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Revisit the NBA dreams of LA high schoolers from 25 years ago with 'Morningside 5'

(L-R): former Morningside high school players Stais Boseman and Dwight Curry with producer Mike Tollin in
(L-R): former Morningside high school players Stais Boseman and Dwight Curry with producer Mike Tollin in "Morningside 5."
Mason Gordon

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Before LeBron James and even Kobe Bryant, there was The Morningside 5.

Stais Boseman, Dwight Curry, Dominic Ellison, Sean Harris and Corey Saffold were the stars of the 1992 state high school championship basketball team from Morningside High School in Inglewood, California.

The 1993 documentary, "Hardwood Dreams," followed the five players as they pursued their dreams of making it to the NBA. But then reality set in, and none of them made it.

The new ESPN documentary, "Morningside 5," follows the players over the course of almost 25 years after the first film.

Mike Tollin is the writer, director and narrator of "Morningside 5." He also made the original "Hardwood Dreams," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993, and the follow-up, "Hardwood Dreams: Ten Years Later."

When he recently stopped by The Frame, Tollin talked about how he approached working on this third film about the Inglewood high school basketball champions.

I said, It's all or nothing. I'm only going to do this if all five of you are not only willing, but eager, because we're going to need to be reflective. We're looking back at 40 years. We're looking at lives that are largely formed at this point. I need you to be honest. I need you to try and give me some insight into mistakes you've made, regrets you have, or not. But let's really look at it, rewind the tape, and open up.

In the film, revisits the 1992 footage of college basketball coach Digger Phelps telling the players about the harsh realities of playing in the NBA. Out of 5,000 high school seniors, Phelps says less than 60 get drafted and maybe 30 are signed. He tells the players to get focused and have a backup plan.

Tollin says Phelps' reality check was important for the players to hear, though star player Stais Boseman had other things to say, according to the filmmaker:

I loved what Digger said. Twenty years later, Stais says Digger was absolutely right. You need a Plan B, you need a backup [plan], you need a backup to your backup. But to see the other side of Digger's reality check, Stais said, At least we had a Plan A. How many kids at Morningside High had any idea of what they might do, might even consider, might get them to college, might get them some exposure, a chance to see the world, a chance to consider their options?

The film follows each player as they chase their NBA dreams and face tough life lessons along the way. It's as much about the players as it is about how they are shaped by their hopes and dreams, even if they don't always pan out.

Tollin says he approached the film through his own lens as a parent:

My first kid was born the same year this film was born, and so I'm making this film through the prism of fatherhood and what it's going to be like to cultivate those dreams. And how do you nurture, how do you support, how do you encourage without putting undue pressure on them or losing perspective? That's what I love — all these kids had to do that for themselves because, largely, they didn't have that guidance and most of them made pretty good choices.

Tollin worked with producer Brian Robbins on the film, and he acknowledges their privilege as white filmmakers following the lives of African-American men. Tollin says that they were observers hoping to tell an accurate story:

You try to be colorblind. You try to pretend it's not a factor. But there's nobody white other than Brian Robbins and myself all day long, right? I hope we brought humanity and I hope we brought respect. Ultimately, they let us in their lives.

George McKenna was an esteemed educator, a superintendent of schools. He trusted us. And at the end of it when we had depicted some things that didn't go exactly the way they wanted. I said, "Well, just give me an honest appraisal." He said, "You gave us a fair shake. You told some things I wished you hadn't, but that's because I wish they hadn't happened. And you told them honestly and fairly, so no complaints."

To hear John Horn's full interview with Mike Tollins, click on the player above.

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