Whitmore compete in an illegal basketball tournament or face certain death. Whitmore's cousin causes him further distractions when his gambling and drug use threaten to destroy the extended family. Hogan's brother, meanwhile, has returned from prison a racist and ever-greater drunk and is bent on bedding as many women as possible — not excluding his sibling's girlfriend.
Like any basketball film worth its salt, the movie concludes with that fade-away jumper that both wins the game and saves the day. Though, at the end of Streetballers, not every character is still around to celebrate the victory.
More enthralling than the movie's story line, perhaps, is the cinematography and onsite filming of many of St. Louis' unsung landmarks. The movie opens with a time-elapsed shot of O'Fallon Park in north St. Louis that captures in stunning high-definition those brilliant orange-to-purple sunsets found only in the Midwest. Other sites and events featured prominently in the film include LeGrand's Market, Forest Park Community College and the St. Patrick's Day parade through Dogtown.
The film also shines in its many basketball sequences, featuring professional hoopsters such as McKinney (who now plays in Germany) as well as dozens of legitimate streetballers recruited from area playgrounds. Prior to filming in the summer of 2006, Krentz produced a trailer that helped earn him street cred while searching area courts for volunteers to perform in the full-length feature. "It had to be authentic," notes Krentz. "You can teach a ballplayer how to act, but you can't exactly teach an actor how to do a pick-and-roll."
Last month Streetballers earned an "honorable mention" at its debut at the Hollywood Black Film Festival. Krentz is anticipating an equally warm reception at its St. Louis premiere next Thursday. "I haven't allowed anyone from here to see it — even Jimmy (McKinney)," says Krentz. "With all the people involved in this, it's going to be one of the most diverse audiences in St. Louis. We're going to pack the house."