HoopsHIGH, a student-run broadcast program covering Chicago high school… (Jeff McCarter )
In the fall of 2005, Ke’Marius Lee said he was just another “knucklehead high school student.”
“I was just a kid with something to say, but I didn’t always know how to say it,” recalled the West Side native. Lee’s gift of gab was soon noticed by a school counselor at his alma mater, Crane Tech High School, who suggested that Lee interview for a position on a broadcast program called HoopsHIGH, covering high school basketball in Chicago.
Lee remembers the day of his interview almost perfectly; he was late, so late in fact that Jeff McCarter, the founder and executive director of HoopsHIGH’s parent company, Free Spirit Media, was on his way out the door when Lee caught his attention and convinced him to stay for an additional interview. And he still remembers the answer that he gave when McCarter asked Lee to describe himself in one word: “Resilient.”
Resilient might just be the word to describe not only Lee, but the entire HoopsHIGH program, a Emmy-award winning television show that covers high school basketball in Chicago, and has become must-see TV for Chicago youth. Reaching a potential audience of 1 million viewers every Saturday night, the show, which is produced, directed and anchored by Chicago high school students from the South and West Sides, celebrated their 500th episode last month. Most major television programs never even dream of reaching that number—but from the start, HoopsHIGH just seemed to have that magic touch.
“When I was a teenager, I loved basketball, media, films, and questioning the status quo of society,” said McCarter, now 43, who started HoopsHIGH 13 years ago, after a wildly successful career in commercial media. McCarter worked alongside directors Ron Howard and Steven Soderbergh in his twenties, and went on to produce hundreds of television commercials and documentaries for major networks. But after noticing a “lack of diversity” in the media, McCarter and a friend used their favorite pastime, pickup basketball, as inspiration for a different kind of show.
“We loved seeing these young people, who seemed like they could use a really positive and engaging opportunity,” said McCarter, who recruited a staff of 15 underprivileged teens from the South and West Sides to create HoopsHIGH. The first season of the program was picked up by CAN-TV, and was centered around the basketball program at Westinghouse High School.
When HoopsHIGH debuted in the fall of 2001, McCarter’s “little project” received a healthy viewer count. When the Westinghouse team made it to the city championship, their numbers started to rise.
But when Westinghouse won their first State Championship in early 2002, HoopsHIGH became a household name.
“It really took off,” said McCarter of HoopsHIGH’s first season, which had a regular viewership in the tens of thousands in a matter of weeks. “The kids behind this thing would get recognized on the street—they were like local celebrities.”
500 episodes and more than 1,000 hours of footage later, Jeanette Tate, a reporter for HoopHIGH’s current season, said she still gets the celebrity treatment.
“A lot of people do actually recognize me,” said Tate, 17, who said she looks up to reporters like WGN’s Ana Belaval, and hopes to become a sports broadcaster herself one day. “There is so much joy and happiness surrounding HoopsHIGH. Everyone backs you up and supports you—we’re one big, happy family.”
Jermaine Baker, a fellow HoopsHIGH crew member, said the 500th episode was a milestone that motivated the tight-knit team to work even harder in the years to come.
“We reached 500 episodes, and now we can look forward to being even better in the future,” said Baker, 18, a cameraman and advanced crew member of the program. “We hope to be able to expand, gather more experience, and learn more about the game.”
McCarter said the milestone speaks volumes about what the crew has been able to do with limited resources.
“Running a small nonprofit is hard work,” said McCarter, who is often left battling the wear and tear of time and technology with an extremely limited budget. “No one would know we have a dying van and equipment that’s breaking.”
HoopsHIGH currently has an Indiegogo campaign set up on their website to raise funds for the next 500 episodes.
“The 500 and counting campaign is extremely important for not only our program, but for what the program has done for our culture as Chicagoans,” said Lee, who ended his time as an announcer with the HoopsHIGH crew in the summer of 2008. Lee, 24, now works in Greenwood, Mississippi, and is looking to launch his own production company. “Think about all of the students who could have been doing something else with their Saturday night.”
Lee was reunited with some of his old colleagues last year as he was inducted into the HoopsHIGH Hall of Fame, a select group of 15-20 alumni who have made an indelible impact on the program. The induction put the 500 episodes and counting in perspective for Lee.
“I’ve contributed to something that will go down in history,” said Lee, who then paused and added, “We already have made history.”
For more information on HoopsHIGH's Indiegogo campaign, visit http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hoopshigh-500-and-counting.
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