Bouncing myths off basketball courts onto a screen

April 12, 1992|By Barry Koltnow | Barry Koltnow,Orange County Register

Black male friends of writer/director Ron Shelton who have worn crew jackets with the movie title "White Men Can't Jump" emblazoned on the back have reported some interesting reactions in predominantly white neighborhoods.

The jacket-wearers have told Mr. Shelton that some white men seemed offended by the title; a few others were downright angry. But an overwhelming majority simply laughed. Real hard.

"That's how this movie started," Mr. Shelton said. "As a title. I tried it out on people and everybody laughed.

"As for the meaning behind the title, I can't really tell you. I can't tell you why, or even if, white men can't jump. It's just an accepted belief on the basketball court. All the world high-jump records are held by white men, but this belief persists in basketball.

"And I figured somebody might take offense at the title, but somebody takes offense at everything these days. I never intended it to be racist. I meant for it to be provocative, and I think I got that."

In "White Men Can't Jump," Wesley Snipes plays a basketball hustler who hangs out on the courts in Venice, talking jive to his opponents as he takes their money. He eventually joins forces with a white hustler played by Woody Harrelson.

Taking advantage of an inner-city playground tradition that says you never pick a white man for your team, Mr. Snipes' character goads other players into big-money games by offering to let them pick his partner. Inevitably, they pick the goofy-looking white guy sitting on the sidelines.

Mr. Shelton, 46, has been playing basketball since he was a kid, and was good enough to play guard at Westmont College in Santa Barbara on a scholarship. He also was good enough at baseball to play minor league ball with the Baltimore Orioles organization.

Five years later, he quit baseball (he couldn't hit the slider), but he has been playing basketball ever since. He plays three times a week in pickup games at the Hollywood YMCA and once a week in a tough local league. He gave up outdoor games in 1978, after he saw a man shot to death on a playground over a disputed foul call.

"But I still love this world (of out door basketball) and all its craziness," Mr. Shelton said. "I love the posturing and the strutting; all the hot-dogging that is frowned upon in organized ball is encouraged on the playground.

"It's a very intense, very serious and very showy game. It's also very civilized in its own way."

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