"See this right here?" says the young black man, dribbling a basketball in New York's rugged Coney Island. "This here can get you a long way." Some people are unsettled by the idea that a game can be such a potent symbol of escape for so many inner-city teens, but it's an ivory-tower argument at odds with street-level reality. Two new documentaries, one a conventional history lesson, the other a triumph of new-media storytelling, examine the past and present of hoop dreams as a ticket out of hell.
On March 16 and 17, ESPN will air director Dan Klores's four-hour "Black Magic," which examines the rise of basketball at black colleges during the civil-rights era, a time when hardwood floors were the only level playing field around. Klores's film has great stories to tell, such as the secret 1944 scrimmage between white Duke University students and a team from the North Carolina College for Negroes, a game that could've been deadly if word got out. (NCCN won, 88-44.) "Born Ready," meanwhile, is "Hoop Dreams" told in real time— and on the Web. Each week at bornready.tv, Fader Films will post a new four-minute episode tracing the ups and downs of Coney Island star Lance Stephenson's junior year: the windmill dunks, the pregame trips through metal detectors, the stupid fight that earns him a brief suspension. It's the story of a talented, temperamental kid whose future is bright, but not assured. Basketball, these two films argue, really can "get you a long way." The question, then and now, is how far?