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Ray Romano Made a Movie for Sports Parents Everywhere

The doting dad swelled with hope and pride as his son grabbed the rebound, with six seconds left. His high school was trailing by just a single point, meaning they now had a chance to win the game, to complete an improbable comeback. A victory meant the son’s high school career would continue, for one more game at least. But with a loss, basketball would be all over. The son, a senior, wasn’t quite good enough to play at the college level. So this could be it—for both of them.

So dad, better than anyone, knew the stakes of those final six seconds. The son passed the ball to the team’s star guard, who pushed the ball up the floor, and pulled up for a shot near the top of the key, perhaps a little to the left. The ball, however, clanged off the rim. Game over. Career over. The endless hours that the father spent with his son, playing in the backyard, traveling to games, living and dying with every jump shot from childhood to now, with the boy now a lanky 6’5” teenager on the verge of adulthood—over in a flash.

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Ray Romano recalls this moment, which he can describe in minute detail. Surprisingly, it’s not a scene from his new movie, Somewhere In Queens, which happens to tell the story of a father, played by Romano, coping with the impending conclusion of his star son’s high school basketball career. (Somewhere In Queens hit theaters April 21.) No, Romano is discussing an event from seven years ago, 2016; the final high school game of his son, Joe, a key player for Campbell Hall School in Los Angeles that season. Like so many parents, Romano was deeply invested in the sports career of his child. “Yes, it’s all about him, and your pride for him,” says Romano, in his familiar New York City accent—he’s from Queens—in a telephone interview Friday morning. “But it’s part of who you are too.”

That last game—and the ensuing emptiness Romano felt when Joe’s athletic endeavors were over—inspired Somewhere in Queens, which Romano co-wrote and directed, marking his directorial debut. Romano also stars in the film as a somewhat meek, bumbling awkward construction worker named Leo Russo, who doesn’t have much going on in his life besides the basketball exploits of his son, nicknamed “Sticks” (Jacob Ward). The always stellar Laurie Metcalf plays Russo’s no nonsense wife, Angela, while comedian Sebastian Maniscalco takes a turn as Russo’s bullying younger brother, Frank, and Sadie Stanley shines as Sticks’ spitfire girlfriend, Dani Brooks.

Youth sports offer rich territory for storytelling. The core complications involved, like living vicariously through your children and mismatched levels of investments—dad wants the title more than junior—are more universal than one might think. Millions of parents around the globe, especially in competition-obsessed America, will have to confront that day when their kids play their final game. For some, it may happen in Little League, or later on in grade school. For others, it may happen sophomore year—he won’t make varsity—or senior year—she’s just not good enough for a spot at the next level.

For the precious few, that moment happens in college, or perhaps the pros. But no matter the sport children play, or the level of excellence they reach, all parents will have to grapple with the inevitable: that moment, and the days and years in the aftermath, when the cheering stops.

The parenting handbooks and pop psychologists will all tell you: don’t live vicariously through the activities, athletic or otherwise, of your children. Romano admits he violated this unwritten rule. “All along, going to every game, I was happy for him,” says Romano. “But if I’m being totally honest, I liked it for myself. I was proud of him, but also basking in the attention that falls off to the parent also. I mean, it’s hard to deny.”

Romano relished the compliments from Joe’s high school coach after he scored a bunch of points one game. He loved the attention from other parents in the stands— even opposing parents—because of Joe’s success. “You try to be humble about it, but it feels good,” says Romano. Despite other similarities, Romano does concede that one moment in the film wasn’t based on his actual experience. Romano’s character, Leo Russo, basks in cheers of “Mr. Russo! Mr. Russo!” from fans in the high school gym where his son is the star player. There were no “Ray Romano” cheers at Campbell Hall.

Still, the irony of Ray Romano craving attention from SoCal high school basketball circles isn’t lost on the guy who starred in a wildly successful sitcom called Everybody Loves Raymond. “The reason I think it’s pathetic and selfish for me, I mean, I’m on TV,” he says with a laugh. “I have my own show. I do stand up in front of theaters of people. And that’s not enough? Now I’m going to miss the attention I get in a gymnasium?”

He’s not apologizing for reveling in Joe’s basketball. “I don’t think anybody needs to feel guilty about it,” says Romano. “What you can’t do is have that dictate how you how you treat your son. It’s a tough balance. You want to push him a little but you want to do it for the right reasons. You want to do it within a certain limit because at some point, it has to be what he wants to do also.”

Romano was surprised at how Joe’s last game coldcocked him emotionally. As he hugged Joe’s coach on the court after that final game in 2016, Romano flashed back to his first memory of Joe playing pee-wee ball. “My buddy, my neighbor, was his coach,” Romano says. “And I always have this image of him running down on defense, this little guy with little skinny legs, and I see him looking at the floor where my buddy told him he had to stand, as a forward. And he ran down and he looked down and he put his feet right there. And he put his hands up.” For your child to go from pee-wee to 6’5” high schooler who just played in his final game is a lot for any parent to process. “It caught me off guard,” says Romano.

Romano drew on these feelings to recreate the film’s most affecting scene: Russo standing in an empty gym, staring forlornly at a barren high school basketball court, after Sticks took his final high school shot. It spoke to the emptiness the character felt inside. (Full disclosure: my son is a high school basketball player, a junior, and I could be confronting such sadness less than a year from now. I’m not looking forward to it.)

“It’s funny you mentioned that scene because that’s the one scene where I look at my co-writer when I watch it, I go okay, this is not too realistic, because the gym does not clear out that fast,” says Romano.

He’s absolutely right: parents and friends always lurk on the court right after the high school buzzer. Romano offers another small silver lining: that parental pain goes away, eventually. “You just accept it,” says Romano.

Somewhere In Queens concerns the unexpected opportunities that arise for Sticks Russo after that last game: and how Leo Russo, albeit with sympathetic intentions, gets far too involved in his son’s life. Joe Romano’s story is less ripe for cinematic conflict. Now 25, he did wind up playing some college ball: at Oregon, he was part of a cohort of male players who practiced against the women’s team, a common practice at major women’s programs. But he’s trying something new: “He’s dipping his toe into the acting world,” says Romano. “Which scares me more than anything.” It’s difficult enough trying to make it to the NBA. “It’s just as grueling trying to become a successful actor,” says Romano.

“What my character in the film, and also to some extent me, had to accept and understand is you’re going to be proud of him,” says Romano. “And you’re going to shine through him. No matter what he does. It doesn’t have to be sports. If he’s happy and successful, even if he’s a good parent, that’s going to feel just as good as watching him make a basket. It doesn’t seem like it. Nobody’s going to be standing there cheering. But you’ll hear the cheers internally.”

 

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