The Hoop Life” begins life with Game 7 of the pro basketball finals, which is sort of like starting your day with a midnight snack and working backward to breakfast. Before the two-hour opener of this 22-hour, weekly summertime series about the travails of a mythical professional hoops franchise is 10 minutes old, we’re supposed to already possess intimate knowledge of the characters’ personalities. We don’t. Worse, we have little desire to put in any effort to understand this uptight, unethical collection of preening basket cases.
Knowing the impeccable track record of Tom Fontana (“Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Oz”), it would perhaps be a mistake to dismiss “Hoop Life” as the overheated, perplexing soap opera it resembles out of the gate. Except that neither Fontana nor his partner Barry Levinson is listed as executive producers, diminishing any likely involvement through their Levinson/Fontana Co.
As it stands, the show asks the audience to embrace folks who appear poised for emotional breakdowns.
There’s Marvin Buxton (Mykelti Williamson), the arrogant superstar guard of the New England Knights of the fictitious UBA (United Basketball Assn.). He misses the buzzer shot that would have given the Knights the title. So now he skulks around during the off-season, finally flipping out at his youth basketball camp.
There’s Greg Marr (Rick Peters), Buxton’s philandering teammate, whose wife has just booted him out of the house.
There’s Curtis Thorpe (Cirroc Lofton), the intense high school phenom who’s skipped college to turn pro and whose parents were both killed in a car accident.
There’s Kenny (Ray Anthony Thomas), Curtis’ uncle and manager, who signs away his nephew’s future with a contract to play basketball in … Greece.
There’s Leonard Fero (Dan Lauria, very good here), the anal, enraged head coach of the Knights who is always being undercut by general manager Eliot Pierce (Dorian Harewood) and the team’s Katharine Graham-like owner Emily Yeager (Linda Thorson).
Premiere teleplay from Sean Jablonski loads on the contrived conflict and crisis while painting pro basketball life as one gargantuan blur of inflated egos, lustful groupies and mauling from the media.
Helmer Kevin Hooks (who should be familiar with the subject, having been part of the ensemble cast of CBS’s 1978-81 series “The White Shadow”) does an adequate job with the material he got to work with. He and director of photography David Herrington stage some fairly realistic hoops footage, but by virtue of the frantic script, the camera winds up being all over the place. And too often, and despite the undeniable quality of the cast, the characters come across as actors spouting lines rather than as believable individuals. Word is that “The Hoop Life” improves markedly by the time it hits episodes four and five, finding the stride it struggles to locate in the opener. It clearly needs far more refined character development and much less eccentric bluster if it ever expects to come close to a slam dunk.
As it stands, this series barely hits the rim.