He Got Game: About The Story

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"The dynamic in the father and son relationship between Jake and Jesus is really about reconciliation," notes filmmaker Spike Lee while discussing some of the themes at the core of Touchstone Pictures' "He Got Game." "It brings up the questions, 'When do you start forgiving someone who has done a great injustice or harm to you?' and 'Can you, and should you forgive him or her?'

"I don't think I've ever done a film that is just about one thing," Lee continues. "Life is filled with different stories and issues and they are all interwoven. So, in this film, we are also looking at the exploitation of the student-athlete. People see young athletes as walking banks and everybody wants a piece of the action.

"In this story, Jesus Shuttlesworth is the best high school basketball player in the nation," Lee explains. "The story takes place the week before he has to sign his Letter of Intent, which declares what school he's going to go to. Being such a national prospect, he is worth millions of dollars and everybody wants a piece of him. It's very hard for him to know whom to trust. He is caught in a very intense week and it becomes even more so with his father showing up after being away for six and a half years."

The passion that Spike Lee has for basketball started very early in his life, and is recounted in his recently published book, The Best Seat in the House. Each season he can be found in his usual courtside seats at New York City's Madison Square Garden cheering his beloved New York Knicks. As with each of his previous films in which Lee has taken prevailing social issues and examined their effects upon individuals and their families, in Touchstone Pictures' "He Got Game" the director-writer-producer depicts a young, talented basketball player who is coping with the effect that his extraordinary skills have on the people around him.

When Dr. James Naismith created the game of basketball in the late 1800s, he could not have envisioned the heights to which his game would reach. Basketball is not just a sport, it is a multi billion dollar a year business. And each year, thousands of young men view basketball as their ticket out of poverty stricken lives. It is an ambition they pursue mercilessly. There is no room for doubt, or to consider that most aspiring players never make it to the pros. In an environment where often nothing else seems to be working, each shot through the hoop, each dunk, each rebound is one step closer to the elusive exit.

"The background of the Shuttlesworth family is that they lived in the Coney Island housing projects, and Jake saw his son Jesus' basketball skills as the family's ticket out of there," explains Denzel Washington. Speaking about his character, Jake Shuttlesworth, Washington says, "Jake was trying to make up for all of the things he wasn't able to do on the basketball court by living through his son and pushing him too hard."

After completing his original screenplay, Spike Lee approached Denzel Washington with the project, and Washington accepted. "I thought it was a very interesting character and a good story," notes Washington of his attraction to the project.

"I always enjoy working with Spike and filming in New York as well," Washington says. "Spike and I have known each other and worked together for almost nine years and this is our third film together so we have a good professional and personal relationship. We went from the world of Jazz in 'Mo' Better Blues' to the world of the Nation of Islam in 'Malcolm X,' and now to the world of basketball. What it's all about is putting yourself in different environments and circumstances, walking in the characters' shoes and trying to find some truth in it."

"Jake felt that he was good enough to be in the NBA, and that 'could-have, would-have, should-have' hung over his life like a big cloud," explains Spike Lee of Washington's character. "The reality was that Jake wasn't good enough and he just used a knee injury as his excuse. He transferred his desires to his son and wanted him to be tough enough to make it to the NBA. But whether it's at the basketball court or on the baseball diamond, you're always going to have the inevitable day when the son finally triumphs over his father.

"We made the decision early on that we wanted the basketball playing to be as authentic as possible," notes Spike Lee, discussing his approach to the casting of the pivotal starring role of Jesus Shuttlesworth. "We didn't want to use trick photography or have someone else shooting for the actor. We wanted to use a real, world-class basketball player, and the best players in the world are in the NBA. The challenge then came in trying to find a great ball player who could still look young enough to be a high school senior. At the same time, he had to have a natural, innate acting ability and good discipline to turn in a real, believable performance."

Milwaukee Bucks star player Ray Allen has made a huge sensation in his first year in the National Basketball Association®. During one of his team's away games in New York, Allen was approached by Spike Lee who asked him to audition for the starring role.

"It made me so nervous because I've never acted in my life," says Ray Allen about his initial reaction to the prospect. "People always ask me if I'm nervous playing in front of twenty or thirty thousand people. That's easy to me. But in acting, you have to connect to emotions and you have to show everybody ... the whole world ... what is working inside of your head and inside of your heart."

