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Handle with Care: The Legend of the Notic Streetball Crew takes viewers back 20 years to the formation of a group of young men who felt like outsiders.Handout

A documentary having its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival tells a very Vancouver story – but one most people in the city won’t know anything about. It’s the story of a group of young men who felt like outsiders here, but found connection – and international fame – on the basketball court. Until things fizzled.

Handle with Care: The Legend of the Notic Streetball Crew takes viewers back 20 years to the formation of the group – including the involvement of two young filmmakers who rose with them and achieved their own success, making two video mixtapes about the Notic that became a sensation.

The filmmakers, Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux and Kirk Thomas – still best friends – got back together professionally to make the documentary, and they are also featured in it.

“It really does feel like a family reunion,” says Schaulin-Rioux, now 39. “I still kind of consider that crew a family and a family that we’re members of, as the filmmakers.”

The players were mostly immigrants and first-generation Canadians, the majority of whom were Black. They had a hard time fitting in and faced racism. The showy style of basketball they were playing was rejected by their school coaches, in spite of their obvious talent.

“You’re kind of considered cocky, you’re not respecting the game – it’s just, like, rap-ball, it’s jungle-ball,” says Joey Haywood, who was told he was playing “like a ghetto Black man.” “It was pretty hard to swallow.”

Haywood was in Grade 9 when he first saw a mixtape – a VHS highlight reel showing basketball players performing slick, audacious moves – by the U.S. street ball crew And1. “I watched that tape from morning to night; five or 10 times a day,” he says. It showed him something he couldn’t see in person in Vancouver, with its smaller Black population.

“I imagine if I lived in Toronto or if lived in New York, I think I would have been treated a little differently,” he says.

Recognition came when Haywood and the others got together to play at a Vancouver street ball tournament called Hoop It Up in 2001. When they started doing their moves, the crowd went wild.

Schaulin-Rioux and Thomas, who are white, were street ball connoisseurs who had been trying to make a mixtape like the ones they had idolized by And1. They were at the tournament, looking for material.

“And all of a sudden, we started hearing a commotion and then some guys we knew in the basketball community grabbed us by the shirt and were like, stop filming this game and start filming this game,” recalls Schaulin-Rioux. “We just sort of followed this crowd and we were in amongst this mob of crowds and managed to fight our way to the front.”

Like the crowds, the young filmmakers were blown away. Both called in sick that afternoon to their jobs – Thomas at Rogers Video, Schaulin-Rioux at Bingo Country – so they could stay and keep filming. Finding the Notic changed everything.

“The entire first mixtape, if we hadn’t met those guys, would have basically been some okay-looking blocks. And meeting those guys and filming that stuff was when it became, like, oh, maybe this is something more than a mixtape we’re just going to edit for fun and show ourselves,” Schaulin-Rioux says.

The Notic – Thomas coined the name, inspired by the Roots song The Hypnotic – put out two mixtapes and became a sensation. They were featured in magazines, used as models for video game avatars and brought down to the U.S. to play against their heroes, And1.

Haywood says if it wasn’t for the Notic, “I don’t know if I would have been able to be where I am today.” He earned a scholarship to play at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and, up until the pandemic hit, played professionally all over the world. He runs a basketball academy in Richmond, just outside Vancouver, where he still lives.

A third mixtape was never finished. The players and filmmakers were growing up, each following their own paths. But it remained on Schaulin-Rioux and Thomas’s wish list.

A few years ago, producer Ryan Sidhoo made a short film about Haywood using some of the mixtape footage. He asked the original filmmakers if they had ever thought about making a documentary. The project was born: the third mixtape (which has yet to be distributed) – and Handle With Care. Sidhoo is the documentary’s producer and an executive producer.

“It probably could have been harder-hitting,” Schaulin-Rioux says about the doc. “But the goal for it is to show those guys – who we think are the coolest characters and coolest people – in the light we see them in.”

Still, it’s not all cheery family reunion stuff. One player got into serious trouble after the group dissolved. Another was angry about being left out of an important team event. And there were questions about finances: If the mixtapes were so successful, why weren’t the players getting any money?

Schaulin-Rioux says it cost about as much to duplicate and ship the tapes as what they were charging for them. The one exception, he says, was $200 they got for selling one on eBay.

“Kirk and I took that $200 and we both went and bought shoes. And that was the only money we ever made,” explains Schaulin-Rioux. “The truth of it was pretty boring.”

Schaulin-Rioux, who lives in Toronto, still works in film as a director and editor; among other things, he has made music videos for Lights and the punk band Pup. Thomas is a corporate travel agent, living in the Vancouver suburbs.

For some viewers, Handle with Care will be a nostalgic trip back to those glory days. For others, it will be a window into a world that they might not have known existed, even though it was on their doorstep.

Haywood – who is credited as screenwriter and an executive producer – hopes the film is also an inspiration.

“Follow your dreams no matter what anyone says about you or bad talks you or hates on you or calls you a racist name. You’ve got to stay on the course and keep working hard. Learn from your failures,” says Haywood, also known as King Handles. “You’re going to run into a brick wall sometimes, but you’ve got to have hope. Love what you do. You will make it.”

Handle With Care is online at VIFF Connect Oct. 1-11; it has its in-cinema world premiere Oct. 8 at the Vancouver Playhouse.

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