The Basketball Diaries: Why Is It So Hard To Find?

We take a look back at the influential, but now obscure Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg film, The Basketball Diaries.

Some people think Leonardo DiCaprio became a star when he acted in James Cameron’s Titanic. Others believe his stardom predated that movie when he starred opposite Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. However, the movie that made him an up-and-comer is a film that seems to have been all but erased from his filmography: the 1995 drama The Basketball Diaries, a movie that teamed him with a young Mark Wahlberg, earned good reviews and became a VHS cult hit among teens of the nineties. Yet, it’s a tough film to find unless you’re willing to shell out big bucks for the long, out-of-print Blu-ray (never released in the U.S) or an old-school DVD. You won’t find it on streaming, and it remains an oddly obscure film considering how popular it was in the nineties. What gives?

The Basketball Diaries is based on the life of Jim Carroll, a writer-turned-punk musician, whose 1978 autobiography gives the film its title/ The film tracks Carroll’s dire descent into heroin addiction during his days as a teenage basketball player for a prep school, Trinity College. Living on the Lower East Side with his single mother, Carroll raises hell along with his buddies, hustling basketball, ripping off the teams he plays against, all just being an all-around delinquent while trying to avoid the unwanted attention of his pedophile coach, played by the late Bruno Kirby. 

When DiCaprio signed on to do this film, he was fresh off an Oscar nomination for playing a teen with Down Syndrome in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape opposite Johnny Depp. Before that, he starred opposite his future Killers of the Flower Moon co-star Robert De Niro in This Boys’ Life and was on Growing Pains for a season. This movie made him a heartthrob, with ladies (at the time) loving a bad boy. It was an important film for his career and for that of Mark Wahlberg, who was still known best for being the lead singer of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch and being New Kid on the Block member Donnie Wahlberg’s brother. He was also famous for his Calvin Klein ads, which were photographed by Herb Ritts, and had earned good reviews for a role in Penny Marshall’s Renaissance Man. This movie positioned both him and DiCaprio as heartthrobs in the making, and following it, their careers went into overdrive.

It’s an interesting film to revisit, with Carroll a good role for DiCaprio as he plunges into the depths of heroin addiction with his buddies. It’s well-directed by Scott Kalvert, who did one more juvenile delinquent movie, Deuces Wild, but never landed another movie after it. Tragically, he passed away in 2014 at only 49 of an apparent suicide. This is truly a shame, as it’s fast-paced and well-made, with a propulsive soundtrack that includes many of Carroll’s punk anthems, like ‘People Who Died’, which was recently used in The Suicide Squad. The supporting cast is excellent, with Bruno Kirby and Lorraine Bracco as Carroll’s mom giving good performances. You can also see the Daniel twins, Brittany and Cynthia, turn up as Winkie and Blinkie, the two high society gals that hook Carroll on heroin. Filmed shortly before The Sopranos, you can spot a young Michael Imperioli as Carroll’s leukemia-afflicted best friend, Bobby. Best of all is Ernie Hudson as Carroll’s mentor, a local basketball hustler and ex-gangster who uses tough love to help him get clean of his addiction.

So why is it so hard to find? Part of me wonders if DiCaprio and Wahlberg might be ashamed or wary of revisiting some of the more unseemly aspects of the film. One thing worth noting is that the film has a vivid fantasy sequence where Carroll fantasizes about shooting up his high school, and this sequence, at the time, was widely thought to have been one of the things that inspired the Columbine shootings. The misogyny and casual racism of the film might also shock some fans of the actors, especially when it comes to Mark Wahlberg, who notoriously is a convicted felon for a racially motivated attack when he was a teenager. His role in this film might hit too close to his home for Wahlberg, who’s tried to move on and be a good role model, famously eschewing roles that are too controversial given his faith. The same may indeed be true for DiCaprio, who has his own past he’s trying to live down, as a former charter member of the infamous Pussy Posse, and scenes such as the ones where he hassles Juliette Lewis as a drug-addled prostitute probably make him cringe now.

ernie hudson the basketball diaries

It should be said that Wahlberg has gone on record about how the film changed his career and how initially he feuded with DiCaprio on set, only for them to bond. He’s also said early roles like this, which made people fear him, were an image he worked hard to shake. That said – it’s a movie, and the unseemly aspects, while hard to watch, make this all the more authentic as a film. Whatever the case may be, considering Scott Kalvert’s short career and the fact that it was so crucial for DiCaprio and Wahlberg, you’d think some studio would snap up the rights or at least issue a decent copy of the movie that you can get through some means beyond piracy. It’s an evocative film of its era and should not be consigned to obscurity. And so what if it’s controversial? It was never meant not to be. 

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