The very title, The American Came, indicates that this well-made film intends to operate on a number of levels of meaning. The first, of course, is to produce a documentary, an authentic portrayal of "the game" itself—in this case high school basketball as both a sport and a rite—as the film makers find it in two widely diverse U.S. communities: Lebanon, Ind. and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The second is to dramatize the effect the game has on two young Americans who have been lionized as high school stars, then merchandised as college recruits. The third, and deepest, level of the film aims to suggest through the metaphor of basketball that more general, more desperate and more convoluted American Game—the pursuit of success, wealth, prestige and happiness.
The producer of the film and originator of the idea for The American Came is Anthony Jones, 39, an educational-film maker from New York City who had never made a full-length movie before. "I thought we could say things about this country through basketball," says Jones. "I had the idea five or six years ago, but it took time to find the right subjects."
The "right subjects" proved to be two high school seniors: Arthur (Stretch) Graham, a lanky and graceful black player from Lafayette High School in harsh, grimy Bensonhurst, and Brian Walker, an open-faced young Hoosier WASP from the land of cornfields and basketball fever. The two youths are utterly different in terms of life-style, family background, cultural environment and upbringing. Stretch Graham (above, right) has no father, a wayward mother—"She took up religion when she got sick of drinking"—and no real hopes for the future except what basketball might bring. "I use it as my factor to go to college," he says. He is a child of the streets, a 6'7" waif besieged by trouble and deprivation. His girl friend becomes pregnant (and miscarries shortly before his mother dies), and late in the film he admits to his coach that even though he is about to graduate and 250 college recruiters are after him, he has difficulty reading a restaurant menu.
Brian Walker, on the other hand, has both a watchful father and a powerfully interested mother. He lives in a community full of rabid basketball boosters. He has an affectionate cheerleader girl friend, who says shyly, "I guess I love him." His mother, a leather-lunged bleacherite, suspects that her beer-swigging husband, a onetime unsung player of The American Game who has had a heart attack, may be pushing the basketball careers of Brian and his brother Steve, a reserve forward at Purdue, for the wrong reasons. "He is trying to relive his life through the kids and that is just not right," she says.
May 13, 1979
As Tony Jones says, the key to the film lies in the choice of subjects and the contrasting characters and communities around them. Credit for finding the player protagonists goes to David Wolf, author of Connie Hawkins' biography Foul, former sports editor of LIFE and writer and co-director (with film editor Jay Freund) of The American Game. Wolf spent weeks slogging through central Indiana before he discovered the Walker family. "I must have been in 20 different towns trying to find the right combination," he says. "I wanted to show the epitome of Hoosier hysteria and at the same time depict a player good enough to be involved in the recruiting crush, plus the pressure that a community puts on a winning team. I kept hearing about the Walkers, and when I finally met them, my first reaction was that they were almost too good to be true. They were right out of central casting and for a while I hesitated in picking them because I wondered if they would be believable."
Indeed, the Walkers come close to being clichès—parents so overinvolved in the sports careers of their offspring that they are downright suffocating. Yet they are true to their characters and, as Tony Jones says, "While they may look like caricatures to people outside their culture, that is really the way they are, and not only that, they are proud of the way they are."
The film was made in 1976 when both Lebanon's and Lafayette's teams were of near-championship caliber, and the drama of the film is heightened as both enter the postseason tournaments. They are driven to succeed by the often harsh and angry harangues of their coaches—the volatile yet oddly sensitive city-smart Gil Fershtman of Lafayette and the tall, pallid Jim Rosenstihl of Lebanon, who manages to mix the manners of a church usher with the fury, if not quite the language, of a Marine drill sergeant.
There are fleeting glimpses of recruiters stalking young Walker and Graham, all slickly sincere salesmen who peddle their "basketball programs" as intensely as a TV huckster sells underarm deodorant. We observe the boosters of Lebanon, who regard the winning basketball team as an extension of civic virtue that somehow redeems the community from mediocrity and banality, and hear a Lafayette assistant exhorting the Frenchies to win one for the coach ("This man has waited 15 goddam years for this goddam game.... He has paid his goddam dues...."). Wolf says, "One thing that is clear in the film is that among all the adults there is a terrible emphasis on winning, and on pushing children into living their fantasies."
As for the children themselves, both Brian Walker and Stretch Graham were uncommonly sensitive young men, able to withstand—and also understand—the pressures brought to bear on them because of their prowess at basketball. Both are now in college (Walker is a starting guard at Purdue; Graham, now married to his girl, transferred from Oral Roberts to San Jose State last year). Neither has dazzled the college basketball world, yet both have benefited from The American Game, and of all the people in the film, these two seem to understand best that basketball is a game—not a religion, not a redemption for life's failures.