One of the greatest movies made about basketball was Hoop Dreams, a 1994 film about two high school basketball stars in the inner city and their hopes and dreams about moving ahead to play in college and maybe even in the pros. In the year it came out, it was an Academy Award Nominee and Roger Ebert called it a “masterpiece” and awarded it the title of best film of the 1990s.
“It is the gold standard for documentaries,” said filmmaker Ben Cummings the other day. And nobody doubts it.
But Ben Cummings, along with his brother Orson, is currently making a movie about high school basketball, and he has one thing going for him that the makers of Hoop Dreams never did. A championship. Maybe.
The thing is, when you start to make a documentary about the hopes and dreams of the subject of a film, you know what they hope to do. But you go along making hundreds of hours of films and how it ends is not in your control. The protagonist succeeds or fails, and whichever it is, that’s what you film.
In Hoop Dreams, the two protagonists, William Gates and Arthur Agee, get accepted to play in college, and that’s fine. Their dream to star doesn’t happen. It’s fine. And part of the fun of watching the film is their dealing with that.
As for Ben and Orson Cummings, they began filming Killer Bees at the start of their season, and the dream was the team, this Bridgehampton High School basketball team, might go on to get a state championship. They’ve done it before. In the last 35 years, they’ve been state champs seven times, and as the season started, it looked like they might be able to do it again.
There would be 29 games to play. They had a star player in Charles Manning Jr. There was at least the hope that late Sunday night of the weekend of March 12–13, a phone call would go out from Glens Falls, upstate where the state championships are played, to the Bridgehampton parents, teachers and administrators, to the fire department, the police department and the ambulance service, to get out onto the Montauk Highway and head west toward the Expressway to meet the yellow Bridgehampton School team bus coming the other way, to escort that bus, with all the coaches and kids on board cheering and screaming, “WE WON! WE WON!” as they came east.
Coming into town, under the glow of the streetlights, the bus would be met by even more townspeople who would then follow it down to the school for the big midnight party on the front lawn—as has happened on seven other occasions in the last 35 years.
What a fine ending to the Killer Bees movie that would make.
But then this happened. Last fall, at the start of the school year, the Cummings Brothers were sitting with Coach Carl Johnson to discuss the upcoming plans for filming when a different sort of phone call came in. Johnson answered it. It was not good news.
Charles Manning Jr., the star of the team as a Junior the prior year, would not be returning to the Bridgehampton School. He had been drafted by another high school, a large private school upisland called Long Island Lutheran. They offered him a tuition scholarship. He would be finishing high school there.
Lutheran is not a competitor to the Killer Bees. The Killer Bees are a Class D team, in the group of the state’s smallest high schools. Lutheran, with its much larger enrollment, is Class A. But Lutheran takes basketball very seriously. Players from Lutheran have had successful careers in that sport. They assemble top teams made up of kids from near and far.
Should the Cummings Brothers withdraw their plan to film the Killer Bees? Absolutely not. If the team doesn’t win there is still a story to tell.
But guess what? Here it is Thursday as I write this, and the Killer Bees, even without their star, are just one win away from being invited to the finals in Glens Falls. The rest of the team just hiked up their game a few notches.
For example, last Tuesday, they played Eldred for the Southeast Regional Semifinal in Class D. The game was contested in the gym at Suffolk Community College in Selden, where there was room for lots of cheering fans. The Killer Bees came at Eldred with their swarming, high intensity, high-speed style. It’s something they have to do, not only because it works, but because, invariably, they are shorter on average than the players on the other team. They swarm. On defense, they jump into the passing lanes. They break up plays and intercept passes.
Even with Manning in the game, they played like that. Last year, when Manning led the team to the championship and the storyline for the film had initially included the hope, they played like that. Another storyline was that when Charles Manning had done it last year, his dad, Maurice Manning, playing in high school for the Killer Bees 17 years ago, had also done it—leading the team to not one but two consecutive championships. Now his son Charles had led the team to one championship. And it was thought he could do it again in his senior year, but it was not to be. So what was this?
The Eldred Yellow Jackets fell behind the Bridgehampton Killer Bees in the first half, going into the locker room behind 35-20. Playing against a swarming style can wear you out. But knowing you had to do it all over again in the second half seemed to make it even worse. Bridgehampton scored 11 points in a row to start the third quarter and it was really all over. Final score: Killer Bees 67, Eldred 50. Just one game to go! The finals here we come! Maybe.
The star of the team now is the whole team, but if you had to pick a few players out who raised their game without Manning, you’d have to mention Matthew Hostetter and Tylik Furman, and of course the captain Josh Lamison. These were the stars on a team whose tallest player is just 6 feet 2 inches.
The Killer Bees went home on the school bus quietly and without showing emotion. They had done what they had to do. The Cumming brothers were at the game of course, filming away. The team was thinking only of their final game. It would be against the Clark Academy and it will be played in Westchester on Friday.
Well, today is Friday. So we’ll see. I asked Ben Cummings when the movie would be coming out.
“We will know how it ends next week,” he said. “And after that begins the hard part. We have 150 hours of film. It has to be condensed down to 90 minutes. We’re going to try to have it done late next summer. It will probably be too late for the Hamptons International Film Festival, which picks its movies in the early summer. But we will enter the Hampton Take2 Film Festival in November, I should think. We’ll just have to see.”
The centerpiece of the film is the Killer Bees. But the Bridgehampton School and the surrounding Hamptons community is the rest of the story—a story of farmers and summer people and blacks and whites.
Go get ‘em, Killer Bees. I’ll be adding to this story after today’s game against Clark.