Give Him The Chump: White Men Can’t Jump

In 1992, the year White Men Can’t Jump was released, I was 13 and basketball-obsessed.

I haunted the local playground and gladly endured the kind of hazing a lanky, baby-faced White kid could expect when stepping on the court: “Here comes Chris Dudley! Oh, Rik Smits in the house! Here goes Adam Keefe!” 

If you don’t know, these are the names of professional basketball players of the era, all of them lanky, White, not particularly good and most definitely not cool.

The insult, of course, did not contain any direct reference to those players’ abilities. Just to be called the name of a White player implied derision, a lack of style and finesse so obvious that explanation would be redundant.

In 2020 this whole line of discussion makes me vaguely uneasy as I type and the scenario I’m recounting takes on new dimensions–my memory of that playground court suddenly becomes a matrix shot through with a million vectors of intersection and positionality, none of them particularly happy-making in hindsight.

But in 1992, it felt like pure, unadulterated fun. Teenagers playing for no stakes higher than to beat the clock before our eventual removal by the security guard.

Baseball, I am told, is known as the great American pastime. That’s all fine and good for anyone who grew up in relative proximity to a cornfield, refers to soda as “pop,” or fought in World War II.

But if you grew up in the Jordan era, it was basketball, basketball, basketball. 

And yet, the game seemed to cut across racial and geographic lines, its mythos encompassing tobacco road and Hoosier country as fully as it did Rucker, St. Anthony’s, Dunbar

Filling the role baseball may have once played in certain zip codes, it was a game that attracted the willing–if there was a court, any kid could show up and play. You didn’t even need to bring a ball. 

There was, I daresay, a spiritual aspect to it, and this is what WMCJ is actually about–obsession. The devotional fun of having a Basketball Jones

It is to basketball what Tin Men is to sales (or what Ron Shelton’s earlier hit, Bull Durham was to baseball)–it zeroes in on the lower-tier denizens, the hangers-on who just can’t give up the chase. Their reward is not riches or fame, but bragging rights, dominion over a kingdom of amateurs. 

Remember the scene where, forced by his girlfriend, Billy Ho(yle) shows up at Sidney’s house to demand restitution after being hustled? Caught up in a tense argument, the men immediately forget why they’re fighting when the ref makes a questionable call on the TV.

Then, to complicate things further, the girlfriends come in to address them while standing in front of the TV.

The reaction is one familiar to anyone who has watched sports while sharing the room with another human who could care less about the noises and pictures coming out of the little box.

Or how about Billy’s excruciating double- and then triple-down on a vainglorious insistence that he can dunk? 

Of course, I only call it vainglorious at thirty years’ remove. 

I get it.  These things mattered.

Early teen prowess was often measured in proximal dunking ability, i.e. “He can barely grab net!” (clown) to “I grabbed rim!” (measure of respect) to “He can dunk!” (God-tier).

Entire afternoons at the court would be spent in–vainglorious–attempts to rub in an alley-oop in some way that could be technically construed and later relayed to friends as a dunk. Big fish stories for urban teens.  

And as always, leaping ability was measured in direct proportion to height and racial makeup. Meaning: significance of ability to grab rim substantially diminished if tall (me), inversely increased if short, exponentially increased if short and White (this person did not exist).

Playground basketball was often marked by this desire to accomplish the impossible.

That’s why the Sudan hook shot scene is so pleasurable. Ridiculous? Maybe. But so relatable to anyone who spent afternoons attempting just such feats.

It’s also why “And a hook shot” is such a perfect line. It’s just the kind of wrench you throw in someone’s gears when you’re playing Horse (as seen soon thereafter in those iconic Jordan-Bird McDonald’s commercials).

I have always liked movies that posit secret worlds. That’s why I love the final tournament.

As with the drilling team in Armageddon or the pool-hustling circuit in The Hustler, we require no explanation of The King and Duck’s greatness or the specifics of the system they seem to dominate. They’re the best. The King and Duck. Everybody knows that.

WMCJ is also a great LA movie, conveying the buoyant, breezy energy of a town where everybody’s a hustler and even great victories are often Pyrrhic.  

When I moved here 7 years ago, one of the first places I visited was the courts on the Venice boardwalk. I felt sure this was where the opening scene of WMCJ was shot (the internet tells me otherwise). I skulked around, catching a sunburn, naively imagining a world class pick-up game would start up any minute. 

You know, like a chump.

5 thoughts on “Give Him The Chump: White Men Can’t Jump

  1. “It is to basketball what Tin Men is to sales (or what Ron Shelton’s earlier hit, Bull Durham was to baseball)–it zeroes in on the lower-tier denizens, the hangers-on who just can’t give up the chase. Their reward is not riches or fame, but bragging rights, dominion over a kingdom of amateurs.” — Funny you should mention Bull Durham. I blogged about it yesterday. In one of the making-of featurettes, Ron Shelton said that he didn’t like most of the sports films Hollywood’s made over the years because they’re all told from the perspective of the fan and not the player. He wanted to make a sports movie from the player’s POV, and then came Bull Durham.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading–that’s interesting. Shelton really did some great stuff as a sports movie writer-director. He brought an insider’s knowledge and sense of authenticity paired with a hip comedic touch. I rewatched Bull Durham recently…I have questions about how some of it holds up in 2020, but they will remain unasked and unanswered for now…going to read your blog now!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Great post, as always Pat! But do you know what the pinnacle of basketball movies are? Ah yeah, come on do the slam, welcome to the damn Space Jam. Wanna know what astronauts put on their toast? That’s right my dude, Space Jam. Michael Jordon can’t act, but that don’t matter when we have the damn Space Jam, now does it?

    Liked by 1 person

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