Mt. Vernon basketball gets the film treatment.
SLAM’s Jay Mumford recently sat down for a Q&A with Columbia University School of Journalism grad school students Collin Crowell and Chris Kieffer to discuss the making of their 26 minute class film project, Hoop Knight. Chronicling the eight-month period in which the storied basketball program at Mt. Vernon High School (Mt. Vernon, NY) went from almost losing scholastic sports to securing them to losing it all on a wild buzzer beater in a post season game, the duo dishes all the dirt. The ups, the downs, the amazing shot that ended Mt. Vernon’s season and Head Coach Bob Cimmino’s entertaining cell phone greetings.
by Jay Mumford
SLAM: What drew you to the Mt. Vernon story? Were you longtime fans of Mt. Vernon basketball or was it the media getting wind of the budget crisis?
Chris: I didn’t even know about Mt. Vernon basketball when I first came to NY. Both Collin and I are originally from New Orleans. We were researching a good story to pitch for a masters project, and I really wanted to do story on a high school basketball team. I started trying to find out more about high school basketball, but one day I was just messing around looking at SI.com and read a story about how the economy had affected sports. The article mentioned two New York programs that had gotten cuts, Mt. Vernon and Wantagh (Long Island). I did research on both programs and found out about the great program of Mt. Vernon. I called coach Cimmino and he gave us access to come on down.
SLAM: The tragedy of losing scholastic sports can loom over Any District U.S.A., it just happened to strike down on a pillar of basketball excellence and tradition. If this had happened in a place that wasn’t as revered as Mt. Vernon, do you think the story would’ve been as poignant?
Chris: I think it’s still a story, I was ready to pursue it in Wantagh or wherever it had happened. Sports are such an avenue for kids, but the fact that it was Mt. Vernon adds to it and it tugs at the heart strings more. It makes peoples eyes pop when it’s a program that big and sports are such a source of local pride.
Collin: Also, Mt. Vernon is this weird city in where its an urban city surrounded by so much affluence and they have their sports cut, it definitely adds to the drama.
SLAM: Hoop Dreams, Soul in the Hole, Through the Fire, even Darcy Frey’s book—The Last Shot…They all went behind the scenes with high school basketball and chronicled the lives of specific athletes. Have you seen/read all of those? If so, what did you want to do differently in your approach to this subject?
Chris: Early on in the project, we both made sure we watched Hoop Dreams and we got a lot of inspiration. It would be arrogant to say we did anything better because that was such a great film, but we just made sure we did it the best we could. One thing we had that Hoop Dreams didn’t was the whole community angle, and how (the threat of losing sports) affected this one community.
SLAM: The aforementioned movies are all around 90 minutes. What were your reasons for making the film so brief (26 minutes)? Did you consider doing a full length film?
Chris: I would’ve loved to have worked on this project full time, but we had a lot of constraints with other classes and being students, etc. We had two weeks to edit. I think it works as a 26-minute film, but if we had time we may have gone longer.
Collin: I think the shorter the film, the harder it is to edit. (Not to mention), people’s attention spans are short, that’s why we have it broken down into four chapters. That way we can put it on you tube and every chapter has a mini-narrative.
SLAM: Was there an aura of extra pressure around the program once they secured the funding [in large part from people in the nearby affluent town of] Bronxville for the season? Mt. Vernon is tenured into excellence and high expectations, but did the community and those involved in the fund raising raise the stakes higher than usual for the program? In the film, Mt. Vernon mayor (Clinton I. Young) jokes “you’d better win it all” [laughs].
Collin: They’re a very well coached and media savvy team, even the staff of adults around the program. They say all the right things. So if you ask them, “hey do you feel any added pressure to win with all that’s happened?”, they’ll give you the stock answer of, “No, they‘re already winners.” But if you privately speak to people, they do remember the amount of work it took to raise the money and that, I think, is definitely in the back of people’s minds. If we talk to them after a game, it’s definitely, “Bronxville stepped up, we had to step up.”
Chris: Those kids face pressure to win state every year, and I doubt that was the first thing on their mind when their season ended. But I wouldn’t doubt that it added a little more pressure.
