by MIchael Bowen

On tap for you in Spokane, 3 on 3 by North by Northwest." That pretty much sums up the documentary film about last year's Hoopfest tournament created by the local production company.

The movie tracks the fortunes, both good and bad, of three individuals on three distinct teams in Hoopfest 2003. Chanelle Ford, age 15, dreams of leaving the Wellpinit rez and making the team at Duke University. In contrast, rich white kids are represented by Carson Blumenthal, a 10-year-old star on the Fab 4 team from a gated community north of Spokane. But the undeniable star of this particular sports circus is Jerome "Big Sexy" Shelton of the Elite Division's Team Atlanta: trash-talking but devout, he's a man of huge appetites, enormous charisma and humble vulnerability.

First we see the teenage girls shooting at a rusty hoop, the little boys cavorting on their Sport Court, the guys from Atlanta strolling into the Ridpath. We get to know them, we watch them practice -- already the sense of anticipation is palpable. It's a suspenseful movie -- the editors cause the team's various games to fly by quickly and viewers will find themselves hanging on each loss, each victory.

For the Wellpinit girls, Hoopfest is a chance to show pride in the ways of their people while still breaking away; for the well-heeled little boys, the tournament provides lessons about family and adversity; for the thirtysomething men from Atlanta, it represents a final chance to relive their basketball glory days before retiring once and for all. (Except they didn't -- Big Sexy and Team Atlanta will be signing DVDs near Center Court this weekend.)

Director David Tanner of North by Northwest rode herd on an unexpectedly large-scale project: Three separate crews with three separate editors worked through 50 hours of footage to get the 82 minutes presented here.

But he also provides some artistic and emotional highlights: Shelton walking in silhouette out of the children's ward at Deaconess Hospital and wondering why he's "been granted 35 years of bliss, when this kid [he'd just visited] might not make it to next week"; parents comforting their kids after a tough loss; transition sequences between games, full of editing effects that make the dunk contests appear especially impressive.

And the film in its high-definition resolution makes Spokane look good, too. Shooting in hi-def heightened the technical requirements, of course, and Tanner also makes the point that shooting a non-scripted documentary was more difficult and nerve-wracking than filming a scripted feature. What if all three teams had gone 0-2?

Tanner laughs, still a little nervous at the thought. "We were gambling a lot -- not only money, but resources and time," he says. Watching Team Atlanta's game in the Elite Division finals, he recalls thinking, "If they lose, we got nada. It really was a huge gamble. That final game was so close."

Any of the teams could have lost suddenly (some do), and there were other obstacles: Shelton, for example, called before filming to report that he had a knee injury and might not play. Writer and co-producer Andrea Palpant got caught up in the Team Atlanta saga, too: "I'm not an athlete," she says, "but I have never in my entire life cared more about basketball than at that moment."

Still, Palpant reassured herself, as much as 3 on 3 is set at Hoopfest, it's not narrowly focused just on basketball: "Obviously, it's contextualized in sports. But it's really a human interest story."

While the NxNW doc depicts basketball's camaraderie and character-building, it also exhibits over-emphasis -- and even flaring tempers -- over something that is, after all, just a game.

"We were realistic going into it," says Palpant. "With street ball, that raw, rough, almost bloodthirsty quality is part of its appeal and its charm. From a socioeconomic viewpoint, everybody's equalized: It's your skill against somebody else's. That part of it is really beautiful and compelling."

Tanner recalls how involved -- and sometimes overly involved -- the parents are in their children's 3 on 3 games, "at one point saying, 'We live through our kids.' We weren't trying to play that up or play that down. We were just trying to show it."

On the one hand, for example, 3 on 3 depicts Shelton saying that he loves the game more than he's obsessed by it -- and it's a beautiful moment. On the other hand, the camera catches him complaining at length about a foul call that came at the end of a game his team had won a half an hour before.

Those kind of contrasts give 3 on 3 a human dimension, busting through the usual sports-doc conventions. With hopefulness in his voice, Tanner draws a parallel to the recent award-winning documentary Spellbound: "Nobody says, 'I want to go to a film about spelling bees -- but we have the human interest element here, with these characters that we just sort of follow through."

All the way to that exciting final game on Center Court.

3 on 3 will show at the River Park Square AMC 20 from June 25-July 1. You can also own the DVD for $10. Visit or line up near Center Court this weekend for Big Sexy's autograph.

Publication date: 06/24/04

Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition — Journey From Sketch to Screen @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 11
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.