Contending with having the weight of the world on their shoulders is rarely an easy process for anyone, no matter what circumstances they find themselves in. That’s certainly the case for former American basketball player, Stephon Marbury, who was drafted into the NBA out of Georgia Tech in 1996, at the young age of 19. From childhood, the talented player was destined to build a global legacy in basketball, but that journey wasn’t without its downfalls.
The New York City native’s legendary rise and fall in the NBA from the mid-1990s throughout the early 2000s, which led him to later switch to the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association), is chronicled in the new documentary, ‘A Kid from Coney Island.’ The biographical sports movie was directed and co-produced by frequent filmmaking collaborators, Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah.
‘A Kid from Coney Island’ had its World Premiere during the Spotlight Documentary section of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. RTG Features and 1091 Media, in partnership with SLAM, via JDS Sports, will release the documentary on March 10 in select American theaters.
‘A Kid from Coney Island’ follows Marbury from his early days on the streets of the title Brooklyn neighborhood, through high school, and on through his career as a professional. Along the way Marbury’s closest friends and family share their insights of a kid pursuing a dream, as well as the massive weight and expectation placed on him to obtain his goals.
As early as high school, the passionate kid from Coney Island set his sights on the fame and fortune of the NBA, and those around him expected him to be the next New York basketball star. But the fight for the dream and the realities of a professional basketball career were perhaps not what anyone expected. Marbury’s journey demonstrates that fulfillment and happiness can often be found in the unlikeliest of places, and a world away from his New York neighborhood.
Simmons and Ozah generously took the time to sit down at New York City’s Bryant Park Ballroom for an exclusive interview during last spring’s Tribeca Film Festival to talk about directing ‘A Kid from Coney Island.’ Among other things, the filmmakers discussed how they were approached by several of the movie’s producers, including Jason Samuels, Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker, to helm a documentary about Marbury, following the acclaim and success they found with ‘Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ,’ their 2015 documentary about the famed title boxer. The directors also mentioned how appreciative they are that they were able to return to the Tribeca Film Festival with ‘A Kid from Coney Island,’ after their first documentary, ‘Benji,’ premiered as the Gala Film at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
ShockYa (SY): Together, you co-directed the new biographical sports documentary, ‘A Kid from Coney Island,’ which chronicles the life and career of former NBA player, Stephon Marbury. What was it about Stephon’s journey that inspired you both to make the movie?
Coodie Simmons (CS): Well, the process really fell in our lap. We had just finished up a documentary about Muhammad Ali (‘Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ’), and worked with one of the producers, Jason Samuels. We ended up winning an NAACP Image Award with that film, and Jason liked our sensibility of storytelling from that feature.
Jason then partnered with Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker on this particular project about Stephon Marbury. Jason mentioned to Nina that he “had the guys who would be perfect for it.” So we then FaceTimed with Nina. After that FaceTime, she greenlit us for the project. She was told not to go with us, as agencies had other people who they wanted to direct the film. But she believed in us.
We then met with Stephon. He doesn’t trust a lot of people, as he’s had people in his past who made him very wary of how people tell his story. But we caught a vibe with him.
Chike Ozah (CO): With that vibe, we ended up in Beijing, hanging out with Stephon. (Both laugh.) We’re all very spiritual, and Stephon’s very humble, and meditates, as do we. That made it great.
We just rolled with the process, and did interviews there with him. We then came back and did interviews with his family, and they trusted us and gave us everything that we needed, storywise; they didn’t hold anything back. They let us know about Stephon, and kept things real…His mom is an amazing person.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t meet his pops, but we found footage of him from ABC. We formed a relationship with them, as they also made a documentary about Stephon. They got all of this footage of him-I think they followed him around for about a month, up until the draft at Georgia Tech. So we had all of this footage that hasn’t been seen, which we’re happy about.
CS: I didn’t know much about Stephon before we began working on the film, because I’m from Chicago. I knew that he was a great player, and played with Kevin Garnett (for the Minnesota Timberwolves).
So when the producers first approached us about the documentary, I was like, I don’t know. But knowing that Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker are producing this, I thought, there must be something good! (Both laugh.) Luckily, we were able to make it work.
SY: Since you didn’t know too much about Stephon before you began directing ‘A Kid from Coney Island,’ what was your research process like into his life and career?
CO: When we make documentaries, we’re not research-heavy. We treat ourselves as the people who don’t know anything; we like to learn (along the way), because that’s how the audience is going to learn while they watch the film. So we like to take that journey first.
Our first time really delving into Stephon’s life was when we went to China, and spent time with him there. We learned his story in real time with him, as he was getting ready for these games.
We then started to get leads, so when we came back to the States, we followed those leads, based on what we learned from him. We learned more from his community, and the people who were always around him. Then as we did each interview, we got more information about Stephon.
Then by the time we got to the editing process, we had a pretty good idea about what his life was like. We then had to figure out how we were going to condense all of this information down to the film’s 96-minute runtime.
CO: It’s funny-Stephon had his side of the story when we interviewed him. But then we had to go get the other side of the story. (Both laugh.) But it was great to have both sides, and then we put that all together.
SY: ‘A Kid from Coney Island’ was shot by cinematographers Jason Harper and Fernando Ortega. What was your collaboration process like with the duo, as you determined how to film the documentary?
CS: We always like to approach each new film with a different approach. One of the things we’re super passionate about is how we’re going to do the reenactments of things that we don’t necessarily have footage for. So this time, it was fun to use animation and claymation. We had a great claymation artist out of the UK, who did a brilliant job for us.
As far as the cinematography, we have our go-tos, who we’ve been working with a lot-Fernando Ortega and Jason Harper. Jason actually also co-edited the film. They’re like our family, so there’s a filmmaking language that we all shared. They know that we like to push the envelope a little bit, and not just make a talking heads documentary. We spent a lot of time working with them, even down to the typography we used in the movie.
CO: You also definitely have to learn to also work within your budget, and still get what you need to get! (Both laugh.) The difference with this (film) is that we didn’t have the luxury to go back to China whenever we felt like it. So we took the initial trip to China. We had some great people on the ground there; Stephon has some great people around him in China. So we had a great network.
SY: Speaking of the fact that Jason Harper also co-edited the documentary with Max Allman, what was the process like of determining what the final version of the film would be, and putting the narrative together?
CS: We have to give a lot of credit to the editors, Jason and Max. We went in and helped make it right, but they brought it. So I have to give a lot of credit to these guys, who did a lot of work.
CO: With docs, the puzzle happens during the editing process. Jason and Max had to figure out the right way to piece Stephon’s story together, because there are a thousand ways they could have done that. So we needed editors who were going to be just as passionate about the project as we were, because they’re going to spend more time than we are, looking at all the footage.
CS: When we watched what they put together, we were amazed. We thought, we didn’t think of this!
CO: So we have to give them praise for putting this together.
SY: ‘A Kid from Coney Island’ is having its World Premiere here at the Tribeca Film Festival. What has the experience of premiering the documentary here at the festival been like?
CO: It’s been amazing. It’s important to play here, because it’s a New York story. The story’s about a New Yorker, and filmed here in the community. This New Yorker was able to travel abroad, and still come back here and help his community. People here are a part of this story, so to be able to premiere it where Stephon’s from is special.