30 for 30: The Last Days of Knight

Release: Thursday, April 12, 2018

→ESPN

Directed by: Robert Abbott

In the eyes of many Bob Knight is an obvious candidate for the Mt. Rushmore of collegiate hoops coaching greats. He has numbers on his side and generations of fans ensure he won’t be forgotten. But whereas words like legacy are most often used to glamorize and romanticize the past, when it comes to Coach Knight, who threw chairs and kicked lockers out of frustration, was caught on tape grabbing a player by the throat during practice and one time even used fecal matter to demonstrate how he felt about team effort, legacy takes on a different, perhaps darker connotation.

If we’re talking accolades this guy is doing the butterfly in a deep pool of ’em: In his 29 years with the Indiana Hoosiers he amassed 902 NCAA Division I wins which, as of 2008, when he retired (at this point he was head coach at Texas Tech), was the most all-time at that level. Today it is third-most all-time, recently eclipsed by his former assistant and current Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.

Knight’s coaching résumé includes three NCAA Championship titles, 11 conference titles, one National Invitational Tournament Championship, four Coach of the Year honors and thus far the last true undefeated squad in 1975-’76. In 1984 he coached the Olympic team and led the Americans to victory in L.A., making him one of the elite few college coaches to have won an NIT title, an NCAA title and an Olympic Gold medal.

Statistics can speak volumes about a coach’s skill, knowledge and experience but what of their style? Their moral code? They certainly don’t tell the whole story when it comes to this highly controversial figure. The Last Days of Knight is a scintillating exposé directed and narrated by and prominently featuring former CNN producer Robert Abbott. What begins with a journalist inquiring into the curious transfer of three top IU players out of the program in the 90s opens up into a much larger and troubling story about institutional corruption, abuse of power and toxic fandom.

After his playing days were over Bob Knight established himself as a demanding coach with an old-school approach, equating hard work and discipline with success. His intimidating presence earned him the nickname ‘The General.’ His first stint was coaching the Army Black Knights at West Point at the ripe age of 24 and while successful, early cracks in his composure began to show, proving in moments of frustration to be a combative personality and a hot head. In 1971 he was hired as the head coach at Indiana, and though his first year ended in disappointment he’d soon have the Hoosier faithful in the palm of his hand, bringing multiple titles to a state that worships the game.

While Coach Knight and his temper take top billing, Abbott also plays a major role in the narrative, and for good reason. Not only is the film a culmination of 17 months of painstaking research and chasing down crucial interviews, the downfall of a coaching deity is directly linked to Abbott’s investigation. During the process he learned to appreciate how much of a bombshell his story was indeed becoming, and on camera he is up front about the moral dilemma he often found himself in. From a journalistic perspective you don’t get a story much better than this: Bob Knight, coaching God, has been doing terrible things to his players. He taunts them. Hurls insults at them. Plays mind games with them. At the same time he was acutely aware of the pain his investigation was causing, not to Coach but to the whistleblowers who, as a result of speaking out, endured public humiliation and faced lynch mobs and unrelenting death threats. The additional complication of Abbott himself coming under fire for pursuing what some high-powered, well-connected individuals called a witch hunt further amplifies the drama.

What makes Knight’s run at Indiana so extraordinary is the amount of leeway a little (okay, a lot of) winning afforded him. His tenure outlasted that of school administrators and athletic directors. It’s been said that at the height of his success Knight became a more influential figure than even the state governor, his ability to mold boys into men under his authoritative leadership earning him first the respect and then the undying loyalty of the Hoosier community. A pattern of abuse endured not just one bad season, it went on for decades, always justified by a well-above-.500 record and perennial postseason success — at least up until 1994, the last time a Bob Knight-led Indiana squad would reach the tournament. He would stay on as head coach until September 2000.

The Last Days of Knight is conspicuously devoid of any current interviews with the man himself. The fall from grace is old news now but a lack of immediacy doesn’t dilute the power of the voice or the images. Throughout we get several truly frightening sound bites of him in fine fear-mongering form. Other clips depict his behavior during press conferences, at times as bizarre as it was hostile. Meanwhile interviews with Neil Reed, the player whose neck Knight grabbed, serve as an indictment on an institution that prioritizes the bottom line over the well-being of its students.

