Through the Fire: Big League Dreams of Sebastian Telfair

The 2006 documentary, "Through the Fire," was produced by ESPN Original Programming.
The was the film's official website.

I thought the film was great when I first saw it with friends on our monthly movie night. Each month we choose a theme and dress accordingly. For some unknown reason that I now don't remember I thought we were all going to wear Batman related garments. Obviously I mixed up the movie we were going to see, but I didn’t realize that until later. I was so excited earlier in the week when I found an exceptional online Batman T-shirt store where I bought myself several wicked t-shirts. That night I wore a Batman sublimated T shirt. It was a super soft, light weight tee shirt in 100% polyester that featured some sort of advanced moisture management and odor control which is perfect for the summers in New York City as anyone who lives there can tell you. I show up in the Batman Begins costume T shirt that looked like body armor- so cool. Everyone else was dressed in Telfair’s high school colors. Opps. However, my Batman T-shirt was really amazing looking no one batted an eye. (sorry but I just had to write that). We had a blast at the movie and that was all that really mattered.

When I recently I discovered that the domain for was available I bought it with the goal of recreating some of its content from archived pages. I definitely didn't want someone else purchasing the domain and re-purposing the site for something that had nothing in common with Sebastian Telfair and the 2005 film. Consider the resurrected site as an homage to this film and the struggles of young but hugely talented players like Telfair. 

TOMATOMETER Critics 69% | Audience 76%

Spend an emotional year in the life of a Coney Island basketball prodigy as filmmakers follow rising hoops star Sebastian Telfair as he struggles to overcome the adversity of the streets, transcend poverty, and earn a well-deserved place in the annals of the NBA. Few basketball stars can claim to have soared to the early-career heights that Telfair did on the streets of New York City, but after earning a reputation as one of the most skilled ball-handlers on the court by the tender age of nine, few would deny that he possessed the potential greatness. Mentored by his determined older brother -- a failed NBA hopeful himself -- Telfair remained steadfast and determined to realize the dream that had previously eluded his older sibling, and provide a more hopeful future for his supportive family.

Rating:GGenre: Documentary , Special Interest , Sports & Fitness Directed By:Jonathan Hock , Alistair Christopher In Theaters:Feb 10, 2006  limited On DVD:Mar 14, 2006 Runtime: 102 minutes Studio:Cinema Libre Studio



February 10, 2006

Ronnie Scheib Variety Top Critic

Jonathan Hock's docu jettisons ethical quandaries about the questionable relationship between corporate-funded sports and kids from the projects in favor of a heroic, suspense-filled story that plays like well-structured fiction. Upbeat Urbanworld documentary prizewinner could score well in sports venues.

Jonathan Hock’s docu jettisons ethical quandaries about the questionable relationship between corporate-funded sports and kids from the projects in favor of a heroic, suspense-filled story that plays like well-structured fiction. With a real-life athlete as talented and charismatic as Coney Island hoop prodigy Sebastian Telfair, almost any outcome would probably have made for good drama, but Hock lucked out when life provided a happy ending. Upbeat Urbanworld documentary prizewinner, full of strong personalities and crisply edited court action, could score well in sports venues.

Since sixth grade, Telfair qualified as a legend in his basketball-obsessed neighborhood. Now in his senior year of high school, scouts follow his games, sportswriters analyze his every move, and Jay-Z and Spike Lee are frequently in the stands watching.

Telfair calls a well-attended press conference to announce his choice of university (Louisville), and when his high school team wins the championship for the third straight year, speculation is rife as to whether he will join the ranks of young players drafted by the NBA straight out of high school.

No sooner does Telfair answer that question, opting to try for pro ball (helped along by the stick-and-carrotcoincidence of a fatal shooting where he lives and the offer of a multi-million dollar sneaker contract), than the press begins to turn against him, emphasizing his spotty shooting record and under-6′ height.

The suspense then shifts: Will he be drafted by the NBA or will he wind up like his talented, older brother, passed over after a stellar college season, and now playing professional ball in Greece?

Helmer Hock, whose credits include the ESPN skein “Streetball” and the Imax “Michael Jordan to the Max,” sticks like glue to Telfair. Sebastian’s coach and brothers provide running commentary on his career while lenser Alistair Christopher’s HD camera trains on Telfair as he ducks, bobs, weaves, passes and dunks his way through crucial, nail-biting championship games and attempts to prove his worth as a team player.

Extensive media coverage of developments in the unfolding saga neatly colors pic’s exposition. But more than anything else, Hock’s job is expedited by Telfair himself — the kid’s clean-cut looks and million-dollar smile clearly as relevant as his athletic prowess in winning him his lucrative sneaker contract, his front-page spread in “Sports Illustrated” and even his effortless domination of the screen.

