The prodigious success of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James in making the leap directly from the hothouse world of high school basketball to the hallowed hardwood of the National Basketball Assn. has planted dreams of $100-million contracts in the minds of prep stars everywhere. "Through the Fire: The Sebastian Telfair Story," a documentary by Jonathan Hock, charts the journey of one young man who must choose between taking the guaranteed college education that comes with a Division I basketball scholarship or dive into the considerably riskier waters of the NBA draft.
A real-life Jesus Shuttlesworth, the fictional Coney Island basketball star in Spike Lee's "He Got Game," Telfair must navigate a high-pressured gantlet of family history, media scrutiny and endorsement deals in making the biggest decision of his young life. In a way, "Through the Fire" picks up where "He Got Game" left off. Lee's drama concludes with Jesus (played by current NBA star Ray Allen) choosing his college. The documentary begins in late 2003 with Telfair announcing he will attend the University of Louisville to play for Coach Rick Pitino.
Abraham Lincoln High School, Telfair continues a long line of phenoms to spring from the courts of Coney Island, which includes his cousin Stephon Marbury, now of the New York Knicks. The documentary tracks the charismatic Telfair and his made-for-television smile through his senior year as his stock rises considerably and the pressure mounts for him to spurn Pitino and pin his hopes on becoming a high first-round choice in the draft.
Hock and cinematographer/co-director Alastair Christopher deftly capture the whirlwind media attention and gamesmanship involved, although failing to question the merchandising of 18-year-old (and younger) athletes by corporations. Telfair has been groomed from a young age by his older brothers Daniel Turner and Jamel Thomas — the latter a star at Providence who went undrafted and plays professionally in Europe — to be image-conscious about his reputation, avoiding tattoos and unseemly behavior. Tutored for the role from childhood, he handles himself as expertly under the glare of TV lights at news conferences as he does in nationally televised ballgames — on ESPN, natch.
The filmmakers don't hesitate to show Telfair in an unflattering light when he maniacally pursues the assists record at a high-profile all-star game, but for the most part the film doesn't go any deeper. We never see Telfair when he's not "on," either playing basketball or prepping for the accompanying hoopla.
The film's biggest accomplishment is that it is entertaining whether or not you know the outcome. Telfair's got the skills to play and market himself, and "Through the Fire" has enough game to make us care.
"Through the Fire: The Sebastian Telfair Story"
MPAA rating: Unrated