by Tzvi Twersky

Around 15 minutes into Streetballers, a message is delivered in the form of an interlude, one of the few sprinkled throughout the 110 minute film. Quoting Albert Einstein, eight words materialize on the screen: “In the middle of difficultly lies opportunity.” True enough as is, Streetballers epitomizes these very words through its existence.

With no major studios offering to pick up the film without significant changes, Director Matt Krentz, with the help of producers Patrick Rooney, Craig Thomas and Vernon Whitlock, set out to release the film independently. Often that means the death of a movie. In this case, facing difficult circumstances, Krentz and Co. managed to take a film destined for failure and make it fly.

The film begins with John Hogan, the lead character played by Krentz, shooting buckets at a park, by himself, late at night. Soothing to the viewer who appreciates ball, Hogan’s depressing and deflating home life are the reason he’s working out that late. Tired of being home, cramped up in a small crib, and sick of remembering the tragedy that struck his once happier family, Hogan takes to the park in his Irish neighborhood to escape the real world.

Jacob Whitmore, Hogan’s mirror character, plays ball for similar reasons. Living with his aunt, younger cousin and drug-dealing older cousin, Jacob plays ball in the hopes of one day escaping his St. Louis neighborhood. With real talent—like the actor who plays Whitmore, Jimmy McKinney, who scored over 1,000 points in his career at Mizzou—Whitmore has a shot at playing big time college hoops…if he can up his grades and focus.

It’s this common bond—basketball—that bring two guys from totally different worlds together, allowing them to explore the similarities that cross their racial and geographical divide.

The plot may sound familiar. At times it may even feel like Boyz n the Hood and Above the Rim. But, ultimately, it veers from its predecessors early and often.

Streetballers PosterAs the story progresses, taking place over the course of a summer, and as Whitmore and Hogan help each other overcome obstacles—Whitmore schooling Hogan on how to sharpen his game; Hogan returning the favor, helping Whitmore with his summer college course—life off the court progressively become worse and worse for the pair.

Aside from the obligatory basketball, rap, guns and violence, this flick is about so much more. It’s about family; it’s about friends; it’s about hope; it’s about making the most of the least. In John’s case, that means overcoming his past to forge a strong future. For Jacob it means coming to the realization that hoop dreams aren’t the only dreams.

Reflecting real life, Streetballers doesn’t attempt to wrap a bow around its plot and end with with all going home happy, healthy and hopeful. Instead, like the one viewer’s live, it leaves with the all-t0-true message, that even though you may be growing and becoming better, not everyone else is and not everyone else wants you to.

Reasons to Peep Streetballers: Self-distribution is not an easy way for a film to blow up. Streetballers just might be good enough to do it, regardless. Here’s why:

•    Authenticity: Much of the movie feels real. From the legit Midwest twang and dialogue to the realistic character interactions, the film has the viewer feel likes they’re peering into a true story and not some fictional plot.
•    Basketball Scenes: Rather than employing actors who can’t ball, Krentz used dudes who could play. From the main characters on down, every basketball scene looks and feels like it could happen at a (good) park near you.
•    Plot: Simply put, strong. Encompassing much, utilizing twist, turns and subplots strongly, Streetballers will have your full attention throughout.
•    Soundtrack: Heavily southern, featuring Murphy Lee and a slew of local St. Louis rappers, the music is dope, accentuating points when needed, adding drama and highlighting scenes.
•    Bookends: Above all, the joint starts and ends strongly, grabbing your interest at the beginning and refocusing it near the end. That’s a must for any worthy flick.

I was so enamored with Streetballers that I caught up with Director/Producer/Actor Matthew Scott Krentz immediately after screening the joint in early August. Below are the highlights of our conversation, minus anything that could spoil the film. If you’re up for it, you can see a trailer for the film or purchase on its site, streetballersthemovie.com

SLAM: How did the film come to be called Streetballers? It’s not really a ‘streetball’ movie, and the title threw me off a little bit.
Matthew Scott Krentz: I think people are expecting something a little different when they just hear ‘Streetballers.’ When I wrote the script and came up with the title, like six and a half years ago, the title for me was exactly what the [movie] is: Two kids just trying to play streetball. Now it has so many connotations; whether it’s people hustling in the street, hustling drugs or people thinking AND 1 type shit. So the meaning is as simple as the two characters—two guys trying to better their lives by playing street basketball. That’s why I called it Streetballers.

SLAM: Speaking about the making of the movie, how did it come to be; how long did it take to get done?
MSK: Well, it feels like it’s taken a lifetime, for real, living with the concepts, ideas and then creating it. I wrote the first draft of the story close to eight years ago…I’ve written a handful of films and commercials, but I wanted to wait a little bit before I tackled the subject of basketball because it was something so dear to me. I grew up, since I can remember, I had a Nerf basketball, and before that a Nerf soccer ball that I would dribble and shoot hoops with my brother.  So before I could even get a ball up to the hoop, I was dribbling and shooting a Nerf ball. So to me the game is something special. Through the years, even with all the work behind the scenes I was doing, I would spend two to three hours a day in my basement, dribbling the basketball—two basketballs at once, one basketball, just trying to make sure I could control it—and I just loved doing it. It was just a passion of mine, to be honest.

SLAM: Where did the story idea come from?
MSK: The story idea is taken from the passion of playing basketball and the city of St. Louis, and kinda how divided it is and how there are these racist undertones in the city. I wanted to tackle [that]. I wanted to take something that was beautiful and brought people together, athletics and basketball, and something that keeps people divided, the city and people’s misconceptions of other cultures. 

