The documentary begins with poignant narration on the esoteric nature of the summer league:
“When it was all pick-up, anybody with a ball and a pair of shoes, you could walk up ‘nets, I got winners’ and you were in. Now, you can’t call winners; you’ve got to be ‘invited’ onto the court. In fact, they ain’t even telling you where the game’s being played.”
Upon learning that there’s an hour-long AAU documentary, most basketball fans will be searching for the 1 channel and putlocker versions online; I’ll bashfully admit that they’re not out there. I rented the elusive doc on Amazon, and after 30 minutes of Silverlight plug-in drama, the scene opened to a street court in Compton.
At face value, the film is a low-budget facsimile of an NBA TV documentary and it feels like their most recent product Allen Iverson: The Answer. The pace and conflict is comparative to Through the Fire, as it too follows an up-and-coming amateur star: Parker Jackson-Cartwright. If you’ve become disinterested because of how stale Telfair’s story was, have no fear; AAU coaching Legend Etop “Tope” Udo-Ema balances the narrative quite effectively with Cartwright.
The film is a comprehensive exegesis of the AAU world and as far as I’m concerned, it is a seminal documentary that shouldn’t be ignored. The quote above effectively illustrates half of the film’s thesis. At All Costs is an excellent exposition of the acroamatic, laissez faire core fueling AAU basketball. It’s hard to get into the league, it’s hard to succeed in it and “the moment you let up”, according to Raymond Jackson-Cartwright (Parker’s Father) “you’re going to get your throat cut.”
Early on in the film, the film’s director Mike Nicoll makes it very evident that there’s ulterior motive afoot. No pun intended, Nicoll masterfully illustrates the trickle down affect of the league’s financing: the shoe companies sponsor the teams and provide travel money and gear to expand the brand. Teams get their sponsorship renewed if their players get D-1 scholarships. So yes, Parker Jackson-Cartwright plays Maximus Decimus Meridius to Tope’s Antonius Proximo.
“It’s all about building the brand” Tope instills in his players. “The way you help the brand is all eight individual guys get D-1 scholarships.”
From his office at home, where he’s constantly making calls to “build the brand, he explains the history of shoe branding and it’s influence on the league. With the rise of branding courtesy of figures like Sonny Vacaro, the shoe companies looked to monetize player development and commodify high school players as a sort of marketing. However, it’s now come a scholarship pre-requisite.
“Attending all of Nike’s Camps” Raymond explains “is the only way to get [a scholarship].” After a recurring injury threatens Parker’s chances of returning to the following summers’ showcases, Raymond exclaims “high school season doesn’t mean shit to me!”
While the marketization of basketball is a key element, the film doesn’t demonize the league as a function of capitalism, robbing players of their innocence (even though that is shortly discussed). Nicole paints AAU teams as necessary evils with altruistic role models who build comradely almost in spite of commercial competition. The coaches stay with the players through all levels of their careers, and in some cases, even after. The coaches are giving players opportunities they might not have had otherwise, the one condition being that they’re festooned with Nike swooshes. For fans of LaFeber’s Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism or Beer and Circus by Murray Sperber, this documentary is a must see.