Having had years to fully accept his talents and assume responsibility for parlaying his gifts into a better future for his family, Telfair appears serenely conscious of all the forces at play. Extremely media savvy (his cousin is Knicks star Stephon Marbury), Telfair seems capable of taking the hoopla in stride.

Given his subject’s supreme self-confidence, Hock’s up-close-and-personal approach is relentlessly forward-driven and leaves no room for questioning anything beyond the unfair arbitrariness of a fickle system that rewards one brother with millions and another with exile to Greece.

Having had years to fully accept his talents and assume responsibility for parlaying his gifts into a better future for his family, Telfair appears serenely conscious of all the forces at play. Extremely media savvy (his cousin is Knicks star Stephon Marbury), Telfair seems capable of taking the hoopla in stride.

Tech credits are polished.

Production:A Hock Films production. Produced by Jonathan Hock. Executive producer, Diane Houslin. Co-producer, Philip Aromando. Directed by Jonathan Hock. Co-director, Alastair Christopher.

Crew:Camera (color, HD), Christopher; editors, Steven Pilgrim, Sam Citron; music, Duncan Sheik, Pete Miser; sound, Vince Caputo. Reviewed on DVD in New York, June 23, 2005. (In Urbanworld, Tribeca film festivals.) Running time: 103 MIN.



March 31, 2006

Peter Hartlaub  San Francisco Chronicle Top Critic

'Through the Fire'

Documentary. Starring Sebastian Telfair, Jamel Thomas, Dwayne Tiny Morton and Rick Pitino. Directed by Jonathan Hock. (Not rated. 103 minutes. At the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco.)

Three years ago, basketball fans watched from afar as LeBron James became the most hyped high school athlete in history -- treated like a king even before he was old enough to vote.

The next year, when New York prep phenomenon Sebastian Telfair took his place on the cover of Sports Illustrated, director Jonathan Hock got a whole lot closer -- following the electric point guard around as he set records, faced stardom and eventually decided whether to go to college or jump straight to the pros.

"Through the Fire" is an entertaining and compelling account of that year, even though most basketball fans will already know the ending. While Hock's documentary doesn't have the weight or the completeness of "Hoop Dreams," it shows what might have happened if Arthur Agee or William Gates had a little more talent and a few more breaks.

Telfair is a fairly interesting profile, with plenty to like (he has a nice smile, loves his mama and seems willing to work hard) and a few annoying habits. When he plays in a national all-star game, he calls his teammates "country boys" and talks in the middle of the game about his statistics; he's obsessed with breaking an assist record.

Hock doesn't seem interested in judging the star, who signs a shoe deal with Adidas on camera even though agents and handlers are nowhere in sight throughout the movie. "Through the Fire" was produced by ESPN Original Programming, the same outfit behind the upcoming Barry Bonds reality show -- and if they treat Bonds with the same reverence that Telfair receives, a lot of tough questions will be left unanswered.

Thankfully, the most interesting parts of Telfair's story don't involve Victor Conte, flaxseed oil or California Unfair Competition Law, Business and Professions Code section 17200. His brother Jamel is a particularly dramatic character -- he thought he was going to get drafted to the NBA in 1999 but ended up shuttling around the European leagues.

When it appears that the same thing might happen to Telfair, "Through the Fire" becomes as tense as a 10-point deficit with five minutes left to play. It's hard to beat March Madness for drama, but this documentary makes a good effort.

-- Advisory: This film contains profanity, adult themes and some wicked basketball moves. Middle-aged white guys who try to replicate Telfair's dribble drives on a garage basketball hoop run the risk of slipped discs, broken ankles and small children pointing and laughing.



February 28, 2007

Eric Monder Film Journal International

Through the Fire recalls the landmark movie Hoop Dreams, about two black teens trying to become college basketball players on the road to going professional. This new film follows one basketball star-in-the-making, Sebastian Telfair, as he struggles with the decision to go pro or attend college. Thanks to Telfair's personality and the genuine drama of his story, Through the Fire is as exciting and involving as any well-made fiction film. Of course, producer-director Jonathan Hock plays up the suspense and withholds and dispenses information in the best narrative filmmaking tradition, but his film still scores as a documentary with a point. 

The dark side to achieving the American dream and its built-in compromises is the main theme of Hock's feature: We see Telfair go from heroic young newcomer, overcoming his family's poverty with his sheer talent, to a lightning rod for the pundits and naysayers who try to bring him down (one of their targets: Telfair's less-than-towering height). More streamlined and suspenseful than Hoop DreamsThrough the Fire becomes a cautionary tale about ambition and a critique of American society for the way it falsely ballyhoos opportunities for all.

