Tiny Morton’s show: A useful portrait of a Lincoln High hustler, even through the gauze
Abraham Lincoln High School, in Coney Island, has been the focal point of the mythology surrounding New York City basketball for at least 20 years now.
The Railsplitters are a perennial top team whose players hail from the blacktop courts of Coney Island’s projects, the most famous of which is reverentially referred to by locals as “The Garden.”
Three N.B.A. players have grown up on those courts and passed through Lincoln in the past twenty years: Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, and Lance Stephenson. Each of these players was accompanied by an overheated hype machine and burdened by the hopes of being the savior who would return New York to its rightful place as the unquestioned basketball capital of the world.
The “city game” has always exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of New Yorkers, predicated on the idea that basketball provides a gateway for marginalized groups to make a name for themselves in mainstream society. This started when basketball was a Catholic and Jewish sport for sons of immigrants in the early part of the 20th century, and continued when African-Americans began dominating the sport in the latter part of last century.
In this context, Lincoln makes for a neat maker of American Dream stories, of going from the margins to the big stage: A team of kids who come from a neglected neighborhood on the outermost edge of the city (although the “neglected” part is changing fast) begins each year with the goal of making the public school championships in Madison Square Garden.
This is red meat for creative types. Consequently, several books and movies, along with countless articles, have been dedicated to examining the fortunes of Lincoln.
Darcy Frey’s 1994 masterpiece, The Last Shot, follows four members of the Lincoln team, including Marbury, then a hot-shot freshman. The book poignantly shows the disconnect between the culturally force-fed dream and the reality that most kids won’t make it, and that an overemphasis on basketball can do more harm than good.
Spike Lee’s 1998 film, He Got Game, evocatively balances the beauty of basketball with its unseemly aspects. It revolves around a fictional Lincoln player named Jesus Shuttlesworth—played competently by then and current N.B.A. player Ray Allen—who faces the pressure of being Coney Island’s next basketball savior.
Ian O’Connor’s 2005 book, The Jump, chronicles the senior season of Sebastian Telfair, a real-life Jesus Shuttlesworth. In meticulous and sometimes dense detail, the book portrays Telfair’s decision to jump directly from high school the N.B.A. amid a cacophony of voices belonging to coaches, family members and sneaker-company impresarios. (Telfair’s story is also the subject of Through the Fire, a 2005 documentary film.)
And then there was the ill-fated online reality show, “Born Ready,” which followed Lance Stephenson, who won four city championships for Lincoln from 2006-2009. Perhaps because of his too-much, too-soon success and consequent hype, Stephenson’s career has been sidetracked by behavioral issues, and the series was terminated after Stephenson was accused of forcefully groping a female Lincoln student.
GIVEN THE AMOUNT OF CREATIVE ATTENTION THAT has been paid to this one school’s basketball team, it wasn’t clear what “City Hardwood,” a reality show on the city-run NYC Life channel that has aired seven episodes so far and will air one every Sunday at 8 until Lincoln’s season ends, could possibly bring to the table.
It doesn’t bring much, it turns out. Maybe predictably for a show produced by the city, “City Hardwood” is saccharine and puffy. In the name of showing something “positive,” the show mostly shies away from the inner-city pathos and thorny issues that make books like The Last Shot and The Jump interesting in the first place.
So we see banners from the apparel company Under Armor hanging from the Lincoln gym. But we’re not told that Lincoln’s coach Dwayne “Tiny” Morton has a contract with Under Armor, through the AAU team he coaches, that is rumored to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. What could be a window into the sneaker-industrial complex of big-time high school sports is ignored.
The show depicts the players as happy-go-lucky cardboard cutouts of “great kids.” They mostly goof around endearingly on camera, or speak generically about the importance of education or of their hopes of using basketball to get to college. Whatever day-to-day hardships or complications they face are usually only referred to obliquely.
Each 27-minute episode is accompanied, the whole time, by a constant hip-hop soundtrack in the background. It’s likely that the producer’s intent was to give the show the feel of a Rucker Park pick-up game, where the action on the court is backed by hip-hop from a speaker system and a flamboyant court announcer. But it sort of gives the show the feel of an infomercial.
And the show devotes lots of time to game footage, which the producers didn’t take the time to edit at all. From a poor camera angle, we see Lincoln and their opponent go back and forth, always making their shots, without any prior knowledge of game context. This game footage is accompanied by absurd, melodramatic, after-the-fact announcing of the plays (“It’s up. And it’s in!”), and takes up around half of each episode.
But the show has its redeeming qualities. First and foremost is its depiction of Morton, which, while shying away from some things, still manages to be nuanced and rich.
Morton, youthfully jaunty in both mannerism and speech in his early 40s, is a polarizing figure: To his detractors, he’s an exploitative hustler who bends the public-school rules and uses teenage basketball players for his own glorification and financial gain. To his supporters, he’s also a hustler, but in the good sense of the word, with a unique ability to relate to his players and enough savvy necessary to help them navigate the murky waters of big-time high school basketball.
“He keeps it real with you,” says senior guard Dashawn Suber, who is being recruited by Temple, San Diego State, and other schools, and who himself has transferred high schools three times in the hopes of boosting his own stock as a player. (“It’s beautiful. He’s learned basketball from three great teachers,” Suber’s father says.)
On film, Morton—who teaches middle-school math by day—is a charismatic and seductive presence. He’s comfortable in his skin, he’s theatrical, and he makes great speeches. It’s easy to be taken in by him, and it’s easy to be wary of him.
The show’s most candid moments involve Morton. He is shown chewing his team out after lackluster performances and swearing frequently. It delves into Morton’s own compelling backstory: He and his brother bounced around in foster care, stealing money for meals as needed. He got himself to L.I.U. on a basketball scholarship, but he maintained his street habits. One day, a cop spotted him making a drug sale, and was about to arrest him until a friend’s mom intervened: It couldn’t possibly be Morton selling those drugs, because Morton was a college student, not a drug dealer. The cop moved on, and Morton went straight not long afterward.
And though the students aren’t portrayed in much complexity, many of their personalities come out after enough exposure.
Junior Ethan Telfair, Sebastian’s younger brother, has half his brother’s skill, but twice his brother’s charm. Tavari Whittingham, a junior forward who is being recruited by St. John’s, comes across as grounded, calm and introspective—qualities that one wouldn’t necessarily ascribe to him after reading that he was suspended for throwing a punch in a game. (“City Hardwood” doesn’t mention this.) Isaiah Whitehead, a sophomore guard who’s ranked among the top 15 players nationwide in his class, seems keenly aware of the pitfalls that come with his status.
And amid the predictable feel-goodness, there’s enough candor to keep you on your toes: One cheerleader stammers in embarrassment when she reveals that she has eight brothers, two by her mom, and six by her dad, and that she’s only close to three of them. Another cheerleader says she’s much closer to her dad than her mom. She can talk to her dad about everything, but “my mother I can’t talk to because she’s Christian, so she’s judgmental. It’s always like, ‘Bible Bible Bible.’”
You can watch all seven episodes of “City Hardwood” on the New York City webpage. The next episode will air Sunday at 8 p.m.
On Saturday at 6:15 p.m., at Carnesecca Arena at St. John’s University, the Lincoln Railsplitters will play the Boys & Girls Kangaroos in the PSAL “AA” Semifinals.