Last season LIU went 21-9 and made its first appearance in the NCAA tournament in 13 years, due largely to the arrival of a Brooklyn kid who transferred in after spending two years at Rutgers. His name is Charles Jones. He's a slender and versatile 6'3" guard who is what basketball people refer to as a scorer. Not a shooter. Not a gunner. Not a bomber. Not a slasher. A scorer. Last season he led all Division I players in scoring, with 30.1 points per game.
Jones is a good friend of Booger's, having played with him for years on Kenny's Kings and other clubs. It is a haunting aspect of Soul in the Hole that in candid pregame huddles, opposing teams talk about stopping Booger but are largely unconcerned about Jones and his mates. And those mates include Jason Hoover, a former all-conference player from Manhattan College; Javone Moore, the alltime assists leader at Canisius; and Seldon Jefferson, the 1996-97 team MVP at West Virginia.
Jones has come to West 4th Street on the subway, the entrance to which is only feet from the court. People are lining the outside of the court now: casual fans, hoops junkies, vagrants, mothers with children, children without mothers, commuters, tourists.
Jones and Haskins shake hands; then the player moves off to chat with Gardner, who has captured on film a big chunk of Jones's basketball obsession. Haskins and referee Roland Rooks, the father of Los Angeles Lakers backup center Sean Rooks, are talking about the best street players they've seen. "I gotta go with Kurt Sumpter," says Rooks. "Back in the early '80s. Six-two. Strong. Don't know if he ever played anywhere [in college]."
"Booger Smith is the most exciting thing I've ever seen," counters Haskins. "You ought to see him. I'd watch him play anywhere. It's all there. He's got a great attitude. Just ain't got no pencil."
Indeed, academic troubles combined with a blasé attitude about his future led to Booger's downfall at Arizona Western, a junior college in Yuma, where he played for slightly more than a semester in the 1993-94 season. "He hadn't even graduated from high school when he came to Yuma," recalls former Arizona Western coach Dave Babcock, now a scout for the New Jersey Nets. The story Babcock heard is that Booger got kicked off the basketball team in his junior year for shooting dice, and quit school in his senior year. "He only played after Christmas for me, but even then he made third team all-conference," he says. "Averaged 21 points and 12 assists a game. I've been a coach for 15 years, and he can do things I've never seen before. Breaks down a defense better than any player I've ever coached. But the big thing for him is the call of the streets. I couldn't get him to commit to going to class, and my conscience wouldn't let me bring him back."
So after one year he cut Booger loose. "I wanted him either to get a job," says Babcock, "or go to special reading classes at Medgar Evers [College in Brooklyn] with a guy I know there, a great teacher. Do either one. Booger did neither."
A year and a half later, in August 1996, Babcock weakened. "Booger convinced me to give him one more chance," he says. "So he came out, and he was in terrible shape. He'd been shot in the thigh that summer. I'd heard it was a random drive-by, but I didn't feel good about it. So I sent him home again." And that was it.
In Soul in the Hole, a 17-year-old Booger has the first lines of the movie: "If I don't make it to the NBA, I'm gonna be a drug dealer. Somehow I've gotta get me a Lexus. Whatever it takes." Gardner caught the yearning with her camera, and now she is trying to make sure Booger doesn't take the wrong path to satisfy it. She talks with him almost daily, encouraging him to make something of his basketball gifts, to break from the stasis of the 'hood. He seems to appreciate the words, because he calls her more than she calls him. But his life is stalled, and he is staring at the bottom, wavering.
"Booger talked to a psychic the other day," Gardner says. "He said she told him, 'This is your window of opportunity.' Of course it is. Another college. Play in Europe. He's got to do something."