‘Full Court: The Spencer Haywood Story’: SIFF Review

Full Court The Spencer Haywood Story Still H 2016
True Productions
A strong story gets a so-so telling.

A record-setting, game-changing basketball player tells his story in a documentary that premiered at the Seattle festival.

A solid, if adulatory, overview of an extraordinary life in basketball, Full Court could have used more game. The documentary recounts Spencer Haywood’s story without exploring it in satisfying depth — and that’s especially so when it gets to his Supreme Court case against the NBA, which blazed new trails for generations of players after him. Arguing that the legal triumph was a mixed blessing for Haywood himself, Martin Spirit’s film traces fascinating historical and biographical arcs in almost perfunctory fashion, even with the ardent narration of Chuck D., who idolized the b-ball star as a kid, and the running commentary of Haywood himself.

Stylistic and narrative deficits notwithstanding, the doc showcases a likable and resilient man. Evocative archival material and the insightful comments of interview subjects lend nuance to his rags-to-riches saga.

As a kid in the Mississippi Delta, Haywood was assured that his large hands would make him the best cotton picker in the county. But he had the talent and the drive to shoot for something bigger, and became one of the top basketball players in the world, delivering a record-setting performance at the 1968 Olympics and going on to a relatively brief but landmark professional career.

Director Spirit films Haywood revisiting his childhood haunts in Silver City, where his widowed mother worked in the cotton fields while raising 10 children. It was Haywood’s determination to lift her from poverty that impelled him to turn professional after only two years of college ball, first as Rookie of the Year with the fledgling ABA and then with the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics. The latter’s owner joined him in challenging the league rule that prevented players from being drafted until they were at least four years past their high school graduation.

Friends and former teammates attest to the fallout of Haywood’s win in the High Court: the negative reaction from fans and other teams who considered his pro status unfair. One friend suggests the trauma led to the cocaine addiction that cut short his career. Yet this complex and crucial chapter is dealt with as another page in the long, straightforward chronology that’s laid out less than smoothly by Spirit — who also edited — and screenwriter Kim Clemons. Tracking Haywood’s progress from hardscrabble Mississippi to the height of 1970s New York glamor with his first wife, Iman, the doc keeps turning the pages, barely pausing to give greater time and weight to some events over others.

Haywood’s participation in the 1968 Summer Olympics is one chapter that’s treated with a bit more depth. He credits his “chance invitation” to the political decision of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) to boycott the Games in Mexico City. Spirit’s interview with sociologist Harry Edwards, one of the architects of the boycott initiative, is among the film’s most potent elements; his discerning, sensitive observations about economic realities and race lend a sense of narrative structure that’s otherwise lacking.

More footage of Haywood in action on the court would have been welcome, though the film’s interviews with coaches and fellow players build a sense of his wow factor, and of the affection and admiration he inspired. Charles Barkley, who went pro the year after Haywood’s NBA run ended, championed him for long-overdue membership in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Interviewed for the film, Barkley points out more than once how much today’s early-entry millionaire players owe to Haywood.

There’s no question that Haywood’s name should be more widely known, or that Full Court needed a clearer game strategy — one that was less in thrall to its subject. For many viewers, though, it will serve as an affable, if not indelible, introduction to an important sports figure.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival
: True Productions, AMS Pictures

Narrator: Chuck D.
With: Spencer Haywood, Chuck D., Charles Barkley, Lenny Wilkens, Pat Riley, Bill Bradley, Rick Welts, Harry Edwards, Wiley Davis
Director-editor: Martin Spirit
Screenwriter-producer: Kim Clemons 
Executive producers: Dwayne J. Clark, Andy Streitfeld
Director of photography: Taylor Witt
Composer: Donn Wilkerson

No rating, 89 minutes