The World is Watching
Rik Cordero’s new documentary hits home with a SLAMonline writer.
by Billy Fox
I don’t know about you, but I consider stumbling onto a high-octane pickup game to be one of the distinct pleasures of being a hoops fan. This mindset stems from a single moment in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.
Ring a bell?
Yep, that bump in the road whose sole claim to fame is Oak Hill Academy, one-time home of Carmelo, Rajon, Strickland, and many other greats (and near greats).
Until I was 15, I lived a stone’s throw from OHA’s campus. A skinny hick with a genuine love for the sport but dubious skills on court, I was in awe of the first wave of OHA recruits—McDonald’s All-American Glenn Mayers, Bulls signatory Calvin Duncan, and NYC streetball legend “Cosell” Brown.
After school and on weekends, my stepdad (a Kentucky fanatic and pretty good point guard in his day) and I would hang out in OHA’s gym, playing one-on-one and running drills. Pretty big excitement, considering the isolation of living in a cabin in the backwoods of Appalachia. The shining moment of that era, and one of the gems of my personal highlight reel, was getting asked to fill out a 3-on-3 full court game with the big boys. Sure, I knew that I was just a body to even up the teams, but running the court with my heroes was a thrill. The payoff came when Calvin Duncan (until recently, the record holder for most points in an OHA game), dished me the ball and shouted at me to shoot. With a defender twice my size closing in, I squared up and shot from 20. Of course it arced to the bucket in graceful slo-mo, and you know the hissing sound of the swish resonated through the gym for several seconds. Shouldn’t be such a big deal, but I’m sure I hold my head a little bit higher to this day because of that moment.
Even though I’m just a spectator now, I still have a soft spot for pickup games and street hoops. Until recently I could indulge this predilection, since I lived a few blocks from the West Fourth Street court in Manhattan. Watching games in the sweltering heat of New York summers, I always wondered who these anonymous young virtuosos were—what they aspire to achieve, where they’re destined to go as players… or tragically, what marks they will narrowly miss.
So I was delighted to learn that my friend and colleague Rik Cordero recently explored some of these personalities in his fine documentary, The World is Watching. The film follows preparations for the inaugural “Battle of the Boroughs” tournament, the games themselves, and a subsequent trip by a select team of NYC players to Istanbul, Turkey. Organized by Nike to tie into their World Basketball Festival, the 2010 Battle was waged between top high school ballers representing Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. As icing, narration is provided by that Knicks and all-things-Brooklyn partisan, Spike Lee.
Rik Cordero is best known for his direction of countless hip hop videos, including productions for Jay-Z, Wu Tang, The Roots, Joell Ortiz… alright I’ll stop there because Cordero’s list of credits is longer than the litany of greats cranked out by the Oak Hill factory. The hallmark of Cordero’s videos is his ability to tell personally resonant stories, and he brought this same narrative acumen to The World is Watching. The first half of the documentary focuses on the lives and aspirations of a handful of players from each team, and we get to see these young men interacting with family and mentors just as much as preparing for the tournament. Letting the players speak in their own words, the film conveys the message that the heart of the game lies in community—relationships with loving parents, bonds with concerned mentors, and even friendly rivalries with athletes throughout the city. In these profiles of the players, we get the sense that even if they don’t make it up to the League, they’ve already learned values and qualities that will carry them through life.
Just as engaging as the players are the coaches. Cordero explains: “They were different than traditional coaches—they were neighborhood guys who could relate to kids on the street.” Because they came from street hoops backgrounds, the borough coaches display the same competitive edge as the players—sometimes respectful, sometimes with quiet swagger, and sometimes with all-out trash talking. This street cred, and the sense of continuity with past generations, underscores the film’s distinctly New York vibe.
Of course the documentary also features some dazzling on-court action. But it’s all the more effective as a result of the energy Cordero spends up front establishing personal connections between audience and subjects. By the time the film turns to game day, you will truly care about the results of the tournament. I won’t spoil the climax, but the dramatic finish could not have been better scripted if it were a work of fiction.
The World is Watching concludes in Istanbul, with a select team culled from each borough competing against an all-Turkish team. It’s a delight to see kids from Nuevo York experiencing a radically different culture for the first time. The game against the Turkish squad appears to have been a real dogfight, and the New York coach acknowledges that the Turkish players boasted massive physiques and truly impressive fundamental skills. The New York players undoubtedly came home with newfound respect for the quality of international play, along with an appreciation for the diversity of cultures around the world. In addition to the lessons of family and local community conveyed by the film, this subtext of internationalism is one of the winning qualities of Cordero’s effort.
The film got its sweetest post-production icing through sheer serendipity. While shooting the segments in Istanbul, Cordero crossed paths with legendary filmmaker and Brooklyn hoops fanatic Spike Lee, who was in town to direct a commercial featuring Kevin Durant. The two struck up a friendship and roamed the Grand Bazaar, attended a U2 concert, and rapped about everything except filmmaking (I expect a little Brooklyn/Queens ribbing was in the mix as well). This led to Spike agreeing to narrate The World is Watching, and his presence adds to the New York flavor of the production. That said, my only quibble with the film comes when Spike declares that NYC has the best street hoops in the world, bar none. That’s certainly not far fetched, and I would probably bet on its veracity. But I imagine there are a lot of streetballers in Chocolate City, Compton, Bodymore, Gnarlens, Screwston, the ATL, and beyond who would loooove to put that claim to the test. Hmmm… maybe a sequel is in order?
The World is Watching recently had a private premiere in Manhattan, and I’m told that Nike is considering submitting the film to various festivals. Shout out to the company for investing in both the Battle of the Boroughs and The World is Watching, but how about giving the film the online presence and wider audience it deserves?
Billy Fox is a NYC-based screenwriter and composer, former copyeditor for SLAM, and longtime friend of Ed. He co-wrote Rik Cordero’s latest feature film, Starla . His previous piece for SLAM was on Wat Misaka, the first ethnic minority to play professional hoops.