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redeyechicago.com

'Hardball' hits 9 tough critics where they live

Mary Schmich

September 21, 2001

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On the first weekend after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the most popular movie in America--perhaps only coincidentally--was the story of scrappy Chicago kids playing baseball.

This is a review of that box-office hit by nine experts: Jimmie, Marques, Javon, Larry, Jesse, Kyle, Deontay, Joshua and Curtis.

It's Wednesday afternoon and the movie critics--who also happen to be players on the Zulus Little League team in Cabrini-Green--sit in the Webster Place theaters gazing at a version of their lives known as "Hardball."

Based on Daniel Coyle's book about a Cabrini Little League team much like the Zulus, the movie stars Keanu Reeves as a gambler who survives on pizza, chutzpah, Old Style and Lucky Strikes. He reluctantly agrees to coach a team of African-American kids to help pay his gambling debts. Right now, up on the screen, a bartender threatens him with a bat.

"That's a raw bat!" whispers Kyle Acker, 11

"Raw?" I whisper.

"It's tight," he says. "It's cool."

For Cabrini kids, Little League has long been a refuge from the gangs and the TV, a place to feel significant and safe. And though the movie was shot at Chicago's ABLA Homes instead of Cabrini--where the old ballfield has been plowed to make way for condos--the boys up on the screen look and act a lot like the movie critics. The critics even know a couple of the stars, who right now on the screen are chanting, "We going to the ship!"

"Ship?" I whisper.

"The championship," says Kyle.

For the next hour or so, the movie critics sit transfixed. They laugh when the on-screen team curses. Sing along with Notorious B.I.G. Scoot forward silently on their seats when one of the boys is shot to death. Seem relieved when in the end everybody else is a winner. And then it's time for the reviews.

Great, most of the critics say, though Kyle shrugs. "It was iy."

Iy? "It was OK." He nods. "It feel like us."

"I liked the skills they had, like confidence," says Jimmie Johnson, 12, who auditioned for the movie team. "And the friendships."

"Even though they was cursing and stuff," says Javon Johnson. He proudly adds that the only reason his big brother wasn't picked to star was because he refused to curse as much as the script required. Not that the movie critics don't curse. Just not that much, not during the game. Their coach wouldn't stand for it.

The Zulu movie critics also agree the movie didn't get the violence right. They object to a scene in which gangbangers beat up one of the boys and another in which a boy is shot in gang fire.

"The project we from, it violent, but it ain't like that," says Jimmie. "Tell you the truth, some members of the gangs, they reason with kids. They ain't shooting kids."

"It was like that back when I was, like, 6," says Larry Phillips, 10.

"Most people in the projects, they have guns," says Jesse Shivers, 13. "But they only use it on special occasions."

Kyle flashes him a look. "They shot in our building day before yesterday."

What about a scene in which one of the boys says, "Where I'm from, don't nobody father come back"? Did that ring true for them and their friends, that fathers leave and don't return? Most of the critics nod.

"He talking about reality," says Joshua Berry, 13.

And what about the coach? How does n'er-do-well Reeves compare with Andrew Denlow, a cheerful 26-year-old account executive they seem to revere?

"Our coach, he work," says Jimmie.

"Our coach," pouts Javon, "he don't get us new uniforms like in the movie."

Jimmie ices him with a stare. "We grateful for what we get."

"Hardball" isn't a great movie. The script sags. It's implausible at points. It doesn't do justice to the devoted coaches in Cabrini-Green's Little League. But it gives a realistic sense of how some Americans live day to day with death and hardship and still manage to find love, meaning and victory. No wonder it was popular last weekend.