It’s a net gain for Brooklyn’s ‘Little Ballers’

February 24, 2015

The path to basketball greatness is paved with hard work — and dreams so big they could dwarf Shaquille O’Neal.

But before the colleges and NBA come calling, there’s AAU basketball, which exposes kids to scouts and top competition nationwide.

“Little Ballers” — a new documentary airing Wednesday (9 p.m.) on Nicktoons — delves into that intense culture of youth basketball, following a team of 11-year-olds from New Heights, a Brooklyn AAU program, as they make a magical run in 2011 through the elite national championship tournament.

“This was a passion project,” says director Crystal McCrary of the doc, which is executive-produced by Amar’e Stoudemire and Lupe Fiasco.

McCrary, an author and filmmaker, started this journey as the proud mom of team player Cole Anthony — and finished with a nearly-two-hour documentary. (Cole’s father is former Knick and UNLV standout Greg Anthony.)

“I was just a mom taking photos. I was so proud,” McCrary says. “But I didn’t realize that when I started doing it, I was going to become fascinated by this group of boys. And how different they were.

“They were making some noise in the AAU circuit in the Northeast and started distinguishing themselves in their age group.”

Set against the backdrop of New York City, the group of wide-eyed kids hail from diverse backgrounds, ranging from the gang-plagued Brownsville section of Brooklyn to the posh Upper West Side of Manhattan.

But more central than sinking 3-pointers is the team’s self-proclaimed brotherhood, which McCrary says still exists to this day.

That bond is reinforced by Coach Billy Council, a disciplinarian who is part drill sergeant, part loving father figure.

The boys and their families all tell how the hardwood has helped them prosper through hard times.

“It’s a vulnerable space to share that,” says McCrary, who extracted stories from the parents battling financial difficulties — as in the case of Tyrek Chambers, now a rising star at Christ the King in Queens.

His mother hoped Tyrek’s basketball prowess would earn him a scholarship and a one-way ticket out of Brownsville.

“I’m not trying to condone basketball being the only way out of the ’hood, but anything that keeps the kids off the street is a good thing,” says McCrary, who sprinkled in cameos from pros like Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Joakim Noah and Walt Frazier — all of whom fondly recalled their own AAU experiences.

McCrary — who says the film was made when the boys were in their “last stage of innocence, when everyone thinks they can make the NBA” — juxtaposes dreams with the harsh reality: that only a tiny percentage of kids will eventually make it to the NBA.

But reality can wait until the credits roll on this heartwarming story.

“More than anything, I really want people to see the film and walk away with a sense of hope and having been inspired,” she says

I’m not trying to condone basketball being the only way out of the ’hood, but anything that keeps the kids off the street is a good thing.

 – Documentary director Crystal McCrary

Tune in to see the premiere of #littleballers this Wed. to see top NBA Stars like @SteveNash ! #nicksportstv #AAU

— Little Ballers (@LittleBallers) February 24, 2015