Long before becoming a TV producer, Peter Rudman was a star basketball player at Highland Park High School in the mid-1980s. Last fall Rudman and his partner, Rashid Ghazi, approached the cable channel Fox Sports Network to propose a reality program that would follow the lives of three high school basketball stars, from Chicago, New York, and LA, through an entire season.
"We did not want to do a project where you shoot for five months and then edit for another three months," says Rudman, an executive at Halo Sports & Entertainment in Morton Grove. "People watching television want to see something happening right now."
Their local hero would be Eddy Curry from Calumet City. The six-eleven senior plays center for Thornwood High School in South Holland, the state's top-rated boys basketball team, and he's one of the leading high school prospects in the country. He's been projected as a lottery pick, one of the first 13 selections in the NBA draft, though he's already made an oral commitment to play for DePaul's Blue Demons this fall.
Fox liked the idea but suggested they stick to the Chicago area, and after consulting with public school officials, coaches, and people in the media, Rudman and Rashid found their other two subjects. Sean Dockery, a six-three point guard for Julian High School in Washington Heights, is one of the top-rated junior prospects in the country, while Kyle Kleckner, a six-one shooting guard for west suburban power Downers Grove North, is a superb all-around athlete who last week accepted a scholarship to play football at the University of Illinois. Preps: Chicago Hoops debuted on Fox Sports earlier this month, and for a total of 13 weeks, every Monday through Friday at five o'clock, the series will try to capture the intensely competitive subculture of high school basketball in Chicago, with its colorful assortment of players, coaches, and peripheral characters.
Halo Sports finalized its deal with Fox in mid-December, and according to Rudman it had to move quickly to assemble the creative and production team. The company has rented a 5,000-square-foot space near Loyola University and hired 40 people, including three writer-producers, seven director-cameramen, and six editors. Some of the directors focus on games and team practices, some on the players' private lives, working with digital video cameras that require little natural light and enable them to shoot in tight spaces like locker rooms or team huddles. Rudman estimates that by the time the 65 episodes are completed, he'll have amassed nearly 1,300 hours of footage.
Adam Singer, one of the directors, was a location sound recordist and still photographer for Hoop Dreams, the seminal 1994 documentary about two college basketball hopefuls. But he's careful to distinguish his current project from that film, which producers Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert shot over four years. The instantaneous nature of Preps, he says, creates a different relationship between filmmaker and subject. "This is a different animal," says Singer. "The subjects are starting to steer the show. With Hoop Dreams we crafted the stories and then spent a lot of time editing. Here the subject and content change."
Yet the directors involved seem to consider it a more serious project than the video profiles that are a staple of TV sports coverage. D.P. Carlson, whose dramatic short Sailorman won a prize at the Chicago International Film Festival last October, relishes the chance to create a long-term narrative about Curry. "We're from completely different backgrounds. I didn't know anything about high school basketball. The fun part of the project is, this is the first time I've had the chance to follow one character for 15 weeks. I'm a part of their family now, put into their household, and developing a real intimacy with them."
Rudman hopes that Preps will maintain a wide scope, examining matters of race, class, personal ambition, and the consequences of success, all the while providing an exhaustive and kaleidoscopic view of high school basketball. He says that he and Ghazi are already discussing a fall program on Texas high school football with programmers at Fox. But Preps still has 11 weeks to go, and its very format is based on the notion that given enough intimacy, the viewer can be privy to unpredictable events. "In terms of actual coverage, the basketball footage is pretty straightforward," says Singer. "The biggest thing is just the access. We have microphones on the coaches. We're trying to get inside the locker room of the opposing teams, have a cameraman on both teams, and then intercut between the two. It's really dramatic in the locker room. You're surprised at how intense the competition is."