I forget how much I really like documentary movies. There is something about the way they tell a story that it keeps me coming back for more. For Christmas this year, I was given the first 15 movies in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series. ESPN celebrated it’s 30th anniversary last year and they decided to put together a series of documentaries to celebrate interesting and somewhat forgotten stories from the pats 30 years. (The origination of this idea is explained much better by one of the co-creators, here.)
I was immediately hooked by this idea. I remember waiting patiently for them to come out on ESPN and wanting to watch them all. Only, somehow I got busy and missed the fact that the first one was released and I was immediately behind. Then I decided that since I missed the first one, I would just wait until the end of the year when they would invariably run all of them back-to-back-to-back-to-back marathon style heading into the new year. (Every channel seems to love running a marathon of some kind on New Year’s Eve. I can’t wait for the Head of the Class marathon. Those nerds were so cool.) But then I struck upon an even better idea (since when I actually thought about it, sitting down for 30+ hours in a row was not exactly feasible. And adding 30+ hours of movies to the DVR was also not exactly a great plan, either). I would ask for the box set for Christmas, which I thankfully received from my excellent brothers and sisters-in-law.
Because of some recent travels and downtime in airports and lonely hotel rooms, I have had a chance to watch the first 15 movies of the set (they broke the entire set into 2 groups of 15.) I was so awestruck by the vast majority of them that I am compelled to break each of them down a little bit and rank them. So, with out further ado, L
et’s go to the movies…. (Wait, that slogan is taken)….. L et’s get it on!….. (Shoot, so is that one)…. Hmmm…. whatever let’s J ust Do It….
There was only 1 movie out of the first 15 that I did not really like (hence the title of this post. Clever, right?) I was somewhat surprised by that, especially because it was one of the movies I was most interested in seeing. because of this, I am going to buck convention and start at the top of the list.
1) The Legend of Jimmy the Greek
A very well told story about a guy who lived the American Dream. Using skill, talent and guile, he rose from nothing to become a national figure, only to lose it all in one ill-timed impromptu interview with ugly racial overtones. What really put this movie on top for me was that it focused on a subject that was near and dear to me. I have previously mentioned how much I love the NFL and The NFL Today was the show that cemented that love at an early age. When I turn on a football game on Sunday morning, I still hear the theme song from the opening of the show running in my head, followed by the voice of Brent Musburger saying “We are coming to you live…” and anticipating the analysis from Irv Cross and Jimmy the Greek. Plus, I learned a new gambling related phrase “Scared money doesn’t make money”, which has now altered my craps philosophy, which is nice.
2) Muhammad and Larry
I am not a big fan of boxing. Never have been and probably never will. But I was totally enthralled by this story about the boxing match that signaled the official downfall of Muhammad Ali. I found Larry Holmes to be a tremendously likable person, which I never knew. It was also a look behind the curtain about why people at the top fall so hard and so fast, because there is no one around him or her that will stand up and say no. I never saw Ali in his prime, but seeing him pummeled like that in the end, was a tragic way for him to go out. But that’s how most greats go out. They are the last ones to know they are done.
3) Run Ricky Run
One of the descriptions of Ricky Williams by one of his friends is dead on. To paraphrase: 95% of what he says makes you think he is crazy, but then there is the 5% that is extremely poignant, lucid and insightful and it make you wonder if he is the only sane person in a crazy world. Despite having little to no attachment to Ricky, I found myself being on his side, wanting him to find his way. He sure sounded like a guy who played football not because he enjoyed it but because he had the body for it. He was not prepared mentally or emotionally to be a celebrity and he almost lost himself completely. It makes you wish more people could take a moment to figure out what they really want from life and not just do what other people think they should do. Also, to watch Ricky sink to the depths of depression and apathy and come all the way back to being a much better human being and still be a high functioning NFL running back is just amazing. Of course, I don’t condone the fact that he dropped out of the world to do that, leaving his 3 children behind so he could go “find himself”. But at least he did find himself and he seems to be a much better person now.
4) Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
While I was too young to remember much about the USFL, I do remember the fact that the Chicago Blitz existed and that they played football during the spring. I also knew that there were a decent amount of top-level NFL players who played in that league prior to joining the NFL. So to say I was a fan is an overstatement, but I have always had an appreciation for it, despite not knowing much about it. This movie was a fascinating look at the history of the USFL and it made me wish more and more that it would have stuck around. I was floored by the amount of passion and love that individuals had for this league. I get the feeling that Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Herschel Walker have just as many good USFL memories as they do NFL memories, and think back on them often. Burt Reynolds was involved as an owner! This movie also reiterated to me that Donald Trump is an idiot.
