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ON LOCATION : Sex, Drugs, Pick and Roll : Jim Carroll's cult favorite 'The Basketball Diaries' is finally making it to the screen. It seems everyone wanted to star. Leonardo DiCaprio made the cut.

July 24, 1994|RICK MARIN

NEW YORK — Matt Dillon wanted this movie. Anthony Michael Hall, Eric Stoltz, Ethan Hawke, Stephen Dorff--and River Phoenix, who may have wanted it too much. It's perfect for any ambitious, talented young star who can play conflicted, charming and doomed.

The movie is "The Basketball Diaries" and the star is Leonardo DiCaprio.

It's based on Jim Carroll's 1978 book of the same name--a memoir of the 43-year-old poet and subculture hero's days as a New York teen-age hoop prodigy and heroin addict. The book has been optioned many times, but either the project was wrong or the political climate was. Now with heroin, for better or worse, hot and basketball extremely cool, Island Pictures has lured DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg (a.k.a. Marky Mark) and hired a first-time director to film Carroll's visceral cautionary tale in and around the streets of New York City.

In the musty, echoing gym of Forest Hills High in Queens, Leo, as his friends know him, playing Carroll, is driving up court, Steadicam following alongside. He puts the basketball between his legs and passes to Wahlberg, who lifts the ball with both hands behind his head and scores a perfect layup. A bleacher full of teen-age extras goes wild. Wahlberg contorts his face into a victory scowl.

"Hooooo!" he exclaims.

DiCaprio smiles. They bump chests amicably.

A loud bzzzzzzz signals that the shot is over. "Beautiful," says Scott Kalvert, the director. It's the second day of shooting here. Doing a period movie would have cost too much, so everyone looks like '90s New York kids: black hair, white skin, baggy jeans. Forest Hills High is Kalvert's alma mater. "I think they've still got my picture and prison number on the wall," he jokes. Did he play basketball? "No. I did the drugs, though."

It's cold in Bruno Kirby's trailer. The heat's not working. A guy keeps trying to fix it. "No problem," says the mild-mannered Kirby, who is discussing his character, Swifty, the perverted coach of Jim Carroll's scrappy boy's club team. The guy's real name was Lefty, but all names except Jim Carroll's have been changed for the movie to avoid lawsuits.

"NAMBLA," Kirby says, referring to the National Man-Boy Love Assn. "Are you familiar with this organization? It's quite scary, really." Asked how he feels about playing a pedophile, Kirby demurs. "I don't really play villains," he explains. "I play people with problems." Yes, well, Swifty's "problem" is that he doesn't just want to coach the pretty young men on his team, he wants to molest them.

This is just one of the squalid little details from Carroll's bizarre youth. "The Basketball Diaries" appeared in book form in 1978, but he'd been publishing pieces of it in downtown New York literary magazines since the 1960s, when he was still a teen-ager.

When he wasn't doing drugs or playing ball, he was hanging out around Greenwich Village and the St. Mark's Place poetry scene. He made himself known to Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, but preferred Randall Jarrell to the Beats. (He still publishes poetry, including a volume for Penguin called "Fear of Dreaming," out this year.) In 1980, he branched out into rock, recording "Catholic Boy," an album of spare rock 'n' roll and streetwise lyrics that included "People Who Died." He was more of a punk than a hippie and for a while, Carroll was the punk movement's Lou Reed.

For all these reasons, the book has always had a cult following. When MTV asked River Phoenix what he wanted to do after being nominated for an Oscar for "Running on Empty," he pulled a battered paperback "Basketball Diaries" out of his pocket and said, "I want to play Jim Carroll."

DiCaprio never met Phoenix, but saw him at a party in Los Angeles the night he died, a face in the crowd. "I said, 'Was that River Phoenix?' And then he was gone," DiCaprio recalls. "It was kinda creepy."

It's warm in DiCaprio's trailer. This is a low-budget movie: $4 million, according to producer Liz Heller. Maybe only the star gets heat. He's sitting around in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. He's 5-foot-11 but doesn't look it because he's so skinny--a male Kate Moss. He's an OK basketball player, not amazing. And he looks a little like the young Jim Carroll.

Between takes, he's watching a pay-per-view event called something like "The Ultimate Guy Fight to the Death," in which he-men from around the world battle in a no-rules Thunderdome until bones break or someone says "Uncle."

DiCaprio does not want it mentioned that he was watching this festival of ultra-violence. Or that he was smoking. That would be bad example for his young fans. The teen-idol star of "This Boy's Life," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" and next year's "The Quick and the Dead" would rather keep his sins to himself. But he says he had no qualms about playing a kid junkie.

"I'm just gonna do the films that I'm gonna do," he says. His voice is flat, affectless, Californian. A cold has made it raspier. He pops vitamin C tablets into his mouth like popcorn.

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