Fans of the Austin Spurs recall Keifer Sykes, one of the team’s top players during the 2015-16 season. After all, everyone in the stands always remembers the player they could look at eye to eye but who can still soar above the crowd for a dunk.
And that’s Sykes, a graduate of Chicago’s Marshall High School who developed from an undersized and overlooked point guard into an NBA prospect during a stellar four-year career at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
But who is Sykes besides a 6-foot playmaker with explosive athleticism and an inherent feel for the game? And how did he emerge from the streets of Chicago’s South Side, where dreams die young and mortality becomes as much a part of a child’s life as homework and a hall pass?
“Chi-Town,” the first feature-length documentary by veteran television director Nick Budabin, follows Sykes from when he was a 17-year-old battling for playing time on his high school team to being a 24-year-old professional basketball player who has already cashed checks in South Korea and Turkey while chasing his hoop dreams.
And one can’t help but recall “Hoop Dreams,” the seminal 1994 documentary by filmmaker Steve James that tracked a pair of South Side basketball players from their high school days through college. Like Arthur Agee and William Gates of “Hoop Dreams,” Sykes follows a path with familiar but no less imposing hurdles such as a culture of rampant incarceration, teenage parenthood and random violence.
But aren’t similarities with “Hoop Dreams” part of the narrative? A generation later, not much has changed on Chicago’s South Side, based on the experiences of Sykes and his coaches and teammates, including two who were partially paralyzed after random shootings. The primary difference between the early 1990s and the 2010s? Kids who once idolized former Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas now hang posters of LeBron James on the wall.
“I’m going to play with LeBron,” Sykes says in disbelief after his agent calls to inform him about a free-agent tryout with the Cleveland Cavaliers after he goes undrafted by the NBA in 2015.
But the odds aren’t ever in an athlete’s favor when it comes to making NBA money, a fact that the levelheaded Sykes understands from an early age. But that still doesn’t stop Sykes from chasing the dream.
After the second screening of “Chi-Town” on Monday at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Boulevard during the South by Southwest Film Festival, Sykes said he has plans to compete again in the NBA Summer League and try to secure a domestic contract.
Regardless, Sykes said he will keep pursuing his love while helping support his two young children in Chicago.
“I’ve enjoyed every part of my journey,” he said while standing with his children and his mother, Lisa Sykes, after the screening. “I’m appreciative and grateful that I get to keep doing what I love.”
And isn’t that a dream enough for any of us?