Given the subject matter, one of the drawbacks of the film is its reluctance to also criticize the overwhelming pressure of sponsorship and corporate financial interests in sports and education. Perhaps ESPN, one of the producers and a Disney company, felt uncomfortable with this aspect of the production and had it played down in the final cut. Or perhaps director Hock didn't think it was an essential part of the story. Despite this flaw, Through the Fire maintains a hard-hitting tone.

Telfair himself deserves a lot of credit for the success of the documentary. This young man is not only basketball-star material, he is movie-star material-talented, intelligent, telegenic and very charismatic. It is astonishing how media-savvy Telfair becomes during the course of the filming-he is truly a natural in front of the camera, whether being interviewed in his Coney Island apartment by Hock, playing for prospective NBA agents in a high-school game, or fielding questions from sports reporters during a news conference. Telfair's coach, family members and many friends also make an impression, although hearing more from Telfair's parents would have been interesting and possibly eye-opening.

Ultimately, Through the Fire is a tough but winning portrait that should draw in anyone, whether or not they are curious about the behind-the-scenes world of professional basketball.


April 2, 2006

Eric D. Snider

You know a filmmaker has done his job when his movie appeals even to people who couldn’t care less about the subject. That’s “Through the Fire,” a generically titled but sincerely compelling documentary about basketball phenom Sebastian Telfair, a Coney Island kid who went straight from high school to the NBA in 2004.

I don’t follow basketball at all. I live two miles from the Portland arena where Telfair now plays and had still never heard of him. (Apparently the Trail Blazers suck. Or so say my sources.) I spent most of the movie not knowing whether he would be drafted at the end, something that’s common knowledge among most of the film’s viewers. So I’m not the target audience, but I found Jonathan Hock’s documentary engaging and robust anyway, even if I sort of zoned out sometimes during the clips of basketball games (which, I hasten to add, are very well-shot and edited).

The film starts in 2003, with Sebastian going into his senior year at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. Clean-cut, boyishly good-looking and ever-smiling, he’s already a local superstar. By October he has signed a letter of intent with the University of Louisville. But Louisville coach Rick Pitino isn’t stupid. He sees the NBA scouts circling like sharks around Sebastian, eager to have him skip college and go right to the pros.

Over the course of the season, Sebastian becomes New York City’s all-time top scorer; takes his team to Louisville for an exhibition game against the university team; becomes the first player in history to win three PSAL (Public School Athletic League) titles; and gets a Sports Illustrated cover story speculating on whether he’ll go pro.

Sebastian’s mother is seen in the periphery. Her heart was broken in 1999, when her older son Jamel Thomas was snubbed in the NBA draft. She doesn’t want to get her hopes up again, and rarely attends Sebastian’s games. For his part, Sebastian has the same goal cited by so many urban kids with big dreams: to buy his momma a house and get her out of the projects. After two crucial victories in the film, the first thing Sebastian wants to do is hug his mom.

Sebastian has another older brother, Daniel, who’s an assistant coach on Sebastian’s high school team and keenly aware of how important the boy’s future is for the financially strapped family. When Jamel didn’t make the NBA, he opted to support the family by playing professionally overseas. And a little brother, Ethan, all of 8 years old, is already being trained by Daniel to give it a try if Sebastian fails, too.

The film doesn’t spend a lot of time on the family dynamics, but it devotes just enough to show the love and loyalty that keep them together. After deciding to go pro, Sebastian goes to Greece to train with Jamel and clear his head, while the media back in the U.S. – the same people who kept baiting Sebastian in the hopes he would join the draft – now say it was a bad move, that he’ll never make it. (You can see why I was in suspense over the outcome.)

Hock, who has years of experience as a sports filmmaker, captures the excitement of Sebastian’s games more than adequately. But he also conveys real emotion with the off-court stories. Sebastian’s fame and success do start to go to his head, and Hock wisely avoids having friends and family comment on it – all the better to let the viewer notice it, you know? The finale, when the NBA draft picks are announced on ESPN, is a supremely joyful event. Seeing Sebastian and his loved ones crying with happiness is a marvelously satisfying way to end the film.

Telfair hasn’t exactly been a breakout star with the Blazers, and a recent gun charge isn’t helping his image (which was very important to him when he was in high school). So the film is a time capsule of sorts, showing the promise and hopefulness of a young man whose whole career still lay ahead of him. It’s an excellent behind-the-scenes documentary as well as an above-average sports film.

Grade: B+