Q+A: Ron Shelton
Twenty years after the release of White Men Can’t Jump, SLAMonline checks in with the film’s director.
by Brandon Harrison / @_brandonallen
This summer, we’ve had our heads in the clouds reminiscing over the exploits of everyone’s favorite ’90s juggernaut, the Dream Team. A dope documentary and endless debates over which incarnation of Team USA is the greatest have kept Jordan, Barkley and Magic in our collective psyches. While Chuck Daly’s squad may have held it down for the professionals, if we keep looking through our foggy nostalgia goggles we’ll be reminded of another team (albeit fictional) that was killing it on the blacktop back in ’92.
Twenty years ago, basketball lovers and general audiences alike were blessed with Ron Shelton’s classic streetball tale, White Men Can’t Jump. Street basketball had more or less always had an east coast flavor and for many (myself included), it was the first taste of what street basketball out on the west coast was all about.
Billy Hoyle and Sidney Deane hustled, kicked it with Rosie Perez, broke some stereotypes and rocked the snapback-heavy ’90s look that you’re probably currently wearing. Oh, and they dropped buckets all over Los Angeles, most notably at the Mecca of west coast hoop, Venice Beach. The beach wasn’t just about laid back surfers and blondes in bikinis there was serious basketball being played by the ocean.
The film brought an image of Venice basketball to the masses, but there are some key people still putting on for those sun-soaked courts after all these years. In the ever-present spirit of nostalgia, we checked in with White Men Can’t Jump writer/director and sports film savant, Ron Shelton, for his thoughts on his still relevant hoop classic.
SLAM: After the success of Bull Durham, what made you want to move onto basketball? And why streetball specifically?
Ron Shelton: I went to college on a basketball scholarship [and] played basketball at Santa Barbara High School, a wonderful sports school that graduated people like Jamaal Wilkes and Randall Cunningham. At this point in my life, in my 40s, I was still playing pick up basketball even though I was a film writer/director. Nobody knew who I was, which I loved, and no one cared who you were as long as you could play. No one knew I just directed a big hit movie. They just thought I was the white guy who could shoot.
I always thought the arguments were always so funny; it was kind of a democracy on the playground. Wherever you go around the world, you can drop in on a playground game and you don’t need to speak the language. You just need to figure out who takes the ball out and how to settle disputes. So I wrote a script about guys on the playground. Everyone who I was playing at the Hollywood [YMCA] came out and auditioned and were like, “Oh shit it’s me,” and I put them all in the movie. It came from that, and affection for the playground way back to my childhood.
SLAM: Is that why you went the streetball route instead of professional?
RS: Well, you can’t really do the NBA because they want to control and protect their brand, so [you] go the other way—the everyman way—with guys who think they should be in the NBA [laughs]. But who have to have jobs and take care of family sometimes, and with that regard, it’s sort of a melting pot.
SLAM: Why do you think most sports movies struggle with clichés?
RS: Most sports movies have a big game and big games aren’t really common in sports, pretty usual actually. Most sports, it’s the daily the routine of it. Even in White Men Can’t Jump, the big game was still a tiny game. One guy won the game and lost his girl. Big games are pretty phony in movies usually I think. How many times has somebody hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to win the NBA title? I mean, never.
SLAM: How do you feel the sports film genre has developed over the years?
RS: The movie business in general has gotten real conservative. It’s just where the business is right now. Bull Durham and Cobb couldn’t get made today. It’s sort of the reason why I haven’t had a film made recently.
SLAM: How do you approach working with athletes?
RS: I love working with athletes. They’re used to taking directions, used to performing things over and over, and don’t need coddling. They even find ways to entertain themselves when there’s downtime on set. On this film in particular we had some really good athletes like Marques Johnson and Duane Martin.
SLAM: It’s been said that the film is as much about Los Angeles as it is about basketball. Do you have any thoughts about that?
RS: It was important to me. I wanted to show that where most people live in L.A., it’s not the Hollywood sign, it not Grauman’s Chinese. We shot real neighborhoods, we shot at the Jungle down there, we shot in South Central, we shot all over the place—it was important. At that time, if you just said South Central everyone cringed. Most of central is some great neighborhoods, beautiful little homes that are loved and cared for.
SLAM: What do you think of the film’s impact on the reputation of west coast basketball?
RS: On the east coast, things are more compact and things are more spread out [than] in the west, so that’s why everyone associates streetball with the east coast. But this state has produced some of the best point guards ever, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, and now guys like Russell Westbrook. Where do they play? On the playground. These guys can play and have been playing for years. John Wooden was coaching underprivileged youth as far back as 1948.
SLAM: Everyone’s looking back to the ’90s now. Going forward, how do you see the film holding up over time?
RS: I think the movie holds up well. It’s been out for 20 years now and it’s influenced fashion. Different countries started picking up the baggy look that was in the film, and as a film, it wasn’t just about basketball. It was about race and sex and things that aren’t talked about in films anymore, so I think it’s an honest time capsule.