LA Film Festival Morningside 5

Please excuse all this obnoxious name-dropping, but it will offer some helpful perspective about time and place. While cutting my teeth in this business with the San Jose Mercury News, I covered some all-time greats when they were still in high school. I saw Pat Tillman overwhelm opponents on the football field from multiple positions offensively and defensively. I watched Kerri Walsh dominate in volleyball (and basketball) so much that you were afraid she might hurt somebody. I called Tom Brady to ask if it was true that Michigan was interested him and vice versa. (The answers were yes and yes.) But the best team I covered didn't produce any household names.

The 1993 Palo Alto Vikings won the California state basketball championship. Their players weren't that big, but they all had skills and played for a coach who stressed passing and precision, and loved man-to-man pressure defense. They went undefeated but were still considered underdogs in the championship game because the opposition was Morningside High of Inglewood. Morningside won the state title in 1992, and with its five starters -- three who had secured Division I scholarships -- returning as seniors in 1993, the Monarchs were expected to roll to a repeat.

Mike Tollin At Morningside 5 Screening

Palo Alto won the game by 20 points. Given the racial composition of the two rosters -- Morningside was black and Palo Alto was nearly all white -- the "Hoosiers" narrative that fans were eager to cite was tough to ignore despite the characterization being unfair to both teams. But even stripping away that stereotyping, it was still easy for me, covering Palo Alto virtually all season, to view the Morningside players simply as foils needed to script a Hollywood ending in which teamwork topped talent. It was neat. It was convenient.

And it was lazy.

Now nearly 25 years later, I got to see Morningside's players as more than merely characters filling roles in a storyline, thanks to the terrific 30 for 30 documentary that premieres Tuesday August 8 at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. Morningside 5 will air again Saturday August 12 at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

"This is not a usual 30 for 30, because usually with 30 for 30, it's triumph or tragedy," director Mike Tollin says. "But with this, it's neither. It's kind of in-between. There's a little of each, but it's real life."

The players -- Stais Boseman, Dwight Curry, Donminic Ellison, Sean Harris and Corey Saffold -- have been part of Tollin's life since 1992 when he was just breaking into the filmmaking business. Tollin and partner Brian Robbins convinced the Inglewood schools superintendent, George McKenna, to let them film the Morningside team during its quest to repeat.

"We promised to treat the kids fairly and with respect, and off we went, and we had full access," Tollin says. "It was a simpler time. Not everybody carried a high-def camera in their pockets."

Through some connections, Tollin and Robbins got Wesley Snipes to narrate. Titled Hardwood Dreams, that documentary aired on Fox in prime time in the spring of 1995.

"We got invited to the Sundance film festival with Hardwood Dreams -- the same festival that Hoop Dreams was premiering at, which of course we knew nothing about," Tollin says. "So we got a bit overshadowed by that juggernaut, but it was so personal, such a seminal film for us, that I never really let it go."

He followed up in 2004 with Hardwood Dreams: Ten Years Later, which premiered on Spike TV, but struggled for distribution afterwards.

"It was a small distribution company -- forget no money, we accepted that -- but then they went out of business, so you can find bootlegs online, but you can't actually order it from Amazon," Tollin says.

Tollin has produced and/or directed sports-themed feature hits such as Varsity Blues, Radio, Coach Carter and more recently Chuck. He was a part of the original 30 for 30 series in 2009 with his production of Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?, a film that has taken on additional relevance because of what it reveals about a certain former New Jersey Generals owner named Trump.

But the Morningside story is extra meaningful to him because of the special connection he made with the players and the way that the original helped his company springboard to other opportunities. As it approached 25 years since they first started filming, he circled back with the Morningside players once again, this time at middle age for this 30 for 30.

"They had a 20th reunion in 2013, which was our first shoot," Tollin says. "Didn't even make the cut. We would just pick up the five guys based on certain events, like Stais was about to have a baby, so we went to Minnesota, Corey decided he wanted to try out to make a comeback in Toronto, so we went to Toronto. Dwight was out of jail and looking at job opportunities, so we followed his job quest. Sean's rap career -- he had a big concert in Vegas so we'd go to Vegas, Donminic, out of the blue, got this incredible unlikely job. We were able to get clearance from his employers. It's pretty amazing when you see this arc of 25 years of these lives."

The loss to Palo Alto still plays a pivotal part in the arc. The Morningside players believe they would have won if Harris, their point guard, had been able to play. In its game report, the Los Angeles Times noted that Harris "sat out for disciplinary reasons." The deeper story was that Harris was a passenger in a car where police found two loaded guns. Harris didn't know there were guns in the car, but he was suspended even though he was a straight-A student and expected to be class valedictorian. (Spoiler alert: Harris goes on to earn a graduate degree.)

Now I live closer to Morningside High than I did to Palo Alto High back in 1993.

Now after watching the documentary, I'll be name-dropping the Morningside 5 to say that I covered the last game of that team featured on 30 for 30.

And now I can see how the Palo Alto team functions as a prop within Morningside's 25-year story of growing up and growing older, which isn't right either, but it says a lot about how vulnerable we are to powerful storylines shaping our perspective.

Follow Victor Chi on Twitter @VictorChi. Like Victor Chi on Facebook.

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