SLAM: We often get a one-sided view of athletes and coaches, primarily based on their on court demeanor. You were able to be around these guys for an extended period of time and see other sides of them. Did anything surprise you about anybody? Can anybody play ukulele or cook really well (laughs)?
Chris: One off-court thing I love about Coach Cimmino is his outgoing voice mail. His voice mails always have a funny saying on them and he must change them every day. He had one that was like, “This is BC heerrrrrreee, check us outtttttt” [laughs]. He just has a real fun personality. Sherrod Wright and Kadeem Dinham, who we spent a lot of time with, were great too. Kadeem has this really outgoing personality, genuinely glad to have us around. Sherrod was more reserved, but he came around.
Collin: (Sophomore point guard) Jabarie Hinds was a lot of fun to be around. He’s the young one, so he bought a lot of playfulness. And its cliché to say, but all the kids acknowledge when there are adults in the room and they all come up and shake your hand and introduce themselves. I was impressed with that. When I was that age, I wouldn’t even bother (laughs).
SLAM: Will Bouton (of Newburgh Free Academy HS) hit that Hail Mary buzzer-beater to end Mt. Vernon’s season early…and painfully. Your thoughts?
Collin: This is the best part of the story, Chris and I had our deadline for 10 days after that game, so even if they had gone to Federation, we couldn’t cover it. We weren’t at the Newburgh game. I was in the editing suite the night of that game, Friday the 13th (laughs), and Chris storms into the room and is like ‘you’re never gonna believe what happened, Mt. Vernon lost on some crazy buzzer beater 40 foot shot!’
Chris: With our deadline, we were going to have the film culminate after they won the Section I Championship against Poughkeepsie and just write a title part describing whatever happened after that, win or lose. But when they lose on a shot like that, it’s THE moment everybody will remember from the season, despite all the good things that happened beforehand. We couldn’t leave that out, so we scrambled and were lucky enough to find footage from Varsity 845, a local paper. We had to re-write our ending and the staff was gracious enough to let us come back and talk to them about it.
SLAM: What about personally? As basketball fans, we live to see shots like that. You empathize with Mt. Vernon and how their season ended. But at the same time, that shot is one every kid lives for, especially when the game was an upset. Were you so connected to Mt. Vernon and their story at that point, that you found it hard to be objective?
Chris: Being a sports reporter, you can’t get too wrapped up in the team you cover, but you get to know the people personally, and you hate it knowing all that they went through.
Collin: At the same time, it’s a documentary about Mt. Vernon, so for us to treat it as anything other than a devastating loss would’ve been contrary to the story (laughs). But at the same time, it adds to the film because you ask the question of ‘How do we measure our season? Is it how close we came or how far we went?’ The way Kadeem Dinham described it was perfect. ‘He didn’t even look, he just tossed it up there with one hand’. To me, that luckiness was so tragic because of how hard they worked to get there.
SLAM: On a lighter note, what was your most enjoyable moment in working on this project, both in the filming of it and in the film itself?
Chris: My favorite part is when Coach Cimmino gets in his car after the first playoff win and just starts singing [laughs].
Collin: When Mt. Vernon played Poughkeepsie in the Section I Championship, Chris was filming from down on the floor and I was up in the stands and we were able to piece together parts of their pre-game warm-up. I still get excited seeing that footage, because it makes them look like stars.
Chris: And they had the Chicago Bulls theme song playing too (laughs).
SLAM: SI.com has linked to your film, as have some other outlets, and now you’re getting the SLAMonline feature treatment. For something that began as a school project, Hoop Knight seems to be getting a lot of attention. How far do you see the final product going and what are your goals?
Chris: I’m floored that Sports Illustrated and you guys showed interest. I’m not sure how far it will go, but it was a really fun and rewarding project to work on.
Collin: Hopefully people look at the film and realize that (scholastic) sports are more than this superfluous frosting for kids, and when it’s taken away it has a profound effect on people. If our film was able to help people appreciate the value of high school sports, I’m happy.
Check some great clips of the movie below.