There are few things better than getting philosophical about the game of basketball. In ‘Hoop Convos,’BallinMichigan will do just that, engaging in (hopefully) meaningful, free-flowing conversations with compelling writers and thinkers who love the game as much as we do.
By Pardeep Toor
John Girdwood is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University where his research interests include the sociology of sport and mass media. Girdwood has taught classes at Michigan State, Saginaw Valley State University, Delta College and the University of Michigan-Flint and recently completed a documentary on Michigan-area basketball entitled Our Dreams.
The documentary features interviews with former area stars like Draymond Green, Kevin Tolbert and Antonio Smith who have made a living out of playing basketball and continually return to their hometowns to share their knowledge and wisdom with the next generation of athletes growing up in Michigan`s toughest neighborhoods.
Girdwood focuses on options and opportunity for area athletes, past and present, with the backdrop of the post-industrial city of Flint that eagerly attempts to achieve peace with its past while forging an identity for the future.
Girdwood was kind enough to share some thoughts on his documentary, the struggles in Flint and the future of struggling Michigan communities. Our conversation with Girdwood is below.
What was your goal in making this film?
I want to tell a new story about basketball players from Michigan. We continuously hear the same things over and over about cities like Flint, Lansing, and Saginaw. Crime and unemployment are rising and General Motors left. It’s been over a dozen years since the Flintstones. Let’s talk about something new. There is a need to inject some direction and bring a fresh new look to an old discussion. Chain migration patterns appear to be forming and players are going overseas to greener pastures.
Deindustrialized cities like Flint are defined by a strong manufacturing history and have gone through rough periods of change. Today, the residents of these cities are left to carve out a future that has not been predetermined. This film speaks to the future of these cities, our youth, and the opportunities that may be growing for jobs outside of the American mid-western region. International basketball leagues are expanding and creating a new market for jobs overseas. General Motors can no longer guarantee employment for many of our community members. If jobs aren’t here, where should we look? In the case of young basketball players, they are looking overseas.
Throughout the film, you seem to be hinting that athletes should be more aware of overseas options instead of just being focused on the NBA. Did you want this film to serve as an educational opportunity for athletes? How successful do you think it can be?
Yes, and it needs to go beyond athletics. One of my favorite scholars, Richard Florida, proposed an idea of the ‘stuck class‘ and found that 76.6% of Michigan residents were born here. That’s a problem. Working people are stuck in Michigan, they don’t leave, and that causes fewer people to migrate into our great state. When parents are stuck, their children are stuck. Through the sports lens, yes, basketball players need to be aware of the opportunities overseas and I hope this film conveys that message to the young players growing up. Additionally, I hope that more people watch the film for its statement on mobility and migration patterns. Basketball is simply a microcosm of a bigger issue. We need to stop looking strictly within our borders and realize that there are opportunities elsewhere. I’m not suggesting we all pack up our bags and leave immediately. I love living in Flint. But, let’s talk about the realities of our situation and educate the youth with options.
Draymond Green had a powerful quote early in the film encouraging players to aim for the NBA and little else. Are you at all at odds with Green’s sentiment?
That’s a great question and a difficult one to answer. As a college professor, I tell my students to aim at becoming CEO of the company and I encourage them to set their sights on applying to Ivy League schools to do graduate studies. The drive should be there and I felt Draymond was speaking about work ethic. Later in the film, I thought Todd Duckett added another valid perspective by saying that sometimes youth will have a passion for something but it just might not be the perfect fit. When things don’t work out with that primary goal, it is always good to have a backup plan. Kelvin Torbert eluded to international basketball as a great backup plan. Draymond’s quote fit perfectly into the beginning of the film because it spoke directly to passion, work ethic, and aspirations. I’m not at odds with that sentiment. He is wise beyond his years. But, I made this film to educate youth about the opportunities to play in overseas leagues. If they don’t know about these leagues, then they might think, ‘NBA or bust.’ I want to encourage people in all occupational groups to work as hard as you can to reach your goals but don’t limit your scope of opportunity.
In your opinion, how can area coaches, educators and athletes balance expectations between dreaming about enormous professional success in sports versus using them as a vehicle to build a decent living?
Mentors are critical to the process. Role models can be tools to help gain understanding of real life experiences. We have some absolute diamonds here in Flint with Tim Bograkos, David McGhee (McGhee’s website), and Kellen Brandon (check out Brandon Publishing on Facebook). East Lansing has Duckett and coach Steve Finamore (ED. Note: See our feature on Finamore). Lansing has Desmond Ferguson (ED. Note: See our feature on Desmond Ferguson). Now, there’s a perfect example of the dichotomy between “enormous professional success in sports” versus a vehicle to a decent living. Desmond is from Everett High School which is, of course, where Magic Johnson is from. I’m from Lansing where everybody knew somebody that knew Magic. But, I’ve never met Magic. He’s one in a million and I think most people in Lansing understand that there will never be another Magic. Yet, we can create hundreds of guys like Desmond and David and Tim because these guys are right here in the community reaching out to kids and explaining the realities of our environment. Tim and Todd go into schools with the New World Flood program. That’s the key, right there. Engage the youth. Show them on a personal level what is really going on. Teach them. Otherwise, they will learn from TV and all they see on TV are those big time stars. I love watching NBA basketball on TV but watching a game with coach Finamore over Twitter or talking directly with Duckett about his life, that’s something completely different. The kids need to directly connect with role models in real life. Guys like Desmond are doing that through coaching but also there’s a real cultural thing going on with his company, too, Moneyball Sportswear. He says in the film that we wants to show kids “If Desmond can do it, I can do it” and he isn’t talking about playing in the NBA. He’s talking about having a successful life in general.
