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Cult Classic `Basketball Diaries' Finally Makes It to Film

Industry's Top Young Actors Have Coveted Project for Years

At the last minute, underground poet/ novelist/ musician Jim Carroll canceled plans to attend the Sundance Film Festival premiere of the movie version of his 1978 cult classic, "The Basketball Diaries." The self-described recluse opted to stay home in New York to meet with a priest - all in the name of research for a new novel Carroll is writing.

"I've been corresponding with this priest from the Vatican who grew up in New York City . . . so I can't blow him off," Carroll said by phone. "He investigates miracles, and he's got the goods I need."

In many ways, it's a miracle that "The Basketball Diaries" finally was made.

It has taken some 15 years and countless attempts by Hollywood to adapt the writer's from-the-gut, journal-like entries about growing up a teenage junkie on New York's mean streets. And the Carroll, 44, is thrilled that someone finally got it right. The movie, produced by Liz Heller and John Bard Manulis for Island Pictures on a shoestring budget of $4 million, and directed by first-timer Scott Kalvert, debuted at the Park City, Utah, festival and is tentatively scheduled for release March 17 in the Twin Cities.

Leonardo DiCaprio, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to a young Carroll, landed the role that for years had been coveted by many young actors, including River Phoenix, Ethan Hawke and Eric Stoltz. Nearly every year since its publication, the book had been optioned to various parties - including Sundance founder Robert Redford and actor John Malkovich.

Carroll recalled that the first option on his book was by two entertainment lawyers from New York who were moving to Los Angeles to start a movie company and talked of Matt Dillon starring and John Cassavetes directing.

The closest a movie ever got to being made was by Columbia Pictures in the late '80s with a script by Jeff Fiskin ("Cutter's Way"). Anthony Michael Hall was to have starred.

"I thought {Hall} would have been perfect, and it was a good screenplay," said Carroll, "but right before they were going to start, {Coca-Cola} bought Columbia and kicked out all of the executives."

As it turned out, Carroll said, "I couldn't have imagined having a better person than Leonardo playing the part." Carroll, who was a consultant on the film and appears in a cameo role as a junkie, hung out with DiCaprio whenever he visited the set, and the two apparently bonded.

"Jim is one of the coolest guys I've ever met," DiCaprio said.

Sounding wise beyond his 20 years, the actor said Carroll's "been to places that most people try to avoid - drugs . . . living on the streets, the loneliness . . . He's been to the depths of his own darkness and come out surviving. He's truly a walking miracle."

When he first heard DiCaprio was interested in the role, Carroll had no idea who the actor was. He had not seen "This Boy's Life," in which DiCaprio stars with Robert DeNiro, and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" - for which DiCaprio received a best supporting Oscar nomination - had not yet hit the theaters.

It was Heller, senior vice president of new media at Capitol Records, who really made the movie finally happen. A couple of years ago, when she was running the audiovisual division at Island Records, she ran into an old pal, music video director Kalvert. He told her how much he wanted to option Carroll's book and make it into a movie.

Kalvert, 30, had grown up in New York a big fan of Carroll. "I read the book when I was 15 and always wanted to make it because it's a great coming-of-age story. It was like reading `Catcher in the Rye,' " Kalvert said by phone.

Before reuniting with Heller, Kalvert had made the studio rounds with the project. "Nobody really wanted to make the movie. Some wanted {the locale} changed to Seattle because Seattle was cool. Someone wanted to change it so Jim wasn't the one involved in drugs, and I had a specific take on it," said Kalvert, well-known for his work with such musical artists as Marky Mark, Belinda Carlisle and Guns N' Roses.

Heller went to her Island boss, Chris Blackwell, and pitched the movie. He loved the idea and agreed to put up $4 million. Heller hired another Carroll devotee, Bryan Goluboff, to write the screenplay.

As a young teen, Goluboff followed Carroll around Greenwich Village where he was playing rock 'n' roll and hanging out at the St. Mark's Place poetry scene. Carroll was taken immediately with the script, saying Goluboff "had such a great ear for the character."

Goluboff essentially had to create Carroll's character since he is not a figure in the book, but the storyteller. From 1963 to 66, beginning when he was 13, Carroll documented his escapades as a Catholic high school basketball star, who, along with his three best-friend teammates, spiraled into an underworld of heroin, crime, sex and violence.


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