I usually try to take careful notes while watching documentaries, even more so than when watching fiction films. There’s always an urge to simply regurgitate them for my reviews, swelling my word count with grabbed statistics and sound bites. Why not? Documentaries are informative in nature. What better way to entice audiences to a genre of filmmaking usually ignored by the general public than reciting laundry lists of shocking facts about shocking subjects? Mike Nicoll’s At All Costs has found me at a loss. About 20 minutes in I gave up trying to transcribe anything I felt useful. The subject was too outrageous, too meticulously researched. I had to sit back and let the film sink in. At All Costs may be a bit unpolished but it’s a confident debut by a promising up-and-coming documentarian.
The film investigates the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), an organization which grooms high school basketball players for college and professional athletics. During the summer, the very best young players in America travel the country for a string of workshops and tournaments sponsored by shoe companies—primarily Nike and Adidas. It’s a grueling gauntlet of incessant training and competition; players are expected to play an estimated 100 games in just a couple months. It’s a schedule designed to overwork and exhaust. As the weaker competitors drop out, the stronger ones get prospected by recruiters. Thanks to the AAU, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett got picked up by the NBA right out of high school.
The various sports journalists, coaches, and recruiters interviewed are all very up front with assertions that the AAU is first and foremost a money-making machine. The shoe companies sponsor the games, the players advertise the shoes, the players get recruited, and the cycle of advertising continues. The kids are practically objects to be used, exploited, and discarded. Yet many families—particularly from impoverished areas—see the AAU as their ticket to prosperity. We follow one such youngster named Parker Jackson-Cartwright, a five-star point guard from Los Angeles, who received a staggering full scholarship from UCLA when he was only 14 years old. He seems perpetually tired and stressed during his interviews. His domineering father may love him but it’s clear he sees him as an investment; he groomed both of his sons from birth to be pro-basketball players. One of the most chilling moments in the film comes when the father explains how he taught Parker very early on the difference between pain and injury, “Two tears in a bucket, just say fuck it.”
The film wisely tempers these exposés with genuine success stories. In addition to Parker, the film’s main subject is Etop Udo-Ema, the Founder/CEO of the Compton Magic. Since 2001, 29 of his players have made it into the NBA. Balancing a strong civic pride with impeccable business acumen, Etop becomes like a family member to many of his pupils. He has no romantic illusions about the game: this is how these young men are going to get scholarships to schools and professional careers. Even in the midst of his benevolent coaching, one can still catch glimpses of the dehumanizing aspects of the industry. He doesn’t refer to his team as a team, but as a brand.
Perhaps the AAU does as much good as it does harm for high-school basketball stars. But with the ongoing debates over the NCAA’s financial exploitation of college athletes and the pathetic, near non-existent academic standards afforded by colleges to their star players, one can’t easily shake off the scent of something sinister befouling the AAU. Nicoll’s main failure was he never fully investigated the shadowy side of the industry, instead letting film conclude with inspirational happy endings for both Parker and Etop. He needed to go deeper. Still, At All Costs stands as a captivating look into the Hoop Dreams factory.