Friday, October 29, 2010

Here's The Pitch

Watching the 1998 HBO documentary “City Dump: The Story of the 1951 CCNY Basketball Scandal,” I kept thinking how the material was screaming for the full-length fictional feature treatment.

I thought the same thing about the Jack Molinas-Connie Hawkins story arc, then I did a little research and found out that it was a dream project for Bethlehem Shoals until Free Darko’s mad genius learned that Spike Lee and John Turturro were trying their hand at a screenplay.

Both stories mine the same territory: Basketball in New York City around mid-century. The original Madison Square Garden engulfed with tendrils of cigarette smoke. Low-rent hucksters and cut-rate bookmakers in sharkskin suits and fedoras on the sideline, making side bets on the action. Nattily dressed coaches, pocket squares included, directing the fast-paced, hard-cutting action on the court that was the prevalent style of the time in the city.

The CCNY story is a little less familiar than Molinas-Hawkins. The Beavers had caught the fancy of New York, which was enthralled with baseball at the time as the city still had the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants. CCNY had a team that encapsulated the melting pot feel of the town, with black, Jewish and Irish city natives combining their talents. The team won both the NCAA and NIT championships in 1950, both games against Bradley University, relegating the professional New York Knickerbockers to other accommodations because college basketball was king in the Garden.

But it all came crashing down when crusading district attorney Frank Hogan, an evangelical on issues of corruption, began investigating allegations of point shaving in college basketball. College hoops had become a cottage industry for two-bit hustlers, who found no shortage of enthusiastic bettors at the Garden and also broke-as-a-joke students who were willing to take a dive for some scratch.

The star players on CCNY had dumped a few games. Their careers were over, and the wider net of the investigation had ensnared players across the nation, including the sanctimonious Kentucky team of Adolph Rupp.

It could work cinematically even as a thinly veiled version. Focus on a Jewish immigrant, the first in his family to go to college in America, the pride of his ethnic enclave. At CCNY, he plays with black teammates for the first time. It’s awkward at first, but they work through it and get to championship heights. The coach is a taskmaster, and the players have no money to squire women in this hopping city. A city-slick former college player recruits the CCNY stars to work for his mobbed-up partner. The players make a few dollars, and then in the third act the house of cards falls down.

It’ll work. Get a “Boardwalk Empire” set of the block with the old Garden and neon signs for 24-hour coffee shops and liquor lounges. Slap on a jazzy soundtrack, and we’re in business.

Here’s who I envision as the star: Jason Segel of “How I Met Your Mother,” “Freaks and Geeks” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” fame. He’s got the build — no need for the eight-foot rims for tiny actors — and also a visage that wouldn’t look out of place on a Jewish or Irish immigrant.

In point of fact, Segel is a baller. He was the seventh-man on the Harvard Westlake team in North Hollywood, Calif., that won the Division III state championship in 1996, and he played in the same front court as future NBAers and twin brothers Jason and Jarron Collins.

Here is an excerpt from a Los Angeles Times feature in 1996 about the team and Segel, who was known as “Doctor Dunk” as a 6-foot, 4-inch junior:

"I'm not nearly as skilled a basketball player as some of the other guys," Segel says. "But I have a lot of bravado."

Not to mention a made-for-the-highlight-reels dunk.

During Harvard's two-week East Coast trip in December, Segel wowed a Florida crowd with a two-handed slam made with the front of his jersey pulled over his head. Before the dunk, Segel stood poised, calling for silence with outstretched arms. After the dunk, he dove headfirst into the stands.

"He put on an absolute show," (point guard Leo) Da Costa said.

Segel also keeps the team loose with impressions of everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Kermit the Frog. He even does (Harvard coach Greg) Hilliard.

"You spend five minutes around Jason and he'll come up with a pretty good impression of you," Abed Abusaleh said.

An aspiring actor, Segel has dabbled in bit parts and studied in England. After the season, Segel is scheduled to begin rehearsals for a school production in which he will deliver a 22-minute soliloquy on stage.

"I love getting up in front of people," he says.

His most memorable moment this season? The dunk, of course. Not because he made it but because Jarron allowed him to. Jarron qualified for the competition ahead of Segel but deferred to his teammate.

"He knew it was something important to me, so he stepped back and let me do it," Segel said. "I appreciated that."

It might not be blockbuster summer fare, but critics and hoopheads would eat this stuff up. So, budding Hollywood moguls, give me a call and let’s do brunch somewhere.

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