5) June 17th, 1994
Finally, a movie that was about something that happened when I was old enough to have solid memories and be in control of the television. Alas, I didn’t really give a care about anything involving the OJ Simpson trial. Despite that, I was glued to this movie, which basically recounted the day that OJ went on that slow-speed chase on the expressway in the white Bronco. It also juxtaposed that with some of the other sports things going on (Arnold Palmer’s last round in a US Open, Game 5 of the NBA Finals). I sat there wishing the movie would go on for hours. I now understand why people were so fascinated by this and would go out on to the highway to see the Bronco roll by. The only thing that detracted from this movie is that I felt the stretched the premise of this movie by including some sports items which were not that important (a milestone Ken Griffey Jr home run, the New York Rangers’ victory parade).
6 – 12) Kings Ransom, The Band That Wouldn’t Die, Without Bias, Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks, Guru of Go, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, The 16th Man
All of these movies were well done and I learned so much about each of these events. However, they were all remarkably similar in my mind. They all referenced something I had heard of, but didn’t know much about. I had always found each subject interesting, but never interesting enough to do my own research into learning more about the subject. A few random things that stuck out about some of these movies. 1) Winning Time would have been much higher on the list if it weren’t for the fact that they talked about Reggie like he was so clutch, except that he had blown 2 free throws to win the a game in the playoffs the year before. And that once the Pacers finally got past the Knicks, it was only the conference semifinals. (At least Reggie acknowledges this fact as the movie ends.) 2) I think LeBron James should have watched Kings Ransom before deciding to have “The Decision” televised. He could have learned a lot about being gracious and showing respect for the shared history of being on a city’s team before leaving. It killed Wayne Gretzky to leave Edmonton. 3) If you want to see a great example of why race relations in this country are still so problematic and how far we still have to go, watch No Crossover. Riveting and thoughtful.
13) Silly Little Game
An entertaining look at the birth of fantasy sports and also some good insight into why it is so popular. What caused this movie to be stuck down here in 13th place was that I don’t understand why it had to have some cheesy and kitschy re-inactments of the past. Most of them were horrible. The only one that was any good was the re-inactment of the first draft in the style of the First Continental Convention. It was funny and it worked well. The others were distracting at best and cringe-worthy at worst.
14) Straight Outta LA
This movie would seem to be right in my wheelhouse. I love the NFL, I enjoy rap music and this movie was about the intersection of both. For the most part it was entertaining. It actually made me wonder if there is a documentary about the history of rap, because I was yearning for more and more rap history. I have never been a fan of the Raiders, but watching the story of them coming to and then leaving Los Angeles was pretty cool. What holds this movie back is a handful of clips of Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg talking to each other about what the Raiders meant to LA and the gangsta rap scene. They all felt forced and scripted. Especially when you compare it to similar scenes in Kings Ransom where the director is interacting with and interviewing someone on camera. The Wayne Gretzky interview scenes felt true, authentic and heart-felt. It was also strange because I don’t know why Ice Cube was interviewing Snoop Dogg (besides that he is a gangsta rapper who likes football). He showed up nowhere else in the movie. Why wasn’t he interviewing another member of NWA? (I also got the same feeling anytime Bill Simmons showed up on-camera being inteviewed. It felt like he was only there because he helped come up with the idea for this series. It took away from the authenticity of the movie just a little bit. I maybe could see him interviewed for the fantasy baseball movie, since he talks about that a lot. But to show up in the USFL movie on with a Boston Breakers jersey? Come on, poser!)
Finally, the moment you have all been waiting for! The one movie in the initial box that I did not like. Drum roll, please!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
15) The U
I have always rooted against the Miami Hurricanes, mostly for the reasons that they expressed in this movie. The swagger, the bravado and so forth. However, I was really interested in seeing this movie. And it was pretty good…. for about an hour. And then it just kept going. And going. And going. My two main problems with this movie are that it was covered too much ground. I don’t mind long movies. In fact, to me the sign of a good movie is if I never want it to stop. I was begging for this movie to stop. They should have just covered the early days of Howard Snellenberger and Jimmy Johnson. You could have even stretched it to the Dennis Erickson years. But it felt like they just shoehorned in the Butch Davis days, then ignored the past handful of years at random. My bigger problem was that the director did not dig very deep on the dark side of the program. It just went skin deep and alluded to problems. When the director asked the players themselves, there were a lot of denials and platitudes (including a lot of non-denial denials by Luther Campbell) which he let them get away with. Many of the other movies hit on the dark side of the story without letting it dominate the storyline and dug beyond just the surface. The director should have pressed harder.
Overall, the first half of the 30 for 30 series was excellent. If you like documentaries, I would highly recommend them. You don’t even have to be a sports fan, although I think it adds to the enjoyment. And, the second set is due out in time for Father’s Day. I’m just saying…