Streetballers screengrab; Matt Krentz facing camera. SLAM: The story is fictional, but I feel a lot of real life in there. You know?
MSK: There is, and I’m hoping that’s what resonates with everyone. This isn’t an autobiography of me, but it’s based off a lot of stories that are very true to me, have happened to me or close friends of mine.  So it’s not all my story, but I like to think of it as everybody’s story. We’re not all so different, in that we’re struggling and encountering situations that aren’t the best for us—especially when you’re a young athlete out hustling. So I kinda wanted to be inspirational in the story as well.

SLAM: I could also sense the influence of some other movies. What kind of movies served as your inspiration, if any?
MSK: Let me start with some of the directors that’ve been inspirational. A lot of them are from New York, because they’re not afraid to tell stories about their city. So I think my top couple would [include] Spike Lee for sure; just because as an actor/producer Spike’s always put it out there, tells his story and isn’t afraid to play all the roles. He kind of did it out of necessity, but at the same time, was like, alright I can do it, and everybody else says it’s impossible. So I took from that.  And then [Martin] Scorcese is another big one. Some of his earlier works, Means Streets for example, are the story of something he’s familiar with, and he has that authenticity and that’s something that rings true. Then there is Ed Burns out of New York; he talks about his neighborhood and his experiences. Those directors gave me confidence in sticking true to your instincts and telling a story that’s  real to you because that’s what resonates with people more than anything.

SLAM: To me, some of it feels like Boyz n the Hood. Is that something you were going for?
MSK: It really does have that similar feel to John Singleton, and that’s something I battled with in the script process. When I wrote [this], that wasn’t something I though of, but I did when I shot it….So it does have that feel, and I made that decision to keep it.

SLAM: The movie’s pretty deep. What message was the most personal to you?
MSK: One of the scenes I always loved was when REDACTED. I love at the end of the scene when he tells the REDACTED, ‘go ahead and keep the [ball], I’ma be fine just without it.’ I love that scene because I want kids to understand, you can use basketball to get you places, to create opportunities outside of it.  So that scene is important to me.

Streetballers ScreengrabSLAM: Aside from the deep messages in the movie, the basketball scenes are also tight. Did I hear that you used college players? If so, how did you make that decision casting wise?
MSK: That’s my biggest pet peeve. When a film is talking about sports, and they find a guy to throw out the first pitch who couldn’t throw a can of soup across the kitchen, it’s like what? So I wanted to show that a when a ball came out of a guy’s hands, I wanted you to follow it and make sure that you knew that person could do what your were seeing.  That was a stylistic choice, to make it completely authentic. The East St. Louis Ballers team [in the movie] is actually the East St. Louis Ballers team. That’s not a rec team; that’s a team that plays on the streets. As far as casting for the North and West side teams, which are fictional, we went out and recruited some of the best players in town who play ball overseas. So I’d say 90 percent of guys who play basketball in those scenes play overseas.

Craig Thomas, the producer on the film, he organizes the majority of pickup games in St. Louis. I’d say I met Craig six years ago, when I went out with a camcorder to some of the city courts to interview guys for a screen test. Tyrone Dennis, now a cop in Atlanta and he used to play for AND 1, he told me I had to talk to Craig Thomas if I was trying to get some ballplayers together.  I gave him a synopsis and the script, and he called me back and told me that somehow I managed to get his whole life into this story and that he’d  help with anything I wanted. Now he’s one of my best friends, but that’s how the relationship was built—through him trying to get some ball players together.

SLAM: My only beef was that the defense was soft. But I guess you needed that to happen?
MSK: (Laughs.) You know what’s funny? I had written in some more scenes, but I didn’t get to shoot them—the blocks, steals, hard physical play. I had three days to shoot and it rained one of those days, so I had two days to shoot everyone of my basketball scenes. And the final game, we had five hours to shoot that game. We had from one in the morning to daylight to shoot the entire basketball game.  In Hollywood that shoot would have taken a month. But you’re right. When I get a studio budget, I’ll be able to fix it up. (Laughs)

SLAM: The movie has a very southern feel to it. But I feel like it could have taken place anywhere. Did you choose the Lou because that’s what you know?
MSK: Yeah, and that’s exactly it. I didn’t show the Arch and I didn’t show monuments because I wanted it to represent any city in the U.S. But I had to keep the real dialogue.

In the movie Hustle and Flow, the director, Craig Brewer, kept that Memphis feel, and I got the chance to speak with him after the premiere of his movie. He told me that some people wouldn’t understand the slang or some of the expressions, but it doesn’t matter. And I agreed; you can understand what somebody is saying through their body language, through the emotions on their face. Making it authentic gave it that texture, that feel, that scent, like when you walk into your grandmother’s house and smell something in the kitchen that [brings you back].

When I met with Universal [Studios], they told me I could go up and film in Toronto and shoot because of all the tax breaks in Canada. They told me they wanted more gang violence and less basketball. Another company said they wanted more basketball and less [other stuff]. Like everyone had their own idea, and I was like, actually I’m going to shoot this in St. Louis and I’m gonna direct it and play the lead. They might as well have laughed me out of the room, but I knew this was how it was going to be done. It had to be St. Louis for me. If I would have went anywhere else, it would not have been as authentic to me.