Coming off the network’s first Oscar win for “OJ: Made in America,” ESPN’s latest “30 for 30” film delves into Los Angeles sports history once again.
Premiering Tuesday night, “Morningside 5” is a fresh, new story for most viewers, but it’s well-traveled ground for filmmaker Mike Tollin, who first filmed five high school basketball stars — Stais Boseman, Dwight Curry, Corey Saffold, Dominic Ellison and Sean Harris — from Inglewood, California, back in 1992.
Then new to Hollywood himself, documentary filmmaker Tollin teamed up with “Head of the Class” actor Brian Robbins to capture the essence of inner city high school basketball in their debut sports documentary.
“Morningside High had an esteemed reputation for basketball excellence and had just won the state basketball title, plus their five pre-eminent players were all returning for their senior years,” Tollin told TheWrap.
Seemingly destined to be the Michael Jordans of their era, the five players “all imagined that they would be receiving full scholarships to Division 1 schools to play basketball — that was their dream,” he added.
But life and sports often don’t turn out the way we plan …
After chronicling their senior year in 1993’s “Hardwood Dreams,” Tollin — who’s also the co-founder of Mandalay Sports Media — went on to direct and produce feature films such as “Varsity Blues” and “Radio,” plus TV hits including “Smallville,” “One Tree Hill” and “Arli$$,” but fate would always draw him back to Morningside.
He revisited the former star players 10 years later and now 25 years on, he tells the latest chapter in their life stories for “30 for 30,” following the success and failures they’ve faced since first hitting hoops on that Inglewood court.
“All but one of them has moved away from basketball and they’re all just finding their way in the world,” Tollin told TheWrap. “What I love about this film is it isn’t really a story of triumph or tragedy in any great measure — it is a film about real lives.”
See the full interview with Tollin below.
TheWrap: How did you first get involved with the kids at Morningside High?
Mike Tollin: I was always a documentary guy at heart, and when I moved to L.A. I had an idea to try and find an inner city high school in which the profile was largely related to athletic achievement in the face of academic underachievement. “Hoop Dreams” was happening at the exact same time (unbeknown to us) and this behemoth was about to change the sports media landscape as we knew it, but we went merrily along our way and started digging around the Los Angeles inner city schools and found this school in Inglewood that had an esteemed reputation for basketball excellence and had just won the state basketball title, plus their five pre-eminent players were all returning for their senior years … It was kind of set up perfectly.
All five of the returning starters imagined they would be receiving full scholarships to Division 1 schools to play basketball — that was their dream.
How deeply involved in their lives did you become while filming the initial doc, “Hardwood Dreams”?
We spent most of the school year there in classrooms, at practice, getting to know the families and going to the games. Not surprisingly, a lot of surprises unfolded. It didn’t go exactly according to the textbook plan for their senior year.
Did you always think that you’d continue to follow their story?
At the time, I was very aware of a British film called “7 Up” that Michael Apted made in 1964, which started out following a group of children and then continued to check in with them every seven years. They are now working on “63 Up.” I thought this story might lend itself to that sort of serialized treatment over time.
What kind of impact did “Hardwood Dreams” have when it was released in 1993?
The first film got into Sundance, won some awards, was bought by Fox, we got Wesley Snipes to narrate … it kind of became our calling card and it was the one that convinced Brian and me to become partners. We stayed in touch with those guys and several of them did go on to play major college basketball. When it got to the 10 years later mark, we found them and filmed all over again.
Considering everything else you’ve achieved in your career since, how did you end back at Morningside?
I was lucky enough to be a part of the founding production team for “30 for 30” about 10 years ago. The idea was (and still is) to encourage filmmakers to tell first-person stories, to really exercise their vision and address their own passions. I got very close with [“30 for 30” co-creator] Connor Schell, and he was always encouraging me to bring something that was really my film, that I was personally attached to and would direct. This was when the 20th reunion at Morningside was coming up in 2013.
I said ‘I am only going to do this if I can get all five of them,’ and they kind of banded together. The star player had moved to a little town in Minnesota, all but one had moved away from basketball and they were just finding their way in the world. What I love about this film is it isn’t really a story of triumph or tragedy in any great measure — it is a film about real lives. They had gone on such different paths, but basketball continued to play some part in all of their lives.
On the surface, the film is about sports, but it is much deeper and really about other things.
Was it hard to introduce new viewers to what is a very familiar story to you?
The original film isn’t available anymore — you can’t even find it on video or online — which I think, ultimately, works in our favor for this as people are coming to it fresh. That’s why we presented it as we did, where you see an abridged version of the first two films to really set up where they are today.
What has the initial response been so far?
We’ve had a couple of screenings — people really dug in and got on for the ride. They’re not looking for that big trailer moment but got into discovering these five characters. Byron Scott and Paul Pierce — two former NBA stars who grew up in Inglewood — came out at the L.A. screening, and to hear them gush about these guys and call them the heroes of Inglewood “because they made lives for themselves and turned around the cycle of absentee fatherhood in the inner city” made us all feel so good. Ratings and box office records come and go, but being able to make a change is what makes it worth while.
Will there be another Morningside installment in the future?
I feel like I am in it for life. I’ve got at least two more of these in me.
In the meantime, what is next for Mandalay Sports Media?
We are deeply involved in the feature film slat and are hoping our next project will be an adaptation of “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach with IME. I never thought it was possible to get the rights to the book, then we waited five years and it came back to us. We are absolutely thrilled at the opportunity. We are still working on a draft of the script and haven’t cast it yet, but by the end of the summer, we’ll be elbow deep into it.
The headmaster (Guert Affenlight) is kind of the lead character, we haven’t gone out to anyone yet. That is a real, bona fide leading man role.
“Morningside 5” premieres Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.