The Basketball Diaries is a memoir written by author and musician Jim Carroll. Originally published in 1978, it follows Carroll’s journey as an aspiring basketball star and his descent into drug use during the 1960s and 1970s. I came about this book because I started delving into the punk rock section of our record collection and found the record Catholic Boy by The Jim Carroll Band. It has a bit of an early Ramones feel to it with an upbeat, feel-good energy but my favorite bop is definitely People Who Died.
I had heard that Jim Carroll was the guy from The Basketball Diaries, but I hadn’t seen that movie or read the book either. So I decided: why not read the book first and treat myself to the movie after? Thus begins my newest blog segment: Book and a Movie, welcome! This one just so happens to have music tied into it which makes The Basketball Diaries a triple threat.
This was one of those books that captures the time period it was written in. The lingo, the latch-key kids, the raunchy images of “scumbag New York,” it’s like looking back into another dimension through the eyes of a rough kid exploiting the big city that made him. These are words straight out of the diaries he kept as a teen where he scribbled down big events, minor thoughts, and just daily happenings that he went through. It starts out with their first Biddy League basketball game, a youth league for players 12-years-old and under. Jim’s team is full of 13-year-old kids with fake birth certificates. They lie about their age and are always careful not to play too well or they’ll get found out.
This is just the beginning of Jim’s rebel ways and it’s a perfect set-up for the debauchery that follows. His rendezvous into sex and drugs enters soon after that and it’s a slow progression that happens over years, documented well in his diary that didn’t feel forced or fake in any way. That’s what appealed to me most about this book: that it felt real and raw while being written in young Jim’s witty, humorous prose. It was easy to empathize with the character and laugh along when he goes off on his musings.
The read isn’t all light-hearted laughs, though (if you’ve seen the movie then you know). It goes pretty deep into drug use starting with the guys sniffing glue and being scared of weed, and over into snorting cocaine and mainlining heroin. He recounts the usual sexual encounters through growing up, but he also recounts some that were pretty shocking. It’s another factor of “scumbag New York” that you don’t often hear about but understandably must have been rampant in that day and age. Throughout his writings he keeps a level head and is a fairly trustworthy narrator, so all in all this was a really enjoyable read. It had a lot of ups and downs, action, excitement, and even tugged at my heartstrings so in the end it was one I had to own for future rereads.
The 1995 movie starring Leonardo Dicaprio jumped right into Jim’s high school years even though the book started a few years before that. I always love a young Leo (who doesn’t?) and what really set this movie off was that Catholic Boy plays in one of the first scenes, when Jim and his friends decide to ditch school for greener pastures. (Mark Wahlberg is one of his besties.) Seeing Leo in this role was 1000% an accurate realization of all those memes that came out a few years ago about Leo not having an Oscar. After this performance, I was basically shook, like bro…he killed this role, how could you not give him an award?
A very notable moment happens after the boys attend a funeral. They’re in a park talking about their dead friend when they get into a heated discussion about death. One boy grabs a basketball, it’s raining cats and dogs out, and there’s this juxtaposition that happens. It’s already blatant in the Jim Carroll Band’s song that starts to play, People Who Died, a fun up-beat song about death, but then we see it when the boys are throwing the ball around and they decide to start celebrating life in that moment. It’s prefaced by a beautiful poem by Jim Carroll.
You’re growing up.
And rain sort of remains on the branches of a tree that will someday rule the earth.
And that’s good that there’s rain. Clears the month of your sorry rainbow expressions.
And it clears the streets of the silent armies.
So we can dance.Jim Carroll. The Basketball Diaries, Rain scene.
I thought that this scene was done so well because it captures a flurry of emotions in a single space that you can’t get just by reading the book.
The movie itself was pretty right by the book. I enjoyed seeing some of the characters I’d come to know brought to life on the screen. One scene that stood out was when one of the boys gets a handful of unknown pills before their basketball game, all he knows is some uppers and some downers. Since they don’t know which are which they take a gamble, doubling down on their decision by popping two of what they assume are uppers but they don’t find out until they’re out on the court. It was a really funny scene in the book because you’re in Jim’s head and he thought it was a hoot. On screen they set it to Riders on the Storm by The Doors so the whole scene plays out slow-motion like a trip. It feels funny, watching them stumble and fall over themselves because of their dumb decisions but I couldn’t help feeling a little sad, like watching a plane you know is about to nosedive or something. But then again, when you’re young like Jim was in the book it’s those sort of moments you get caught up in and don’t care about the consequences. In that respect the movie really hit a different chord emotionally than the book managed to. Reading it in Jim’s voice felt silly, but watching it play out onscreen was a horse of a different color.
The one department that fell a little flat for me was the junky portrayal, but not by Leo’s fault at all. There’s one scene where he’s doing cocaine and writing poetry and we watch him tweaking. I had to commend his acting portrayal because his mannerisms definitely look like he’s using that drug and not in a cheap cop-out kind of way I’ve seen in some movies. Later on he’s fighting with his mom using his scratchy heroin voice, and DGAF attitude, and he really hit it right on the money. All of his acting in these scenes are spot-on and you really feel for the character but at the same time can’t help admiring the acting chops. However, once he’s in total despair it felt a little overdone by the props and wardrobe department to me. The snot crusted on his face, his super caked lips, he looked more like a caricature crackhead than a heroin junky. It seemed to go on and on like they spent too much time on him being strung out and not enough on the youthful Jim in the beginning. But maybe that’s just personal preference.
Nevertheless, I was applauding through my computer screen at his performance and it’s one you shouldn’t miss if you love a good role. The ending was done perfectly, tied up in a bow, and the translation from book to movie was a big hit for me. Yes I would rewatch. Yes I would reread. And for that reason The Basketball Diaries was a win.