Film and the Sport of Life

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The shoot was looking like a bust. Rain had started pelting down, and everyone at the Coney Island housing-project basketball court scattered for shelter. Jonathan Hock C’85 had figured he could then hang out in the apartment of his film subject, high-school basketball prodigy Sebastian Telfair. Then the family asked Hock to wait in his car.

And so he sat, watching the drops wash away the better part of the second day of a two-day shoot of a piece he was doing for Bob Costas’ HBO sports-magazine show.

“Everything had been friendly, so I was wondering what was going wrong,” recalls Hock. Then Sebastian’s father came to the car. He told Hock that Erica, Sebastian’s mother, just didn’t have any interest in participating in anything to promote her son.

“This was entirely out of character with 21st-century athletes, where parents do anything to hype their kids,” says Hock. “It turned out there was a real story—something worthy, I thought, of Hollywood.”

Thus was born Through the Fire, a rare documentary film that has had both a theatrical release and a prime-time television spot. It follows Telfair from that final stretch of his high-school career to his being chosen out of high school by the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2004 National Basketball Association draft. After it won several film-festival awards, it was bought by ESPN—which, as a subsidiary of Disney, showed it in theaters, then put it on TV in March after the NCAA tournament-selection show, the first time the network had done both for a film.

In Hock’s view, Through the Fire is not just another feel-good sports piece but a saga of contemporary American life. The documentary’s pith is that Telfair has to make up for his family’s losses, which caused his mother’s reluctance to even dream of good times. He lived in poverty, surrounded by memorials to people who died by crime, not in old age. His half-brother had also been a basketball phenom, but his success fell just short of an expected pro career. The drama of the documentary is derived not so much from Telfair’s substantial basketball skills but from his ability to shoulder his family’s hopes.

Hock was hardly a novice when he shot Through the Fire. After graduating from Penn, he spent a decade as a producer and director at NFL Films in nearby Mount Laurel, New Jersey. He then went out on his own, moving to New York, producing mostly sports segments for outfits like HBO and ESPN.

Through the Fire, though, was a signal moment in his career. He took it on without sure financing, knowing that it would be at least a yearlong project. But he also had some help from someone he had met when he had taken a break from his filmmaking career in order to give something back.

“I was 30 years old and won a bunch of awards, which you do at NFL Films,” he says. “It was the only job I wanted, but I just had a sense that there was more I ought to see. I started doing film workshops with at-risk youth in New York City. It had been such a wonderful way for me to grow into myself when I learned to make films, and I wanted to share that with kids who would otherwise not have the chance.”

One of those kids was Alastair Christopher, a 15-year-old kid “whose home life was a wreck and [who] had no other place to be.” Every day he fiddled with the cameras, eventually producing a little film on his tough life in the Brooklyn projects.

After a few years, Hock went back into filmmaking. Christopher, still struggling in school, sought him out. For months, he hung out in Hock’s office, sweeping floors and logging film shots. Finally, Hock let him film some background shots, an interview here and there. He soon had a personal parallel story to Telfair’s—a kid who had been given a small chance to get out of a life of despair and had moved forward with Hock’s aid.

“I soon found out I was no longer the first camera, that he was doing the best shooting,” says Hock, who allowed Christopher to do much of the later shooting on Through the Fire. “This is the kind of thing that makes the work rewarding.”

NFL Films had shown him that sports was as good as any activity to display a universal human story—and that his degree in American history could have unexpected value.

“NFL Films almost preferred that I didn’t have that film background,” he says. “They wanted people who could tell a story, to recreate the drama and meaning of a thing. History prepared me for that in a real way.”

His latest project is a combination of documentary and fiction—a film adaptation of a book by Bobbito García about the culture surrounding sneakers in the 1960s and 1970s in New York titled Where’d You Get Those? Hock says the story will focus on poor kids from whom nothing was expected but who grew in self-confidence through their own outlets—in this case, sneakers.

Similarly, Through the Fire is a story of redemption, of a family being held together by the personality, drive, and skill of Telfair.

“When you do a film, fiction or non-fiction, you want it to give you goose-bumps and soar at the end, which I hope Through the Fire does,” says Hock. “Sports lends itself to that, and I see no reason people should trivialize it.”

—Robert Strauss

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