Lee awarded Ray Allen the role of Jesus Shuttlesworth, not only with Allen's audition, but also with the young athlete's commitment to clear his promotional schedule in the off-season in order to work with acting coach Susan Batson. "Ray moved to New York and worked with Susan for eight weeks before we started shooting," explains Lee. "He really wanted to do this part and he did not want to be just a jock on screen. He was focused and determined, and not many players would be willing to make that kind of commitment and dedicated effort in their off-season."

"Acting can be a real release," says Ray Allen. "It allows you to become free with yourself. I learned a lot about myself by acting and learning what I needed to take from my past to give to this character. When I read the script, I realized I had been in many situations like the character. It was so much like what I had gone through when I was in high school as a senior. I didn't know what acting was, but I figured I could close my eyes and say the lines because I had lived most of the experiences. They were all what athletes go through.

"Jesus Shuttlesworth is the number one high school basketball player in the country," Ray Allen explains. "Everybody is trying to latch onto him, from his relatives and agents, to college coaches and reps from the NBA. He has a whole collection of things that can detour him from doing the right thing and making it to college, where he wants to be. And that is definitely what goes on today in sports.

"People automatically believe that because you're going to be rich, they're going to be rich," continues Allen. "I've seen it happen. People just want to do things for you because they figure they're going to get it back ten-fold. And it's often the people on the outskirts of the situation that try the hardest to hook into some connection, to try and get close to you. In reality, I think the most pressure that young guys feel comes from their families and people that are in their own circle ... their best friends and girlfriends. And some people's family members aren't as enthused about their careers. That places even more pressure on the guys to do well. They try to perform for other people, rather than just for the joy of the game."

In the story, Jesus is surrounded by family members and friends who are all affected by the rocketing career thrust of the young athlete. For several of the roles in the strong ensemble, Spike Lee cast actors with whom he had worked on previous films, including Hill Harper as Jesus' cousin, friend and overshadowed teammate Coleman "Booger" Sykes; Bill Nunn as the outlandish Uncle Bubba and "Booger's" domineering father; Zelda Harris as Jesus' younger sister and charge, Mary; Lonette McKee as Jake's wife Martha Shuttlesworth; and Roger Guenveur Smith as the slick Big Time Willie.

"I think that we assembled a very fine cast," notes Spike Lee. "Milla Jovovich is wonderful as Dakota Burns, Thomas Jefferson Byrd gave a great performance as the pimp, Sweetness, Jim Brown is solid besides being one of the all-time greatest players in the NFL and co-stars as the parole officer, Spivey, and Rosario Dawson is also great as Jesus' girlfriend, Lala Bonilla. We also had a lot of terrific cameo appearances by some of the greatest names in the sport of basketball."

Jesus' teammates on the Lincoln High School team were also played by some of the top young NBA players, including Travis Best of the Indiana Pacers, John Wallace of the Toronto Raptors, Walter McCarty of the Boston Celtics and Rick Fox of the L.A. Lakers.

As well as being a backdrop for the drama of the story, the sport of basketball also provided a common footing and interest for Ray Allen and Denzel Washington. "Denzel loves basketball dearly, so we definitely had an even ground to talk, and that made me completely comfortable," notes Ray Allen of working with superstar Washington. "Denzel brought so much energy to the set. He is such a down-to-earth person, and when he's acting he has such a powerful presence. You can feed off of that and it allowed me to be stronger and to fall into the character so much more easily. We would work on lines together, but then in the scene he would just let it be and let us see where the scene took us."

"Most of the scenes that Ray and I did together took place on or around the basketball court which was a great environment for him because I think it's where he can be instinctively more relaxed and confident," explains Denzel Washington of his acting relationship with his co-star Ray Allen. "He was still in the world that he knows. He was playing a young basketball player with great ability and he is a young basketball player with great ability. I think the main thing for him was just relaxing and having fun with the role, and relying on his knowledge of the game, drawing from that for his acting since it affects everything that his character does. And Ray was great."

Ray Allen also has praise for his director, filmmaker Spike Lee. "He's an avid basketball fan," notes Allen of Lee. "It was pure pleasure for me to work with Spike because he made it so easy for me."

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