Flint is a powerful backdrop in the film and many athletes reflected on the history and present state of basketball in the area. What do you think is the future of Flint-area basketball?
We need to change the paradigm. This is not 1990 and things are much different now so we need to be aware of new frontiers in sports career preparation. My discussion with Javontae Hawkins introduced me to that social process. The points he makes in the film about doing what is best through setting goals are then supported by the comments that coach Nate Brown (Brown’s website) makes during our interview at Blackstone’s in Flint. For some guys, going through a 4-year high school may be the right move for them. I think a lot of the older Flint players did that and David McGhee mentions how Flint Central was perfect for him. Bograkos would agree. But, Flint Central is gone now and the schools are changing so we cannot look at the environment like it is 1997 when I was graduating around the time of the Flintstones. There is a ton of talent coming up in Flint right now. Will those young players graduate from Flint public schools? Many probably won’t. A lot of guys find that transferring to a prep school is going to help them achieve their goals. We need to respect that decision. Of course, I would selfishly hope that they stay true to Flint and represent the city well.
At the same time, if they have to look elsewhere to ensure a brighter future through basketball or otherwise, I must encourage that. The public education system is changing and that includes sports within the schools. The future of high school sport is correlated with the future of public education but only if we maintain that linkage. Think about it. If Flint public schools are in a decline and we align sports with the schools, then sports will also decline! We cannot escape that fact. If young athletes look for other options, prep school or otherwise, more power to them. I can only hope that Flint improves the schools which then boosts the sports programs. It can’t happen in reverse. Sports alone won’t fix the schools. Great things are happening on a small scale with programs like Beecher and Everett. Yet, if those schools decline overall, there is not much we can do from a grassroots level to ensure sustainable athletic success in perpetuity.
What was your greatest challenge in making this documentary?
Obviously, accessing time and money are big limitations. However, I’m lucky to be in a situation where I have a camera and a vehicle. I have a passion for the subject matter and it pushes me to overcome those very minor obstacles. I’d rather talk about the amazing new world we live in where there are fewer challenges to producing films and telling stories. Access to athletes, celebrities, legislators, teachers, knowledge, and information is growing exponentially. When I take a step back and think about it, the whole thing really amazes me. I watched Roger and Me as a young kid in 1989 and again as an undergrad at Western Michigan University in 2001. Neither time did I think I’d ever talk to Michael Moore. One day, I just tweeted him and asked if he’d talk over Skype. He said yes. Then, I saw Draymond at the Moneyball Sportswear Summer Pro-Am and just walked up to him. He gave honest and open responses to tough questions.
The guys at the Flint Pro-Am were awesome. Antonio Smith is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. So, it is difficult for me to think of challenges when I have Antonio Smith walking up to me to give his input. I’m telling you, these guys are in our cities and ready to inspire youth. The only challenge we have is making the connections. And, that connection is getting easier and easier to make. I strongly encourage anybody interested in making movies or doing research through qualitative methods to just wake up one day and do it. One of my close friends told me how impressed she was that I finished the project so quickly. I told her the same thing I tell everybody, just do it. I saved my money, bought a camera with microphones, and went to these locations. It is that simple. If more people knew it was that easy, then more people might do something like this. Maybe I’m letting the cat out of the bag, but it really easy to create something like this film if you just wake up in the morning and start doing it. Oh, and one more thing. Researchers come from all over America to do studies on deindustrialized Michigan cities. I’m lucky to have been born here.
Do you have other projects in the works?
Yes, and thanks for asking. This film was done to prepare my focus for a doctoral dissertation. Moving forward, I’m planning to do an ethnography of the Moneyball Sportswear and Flint Pro-Am events next year. In addition, I’m going to film the entire season journeys of both Everett and East Lansing’s basketball programs with coach Finamore and coach Ferguson’s consent. That will take about a year to complete and those projects will be done around Spring 2014. In the short term, I’m turning the Our Dreams documentary into a book that will be available on Amazon during Summer 2013. Currently, the Our Dreams documentary is for sale on Amazon. The soundtrack pre-release with tracks by Maurice Ager (Ager’s website) and local artist Sam Corbin can be downloaded from the Google Play store. I’m hoping to work more with Mo Ager Productions and also produce my own music soon. Hey, we need more hours in the day for all of this stuff to get done, right? Like I said before, time is the only thing holding me back.
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