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'Shirts & Skins' scores some big points

New TV series featuring a gay basketball team breaks out of reality show mold

By Cyd Zeigler jr.

When I first heard about Logo’s new series titled 'Shirts & Skins,' I was worried that it would be thrust into the MTV reality show cookie-cutter, and that Logo would trivialize sports into focusing on shirtless jocks, made-up drama and people behaving like fools in hopes of 15 minutes of reality fame.

I am happy to say those worries have been totally shut down. What the creators of the show have developed in their docu-series is a testament to the diversity of gay people and what should be a source of real inspiration for young gay men who, more and more, don’t want to turn their backs on sports. There’s drama, there are shirtless jocks, but it’s organic to basketball and the show, and that makes it all the more real.

A little disclosure here. I’ve know the creator of the show, Bill Kendall, for over 10 years; and one of the stars of the series, Rory Ray, has been a friend and Web developer at Outsports.com for years. Still, as they’ll both tell you, I generally speak my mind with truth; so while my friendship with them may have been able to color my watching of the show slightly, I don’t think it affects this analysis much.

The show follows the players, managers and coaches of the Rock Dogs, a gay basketball team based in San Francisco. They’re not just a team, they’re quite possibly the best ever, winning more Gay Games gold medals than any other basketball team and dominating the gay basketball scene for various stretches over its two-decade-long history.

This incarnation of the team, with a relatively new crop of players, has rented a house in San Francisco to live together for two weeks and train for the National Gay Basketball Association championship in Chicago (it’s better known in gay sports circles as the Coady Roundball Classic). The series follows the team as they practice, plan and scrimmage, and of course, end up learning more about themselves and their teammates as gay men who don’t quite fit the stereotypical gay mold.

The basketball-playing is hot. It’s impossible to watch this team play without recognizing they are talented indeed. They’re dunking, stealing and passing with the best I’ve seen in amateur basketball. In fact, these guys are so talented that it’s almost impossible to believe them when they talk about how difficult the climactic championship tournament will be for them in the final episode. With that much talent, and two weeks together in a house to prepare exclusively for the tournament, I would be shocked if the Rock Dogs (who are the tournament’s defending champions) didn’t win every game in the final episode, and win them by double digits. But then, I’m the guy who picked the Patriots to win the Super Bowl last year. We’ll see.

In the first episode, gay viewers will surely love how this team of out-and-proud players takes it to the straight guys in a scrimmage with the San Francisco Fire Department. Also fun to watch is how they school a group of straight guys they play in a pick-up game (leaving one of them puking on the sideline). As we hear several times from the players, they love being the fags that beat the straight guys. Kendall wanted to take aim at the stereotype that gay men can’t play sports, and this show delivers that like Karl Malone.

However, the show also isn’t afraid to showcase these guys being gayer than Dennis Rodman in a boa. You forget the dribbling and dunks when these guys are naming designers with ease, calling teammates “she” and snapping their fingers and spinning their necks around like Men On Film.

Some people might attack the show for these perceived stereotypes, but it’s one of the reasons I enjoyed it the most, and the show’s creators deserve praise for keeping it in there. As out former NBA player John Amaechi, who stops by to offer some insight, tells the guys: you can play basketball and drink fruity drinks; they’re not mutually exclusive. I love that these guys get that, and that they’re not afraid to fall into some stereotypes while at the same time shattering others. That takes a lot more guts than being fake and ordering a Guinness when they’re really dying for a Cosmo.



The breakout character of the show is undoubtedly Jamel (referred to as “Jamonce,” a play on pop diva Beyonce). He’s big, he’s black, he’s a fierce competitor, and guuuuuurrrrl, he can shake his booty in the shower. The biggest conflict of the first episode revolves around Jamel’s revelation to his teammates that he believes his homosexuality is a choice, an arc that will undoubtedly track through the whole series.

Jamel (left) and Mike are highlights of the show.

It’s not quite clear if Jamel thinks it’s a choice for everyone, but the other Rock Dogs attack him several times for his position. It’s the most riveting conflict of the first two episodes: The team’s struggle with Jamel’s revelation as well as his own internal struggle make for fascinating viewing. Jamel is such a likable character, you can’t help but root for him to figure it all out.

If there’s a character everyone will love to hate, it’s Papa Joe. The brash team manager who’s well past his playing prime isn’t afraid to yell at his players, cast very critical and almost mean-spirited doubt on them, and is, onscreen at least, the fiercest critic of Jamel’s questioning of his sexuality. He fits very nicely into the asshole-coach role that so many will remember from their high school sports-playing days. If it weren’t for how cool the players seem to be, I’d actually find myself hoping the Rock Dogs lose.

The cast of other characters is colorful. As I said, I’ve known Rory for years; both his straight-laced Mormon upbringing and his inner black diva are on display in the show. Mike is the narrator of the show, if there is one. He’s also still struggling with his sexual identity and isn’t afraid to show that struggle. Many people in his life still don’t know he’s gay (they sure will after the show airs), and his fear of the unknown – How will they react? Will he lose friends? – weighs heavily on him.

Unfortunately, those are the only cast members I feel like I truly got to know in the first two episodes. It would’ve been helpful to learn a little more about each of the six featured players and their backgrounds before being tossed, as a viewer, into a house with them. We get such little information about who these guys are that it’s tough for many of them to stand out. I think this is due in part to the length of the episodes (22 minutes) and the number of episodes that Logo ordered (six); the characters could have probably benefited from a little more onscreen development time. I strongly recommend heading over to the show’s Web site to read up on the players before you watch the show, or you might get lost. http://www.logoonline.com/shows/dyn/shirts_and_skins/cast.jhtml

The biggest sufferers of that lack of development are cousins DeMarco and Jay. We’re told that they haven’t seen each other in a while and have problems with one another, but we’re never told what the problems are. We see them being somewhat cold to one another, but we’re never told how that was resolved before they’re sitting next to one another a few minutes later, seemingly getting along just fine. With two teammates introduced as being family and being at odds with one another, it seems a big opportunity was missed to really showcase that dynamic.

The second episode revolves in large part around Amaechi’s visit with the team. He doesn’t necessarily steal the show, but I did find myself wanting to hear a lot more of what he had to say. The players seemed incredibly interested in his insights about basketball, running a team, preparation, and a host of other issues. And when Amaechi talks with Jamel and a few other players about Jamel’s sexuality-as-choice revelation, I was left thinking that his insight and guidance were what I would have liked to see from Papa Joe, instead of the tongue-lashing he gave Jamel.

My biggest question with the show is whether it will attract gay viewers who aren’t interested in sports, or straight viewers who aren’t interested in gays. As I said, this isn’t your typical overly dramatic MTV reality show. The focus is the basketball players and the playing of basketball, not who stole whose curling iron or who got too drunk at the bar the night before.

Gay athletes and their fans will surely find much of great interest in Shirts & Skins, but as to whether the basketball playing, the issues surrounding Jamel’s sexuality, and sweaty, shirtless bodies will be enough to drive interest in non-sports-fans, I have my doubts; but I have my fingers crossed.

Finally, on behalf of sports fans everywhere, I have to raise a puzzled eyebrow at Logo’s schedule-makers. Why would they place their only sports show on Monday nights during football season? Indeed, the premiere goes up against an Eagles-Cowboys matchup that I certainly won’t be missing, while their season finale has to take on a Monday Night Football game featuring the Broncos and Patriots.

Seems like an odd timeslot for a network’s lone sports show, but what do I know … other than sports. Luckily, they’ll surely be showing each episode many times a week.

Shirts & Skins premieres Monday, Sept. 15, at 10pm on Logo.