Redemption separates the story of Earl “the Goat” Manigault from non-NBA, New York schoolyard legends Joe Hammond, Richard Kirkland and Herman Knowings high-flying superstars of the streets from the days when pro ball was a low-paying, grind-out game. Granted “Rebound” is more heroin than hoops, the story alone is better than any fictionalized account of how the mean streets can swallow a young man and how he reacts when it spits him out.
As b-ball phenom Earl Manigault, Don Cheadle superbly conveys a loss of innocence and how success with a basketball peels away the layers of shyness and insecurity that define this motherless child. The more the drug world captures this hoop-dreamer’s soul, the more Cheadle brings the Goat and “Rebound,” for that matter to life. Michael Breach, as the drug-dealing mentor Legrand, is the able foil, supplying the thread of Manigault’s rise, fall and ascendance. Their acting drives this vehicle.
But having a great story to tell and two marvelous actors is not enough for first-time director Eriq La Salle (“ER”). The script is loaded with patronizing speeches and cardboard characters, street-ball scenes fail to capture the energy of the game, and the production is shot so flat that, once again, Hollywood backlots are no substitute for a ghetto. Language and style feel more ’80s and ‘ 90s than ’50s and ’60s.
Opening segs of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reflecting in 1989 on who was the best he ever faced the Goat, naturally and of a junkie collapsing before being revived in an “e.r.” reaching for the familiar? are absolute throwaways. Early segs, which push telepic into flashback mode, are never again referenced.
Story really starts on a Harlem playground in 1959. Young Earl (Colin Cheadle) works on his game solo until a pickup game is short a player. Diego (La Salle) picks Earl, and before anyone can call a personal foul, Manigault is shooting, dunking and playing defense like a pro. Park director and organizer of the prestigious Rucker basketball tourney, Holcolm Rucker (Forest Whitaker) takes Earl under his wing and attempts to guide him toward college and an NBA career.
Manigault immediately is swept up by the drugs and sex his celebrity affords him and he’s just starting high school before the track coach (Ronny Cox) he jilts sees to it that Manigault is put out to pasture. Expelled before a city championship would have pitted this shooting guard with 50-inch leap against 7 -footer Lew Alcindor, Manigault is busy hustling his way through the Harlem leagues. Rucker steps in and paves the way for Manigault to head to a South Carolina prep school where headmaster Dr. McDuffie (James Earl Jones) aids in getting the Goat on track.
Life is looking up romance blossoms with student Evonne (Monica Calhoun), and Manigault earns a college scholarship to Jonathan C. Smith College. Then it crumbles: Rucker dies; the Goat is forced to play a slowed-down passing game, refuses and is benched; Evonne gets pregnant.
Manigault heads home and winds up sharing a needle with Diego, who has returned from Vietnam with no hands. Two years of the junkie life ends with a cold-turkey withdrawal in jail; the Goat emerges, hoping to re-enter the life of Evonne and his son and reclaim the park from Legrand’s drug dealers and gamblers.
The real Manigault reclaimed a Harlem park and began the Goat Tournament in 1971, seemingly making this story long overdue. Pic closes with the real Goat playing on the courts at Harlem’s Goat Park, and that grainy footage captures much of the emotion that’s missing from Alar Kivilo’s cinematography.
Few of the characters are allowed to develop beyond their value as a supporter of or an impediment to Manigault’s development. Jones plays sympathetic, Whitaker assumes the father figure, Dion (Michael Ralph) is the bragging buddy, Cox is all evil, godmother Miss May (Loretta Devine) is all good. As Evonne, Calhoun starts off wisecracking and distant before showing her loving side; she ends on well-played notes of bitterness.
Sets appear too sterile even the garbage is neatly placed on the court following a Rucker Tournament game though Steadicam use at an early party scene effectively introduces aud to Earl’s changing world.
Kevin Eubanks’ score works well, as does use of Motown tunes, particularly Marvin Gaye’s “Harlem” (never mind that it was recorded nine years after the scene in which it’s heard) and Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun.”
“Rebound’s” greatest asset may be as a warning signal to every schoolyard believer in hoop dreams; that it premieres on the heels of former U. of Nevada Las Vegas star Richie Adams’ arrest for murder reflects the sad irony of a wasted life. Adams, 33, practically mirrors the Goat: a legend in the Rucker tourney, a Franklin High star who could barely read, a player for drug dealers’ teams in Harlem and the Bronx, and a much-coveted star by colleges that give youths a chance to escape the ghetto. Yet another story, as it has played out so far, with no redemption.