Through the Fire: The Sebastian Telfair Story is a case study in the consequences of making a sports documentary about a contemporary national figure—that to obtain an all-access pass to games, practices, and archival footage from college basketball bigwigs (like the University of Louisville) and media giants (like ESPN), journalistic intrepidness and objectivity must be partially sacrificed. Produced by ESPN Entertainment, Jonathan Hock’s real-life rags-to-riches saga shies away from ethical issues, recounting with straightforward earnestness the tumultuous senior year of Coney Island high school basketball phenom Sebastian Telfair as he prepares to make the jump to either college or the NBA. A street legend playing at famed Lincoln High School, Telfair is a bright, jovial kid trying to rescue his family from the projects through basketball, an undertaking already unsuccessfully attempted by his older brother Jamel, a former star at Providence whose failure to be drafted by the pros crushed his mother.
Yet even if one didn’t already know Telfair’s fate, the prospect of such disappointment reoccurring is soft-peddled by Through the Fire’s glossy made-for-TV aesthetic and upward narrative arc, which never hints at anything less than a fairy-tale outcome. On his quest to win a third straight city-wide championship, Telfair commits to playing for Rick Pitino at Louisville, twists his ankle, spars with coach Dwayne “Tiny” Morton, receives a locker room visit by Jay-Z before the title game at MSG, and is hounded by the press and the pro scouts who increasingly begin attending his games, and Hock’s lightweight biographical portrait benefits from its comprehensive coverage of the talented Telfair’s on- and off-court travails.
Unfortunately, the price for the extensive right of entry the filmmaker was granted is a restricted focus that ignores the most interesting aspect of Telfair’s storybook journey: the omnipresent and insidious role of corporate America in the amateur athletic arena. From Nike and Adidas’s summer league sneaker camps (which allow the companies to get their hooks into potential stars at an early age) to the multimillion-dollar endorsement deals that lure financially strapped prodigies away from the college ranks and to the pros (regardless of whether they’re prepared for such a career path), Through the Fire only touches on the influence big business-driven commerce wields in sports. That Hock jettisons such concerns whenever they might interfere with the happily-ever-after vibe he’s cultivated ultimately reduces his film to little more than a glorified promotional advertisement for the NBA’s ability to make a select few ballers’ dreams come true.