The Basketball Diaries is the true story of Jim Carroll, teenager growing up in New York. There are more scenes of drug use and teen violence in this movie than I have almost seen in any other place. The first scene of the movie is after being beaten for some offense or another at his private Catholic school, Jim and his friends cut- they go on the ferry, huff some chemical and one of them throws up over the side of the boat onto an unsuspecting man on deck.
A young Mark Wahlberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and James Madlo make up their ragtag crew. They are good looking, smart basketball players, none better than Jim (Leo). He tells us, “We were the hottest Catholic high school team in New York. We felt like nothing could stop us.” Yet right after this we get a pretty good idea of what might. They steal from the other team, then when confronted about it at some sort of Burger Barn after the game, Leo bounce checks one kid’s nose with a basketball and Mark Wahlberg (Mickey) breaks a glass bottle over his head. Then they run.
After dumping a bag of chip crumbs of the head of a junkie/prostitute (a young lipsticked Juliette Lewis) Jim is humanized by a visit to the hospital to see his friend Bobby (Michael Imperioli- also known as Christopher from the Sopranos) a fellow basketball player & best friend who has Leukemia. They leave the hospital to go on a joy ride (walk) during which it’s introduced that Jim is a talented writer. Bobby asks if he has any new stuff for him and JIm gives him a short poem he wrote about little kids shooting marbles and being pure. Bobby repeats “I just wanna be pure” as they go into an ‘entertainment booth’ where they sit behind a glass wall and a girl in pasties dances for them. But Bobby is uncomfortable after a while and demands they leave. They go back to the hospital and there is a brief exchange where he tries to tell Jim he is dying. Jim leaves and waxes poetic about the moonlight on the illuminated roof of his apartment building while he jerks off.
In this part of the movie Jim is painted as a normal, good hearted thirteen year old. His mother (played by Lorraine Bracco also from the Sopranos) (and Goodfellas) exchanges normalgrievances with him at the breakfast table, encouraging him to get a summer job. He then plays an ongoing game of basketball with an older mentor type played by Ernie Hudson, and afterwards dives off cliffs into the Hudson River with his friends. His friend (Tommy?) tells him he has a surprise for him and after swimming, the two of them go to a ritzy apartment where two beautiful identical twins greet them with drugs and lingerie. That night Jim does coke and writes poetry until the sun comes up. In the morning he makes a medicine cabinet cocktail and drifts away.
Soon after this night, his friend Bobby dies. Jim and his friends commemorate him by drinking 40s and playing basketball in the rain.
Cut to a voiceover from Jim, “Did I ever tell you about the first time I did heroin?” The visual for this is Jim running through a field of flowers and passing out. We come to in the bathroom of his apartment with his mother crying over him as he babbles about his ‘potential,’ insults her, and vomits. His mother keeps crying “what’s happening?” and it’s like forty minutes into the 102 min movie and you’re like, Oh Lorraine, you don’t even know.
Jim then describes to us how it starts out as a small habit “a chippy,” something that happens only on the weekends, then it quickly becomes more. “It feels so good you start to do it on Tuesday.” Next we get a couple of scenes illustrating the curve of his downward spiral. He and his friends mug an old lady. Jim keeps doing drugs during basketball practice and his coach interprets his constant bathroom breaks as an invitation to suck his dick. The coach (Swifty) offers him money but Jim declines and when Swifty asks again, Jim slams his coaches’ face into the tile wall of the locker room shower. We see Jim hallucinate or dream about going into his school with a machine gun and killing all the adults while his friends watch, laughing gleefully.
As the three boys’ drug use gets worse their friend (Tommy) calls them all out, (Jim’s partner in the twin orgy) but they don’t listen. Before a game they have a bag of pills but out of all the colors they don’t know which ones the uppers are. They chose the pink ones “because I associate pink with lightness” but this is clearly not the right choice. As ‘Riders on the Storm’ plays, the basketball game unfolds in painfully slow motion and they can all barely stand let alone play. They all have runny noses and blue skin and hooded eyes. Of course there are college scouts at the game and this ‘blows’ their chances. A priest and a cop (walk into a bar) search their lockers but they don’t find any drugs. The boys are however suspended and kicked off the basketball team. Jim’s mother also kicks him out of her house that night when he goes home. But none of it is real to them. Mickey is more concerned with the “forty dollars worth of pharmaceuticals” he’s convinced the cops stole than with being kicked out of school. As Jim describes, “It was a dream not a nightmare.”
