Brownsville Houses, Brooklyn, 1993. The courts radiated the oppressively hot summer waves off its black top. The energy was live in the community; mothers, children, old men, hustlers, tricks— all stood in attendance behind the mesh chain link fence to witness the undefeated. This humble basketball court was the Hole, and it was Kenny's Kings' domain.
Do not sleep on Soul in the Hole. The documentary saw a limited theater release in 1997 and has since gone under the radar. When thinking of streetball documentaries it is fair to say most people's mind goes to 1994's Hoop Dreams. Despite the surface level similarities to the Chicago tale, Soul in the Hole is a sincere portrait of inner city life and basketball culture that is well worth being pulled out of the archives.
Young point god
Edward "Booger" Smith was a prodigy. Balling since age 9, he sharpened his natural talents for handles and court IQ, dropping signature dimes with his slashing quickness. The 17 year-old we see in 1993 during Brooklyn's annual Soul in the Hole tournament was just barely 5 foot 9, a David amongst a sport of Goliaths. The courts were Booger's sanctuary. He would even sleep on park benches on nights when the fights with his mother would drive him to the street.
When Director Danielle Gardner wanted to put to film New York's streetball culture, she originally outlined three young streetball legends to follow. Along with Booger there was later AND1 mixtape pioneer and Houston Rocket Rafer Alston, along with crossover artist and future NBA development coach Shammgod. However, she was inspired by Booger's drifting story enough to make the charismatic teen and Kenny's Kings the subject of her documentary.
Never knowing his father and leaving the instability of his mother's home for good, Booger found himself asking for shelter at the stoop of Kenny Jones. Although his liquor store payed the bills, Kenny's true passion lied in mentoring the youth in his neighborhood. For him it was business by day, coaching by night. The rec team he assembled was for a time undefeated, and they cemented the name of Bed-Stuy's very own, Kenny's Kings, throughout the streets of Brooklyn.
The emotional focus of the documentary is the relationship between Booger and his surrogate father Kenny, who alongside with his wife took the teenager in under their care. We witness Booger's restless soul still respond to the call of the streets and, in turn, Kenny's efforts to guide him away. Booger would often disappear for nights on end, off into the projects to hustle. The film captures this push and pull with sincerity yet refuses to kid you with the harsh realties that relationships can dissolve into.
“I think that when I said that if I didn’t make the NBA I’d be a drug dealer, people got scared of that. But it was a real story. I mean, that’s what I was going to do. Did they want me to lie and say I was going to be an architect or something? I don’t regret saying it. [Danielle] just told me to be myself, but I never really liked getting too much attention." - Edward "Booger" Smith, SLAM Magazine, 2009
Soul in the Hole captures life in Bed-Stuy and the Brownsville projects in a touchingly candid portrait. Danielle Gardner penetrates the perception of crime and violence of these neighborhoods by intimately showing the faces that make up these very real communities. A child catching a ride atop his friend's handlebars, young kids mopping up the rain-drenched ballcourt with newspapers to rescue a day of play, a toddler playing as the 5th man so he can fee like he can ball with the big kids for just one timeless moment; all show the humanity that binds every community together.
Both Booger Smith and Danielle Gardner stayed mostly under the radar following their cult documentary. The filmmaker has one other directing credit to her name that she spoke about in the only published interview of her I could find. Out Of the Clear Blue Sky is a 9/11 documentary focused on the passing of a firm's entire employee roster occupied in the World Trade Center. It appears to have been a deeply personal project of Gardner as she states in the same interview that she lost her brother in the tragedy. Despite being drastically different New York tales, both documentaries strike the same human chords of family.
In the four years between the summer of '93 that was documented and the release of the film, Booger had been both shot twice and become a father after an unsuccessful stint at Arizona Western College. His window of opportunity was closing, and despite the efforts of the few around him who cared, including Danielle Gardner herself, he could never commit fully to the life of basketball.
Legal troubles would follow Booger into the 2000s. He would play the most random pick up game against Michael Jordan at his trainer's gym while fleeing bail in Chicago, but would also serve a four year prison sentence ending in 2008. Although he now lives a quiet life in construction, it is an unromantic end to such a unique and shining prospect. However his teammate on Kenny's Kings, Charles Jones, went on to become an NCAA scoring champion and NBA journeyman. (If he came to the bulls one year earlier he would have caught Jordan's last 'chip.)
Soul in the Hole balances being unromantic in how Gardner captures the pitfalls of life in the street with sobering honesty, while also vividly bringing to film the heart and soul of these communities. With the beautiful triumphs in this film there are painful realities.
Sports Illustrated writer and author of Heaven Is a Playground, which observes the streetball culture of Brooklyn in the summer of 1974, returned to those same streets two decades later to write a feature on the state of the game. Booger dropping one of his signature dimes graced the cover. Rick Telander reflects on him beautifully,
“He’s like a real cowboy, an American original, for better or worse, for sadness or in heartbreak. He didn’t need to be in front of 20,000 fans, all he needed was a few hundred people leaning up against a fence.”