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'The Hoop Life' offers a mundane look at sports

Sunday, July 04, 1999

When is a Tom Fontana/Barry Levinson project not worth watching? When they're financing the series but aren't running the show. Alas, that's the case with Showtime's "The Hoop Life," a boring new dramatic series that premieres tonight at 10 with a two-hour movie.


'The Hoop Life'

When: 10 tonight on Showtime.

Starring: Mykelti Williamson, Dan Lauria, Cirroc Lofton, Dorian Harewood


Showtime wants to be like HBO, but every show it's developed in the edgy, quality drama realm has been a watered-down wannabe. Minus the profanity and nudity, this series could easily air on a broadcast network, and even then it wouldn't be revolutionary. (For a more interesting look at sports, check out UPN's Monday night summer series, "Power Play," about a Canadian hockey team.)

"The Hoop Life" focuses on the off-the-court lives of players for the New England Knights, a team in the fictional UBA. Marvin Buxton (Mykelti Williamson) is the team's most volatile player, whose fights with a rival may lead to his expulsion from the league. Player Greg Marr (Rick Peters) cheats on his wife and then feels remorse, but then he cheats on her again. High school senior Curtis Thorpe (Cirroc Lofton) just wants a chance to play if his selfish uncle/agent doesn't screw things up first. Coach Leonard Fero (Dan Lauria, dad on "The Wonder Years") butts heads with long-time friend and general manager Eliot Pierce (Dorian Harewood).

The series begins with the Knights losing "the big game" at the end of an otherwise successful season.

"This is what second place feels like, and it sucks," the coach tells his players in the locker room.

Buxton is especially furious because he got fouled, which led to a fight, which leads to a meeting with the league's deputy commissioner. He and the other player, Owen Davies (Reno Wilson), are ordered to film a public service announcement about good sportsmanship.

"Hold up, hold up," Davies says. "Do we get paid for this?"

Later the deputy commissioners urge the players to stick to the PSA's script. "We're trying to sell an image, here."

The ridiculous tempers and unrealistic expectations of professional basketball players are ripe for send-up, but "The Hoop Life" introduces the issue and doesn't take it anywhere. Professional athletes can be spoiled, arrogant jerks who stage camps for underprivileged kids to improve their public image. That non-newsflash is supposed to make this show daring?

Two characters make "The Hoop Life" bearable. Greg Marr wants his life both ways: He wants to be happily married, but he keeps embarking on extramarital affairs. And then he feels guilty afterwards. He's like an overgrown kid easily influenced by peer pressure.

The only other character of any merit is a kid. Curtis Thorpe has been brought up right by his grandmother after the death of his parents in a car accident caused by his father's drunk driving (there are already seeds being planted that Thorpe may head down the alcoholism story path).

Curtis wants to do things right: He doesn't want to fire his uncle as agent, and he doesn't want to have sex with any of the slutty basketball groupies that hang around the hotel where the draft is held. But he's pulled into this tangled web and he has a hard time defending himself.

The premiere was written by executive story editor Sean Jablonski, and there's just not much meat here. "The Hoop Life" has plenty of slow-motion shots of players jumping, but precious little character development that makes me want to tune in again.

"The Hoop Life" may bear the imprint of Fontana and Levinson, makers of the lauded NBC drama "Homicide: Life on the Street," but my guess is you'd be hard-pressed to find their fingerprints anywhere near this show's script.


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