The three boys turn to carjacking and petty robbery which shockingly doesn’t work out well at all. In one instance as they’re shooting up in a stolen car while driving it to the man who’s going to pay them for it, Pedro passes out while driving multiple times then parks in an illegal spot and the car gets towed. They’re all living in “headquarters” an abandoned building/squatters paradise. Here we run into Diane again (Juliette Lewis) trying to score. We see a robbery the three boys commit that actually Carroll never took part in; a boy he met described it to him once and he thought it was insane. The kid in question was so high that he broke into a soda shop to rob it but after he couldn’t get the register open, he stayed while the alarm was going off, to make an ice cream soda and grilled cheese. According to Carroll, that’s exactly how the police found him, eating ice cream at the bar amidst the broken glass while his grilled cheese burned on the stove.
In the movie, the three of them break in, and Pedro does this and gets caught by the police. Then there were two. At a bar after the robbery where their friend just got taken away by the police we think they’re at their low, but then they look up to see Tommy playing basketball on TV on some all-american team. This hits Jim especially hard, presumably because he was better than Tommy.
Some more shit happens, Jim is dealing and there are some problems with that, and Jim wakes up with a black eye, bloody nose and split lip at his basketball mentor & friend Reggie’s house. Reggie flushes his drugs (some pink weird plastic rock thing that looks like a computer hookup?? what kind of drugs weren’t they doing in New York in the 80s) and keeps him in the apartment through his what seems like four day withdrawal to help him get clean. And we think he’s going to get clean, but after the four days Reggie goes out to do something and Jim ransacks the apartment, steals money from him and is back to using :( He runs into a clean Diane on the street after he has completely relapsed and they exchange less than friendly words. In a particularly disgusting scene he lets some middle aged white man in a suit suck his dick in a public restroom while he hallucinates his old basketball coach watching and laughing.
After spending his ill gotten blowjob money on a bag that turns out to be not drugs, Jim and Mickey chase the dealer to the roof of a six story building where he accidentally falls off, lands on a white car, and dies. Mickey runs, unfortunately right into the dealer’s friends who beat him up and he is then apprehended on the street by the police. Jim stayed on the roof in shock and manages to escape. He goes to his house and begs his mother for money and to stay with her. In one of the saddest scenes, she slides the lock into place as quietly as she can and silently cries on the other side of the door. Jim is sobbing in the hallway begging to be let in and begging for money while his mother calls the police and says that someone is trying to break into her apartment with a knife.
The police come and arrest him in the hallway of his old house. While he is being driven away in the cop car he screams out for his mother and she watches crying from the window. It is in prison where he gets clean “even though it’s easier to get good shit in here than it is on the street.” He says it’s given him time to think, that he’s been contemplating all the thoughts of life, like what a blessing it is to have godparents. He wonders if he has them but he says his mom won’t visit him in prison so he has to wait to ask her when he gets out.
In the last scene of the movie, Jim is walking towards some building when Pedro comes out of the shadows and says he got him a present. He offers him “a bag of the best blow in all of New York” but Jim says no. Pedro tells Jim that Mickey ‘threw someone off the roof of a building’ and was tried as an adult, and got 5-15 years in prison. We see Jim walking into the doorway then he’s alone under a spotlight explaining all the different kinds of users and about having a habit. When he’s done, we hear applause and realize he is performing his diaries for an audience. Fade to black.
Text appears and tells us that the real Jim Carroll completed “The Basketball Diaries” at the age of 17 and by 22 had it, and three volumes of poetry published along with four music albums completed. It says that currently he lives in New York as an acclaimed poet, musician, novelist and performer. But made in 1995 this movie is sadly inaccurate, the real Jim Carroll died on September 11th 2009. As if this post wasn’t already sad enough. If you get a chance you should read the book, it’s really good. The blog isn’t called this for nothing.