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Recommendation: The downfall of Bob Knight remains one of the most popular stories in modern college hoops, so it surprised me it took ESPN this long to produce a film on it. But better late than never, because while the film doesn’t really offer new insight into a story that’s been rehashed in the media for years on end, the personal perspective offered by Robert Abbott adds another layer of intrigue. In an era where the integrity of journalism is being intensely scrutinized, this documentary does feel more timely. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 103 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.theshoptrailers.com

30-for-30: One and Not Done

Release: Thursday, April 13, 2017 (ESPN)

→ESPN (re-air) 

Directed by: Jonathan Hock

As someone who spent his college days getting lost amidst the sea of brilliant orange and bright white on Rocky Top Tennessee, I’m about to admit something that could very well lose me some friends: this documentary gave me a new appreciation for Kentucky basketball. It made me not only more fascinated by head coach John Calipari, it made me a fan. There, I said it. And I know it’s heresy. If I am to be made an example out of like an outsider in an old western, the one request I have is that you don’t string me up over the Goalpost Tavern or Cool Beans.

Traditionally Big Orange Country shows out for football far more than for in-door games played on smaller rectangles in really squeaky tennies. Maybe that’s because football there is a culture defined by Phillip Fulmer, Peyton Manning and Neyland Stadium, a gigantic fortress that beckons the faithful on crisp autumn Saturdays when the changing leaves coordinate themselves to match the student dress code. If atmosphere is what you seek in your sporting events, visit Knoxville in the height of football season.

However, the area between checkerboard-style end zones isn’t where our rivalry with Kentucky really lies. In the arena, the Wildcats are perennially great, and a perennial nuisance. The measure of greatness in college basketball is not simply judged by your regular season résumé, but how deep your runs take you in the annual NCAA Tournament, a single-elimination style pool play in which Kentucky is 126-51 all-time, with 17 Final Four appearances and eight national titles, most recently in 2012 under Calipari.

The Wildcats have for some time been the bane of their SEC opponents, mostly because of Calipari’s uniquely relentless efforts in recruiting the best of the best of the best of high school talent. These are the so-called “one-and-done”s — the 18-20 year-olds who are so good they play one season in college before going pro. As a result his pond is never less than fully stocked with some pretty big fish. The problem with this is that expectations rise accordingly, and when you’re merely ‘good’ but not GREAT in Rupp Arena, you call upon the collective strength of Big Blue Nation for a show of even greater support — as Coach Cal did earlier this year when his team, the youngest he has ever coached, hit a four-game skid and doubts of a tournament bid began to mount.

Jonathan Hock’s sixth contribution to the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary series 30-for-30One and Not Done, offers a detailed and provocative look into the personal life, career and coaching philosophies of a controversial collegiate sports figure. The vocal, prone-to-spasms-on-the-sideline leader is loved by many but viewed as a problem by many more because of the reputation that has preceded him. After stints at UMass, where he got his first head coaching gig in 1988, and the University of Memphis, Calipari has seen two seasons ended in NCAA investigations that led to the vacating of tournament wins, with UMass’s star player Marcus Camby being charged with receiving improper benefits (some $40,000 by someone unaffiliated with the school) and Memphis’ Derrick Rose being ruled academically ineligible.

It isn’t often a coach regains legitimacy after the sledgehammers the governing body of the NCAA delivered, and Calipari has had this happen twice. The documentary gives you a sense of how he has been able to survive and advance beyond very public scrutiny. Whether he deserved those chances is for you to decide. The early days are certainly interesting chapters, but ultimately the film is more concerned with the phenomenon he has created since being called up to the big kids’ table, coaching one of the more recognizable brands in college basketball, with his aggressive off-season strategies for talent scouting. Today, the “one-and-done” craze has spread far beyond the reaches of the Southeastern Conference. Look at any major blue blood school now and you’ll find at least one. (Vols fans, remember when we had Tobias Harris? You probably don’t actually.)

The overarching interview with Coach — his expressive face and irrepressible energy all up in your grill during the bulk of this tightly-shot conversation — acts almost as a promotional tool for future scholarship hopefuls. He gets you to buy in to the sales pitch — that he is as committed to the players’ athletic future as much as their future in general (Kentucky has a much higher than average graduation rate amongst student-athletes but you won’t hear that as often as you will about the latest controversial thing Cal said or did). He gets you to listen to his story, how far a cry his current $7.5 million salary really is from the reality his immigrant parents faced. How he has built himself up, and subsequently became a thorn in the sides of those who couldn’t stand the way he comported himself either in press conferences or in games — some of whom call him “Satan on the sidelines”.

Whether he ultimately earns your respect and/or empathy is almost beside the point. Director Jonathan Hock expressed a desire to present as complete a profile of a very complicated, divisive personality as possible and he succeeds in balancing the scales of opinion and perception. One and Not Done includes interviews with many of his supporters, friends and family but there is also the obvious disdain Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim can’t help but express in his responses. For me, a Vols fan, the best thing about this documentary is that it changed my perspective in a significant way. Maybe I’m too easily manipulated by the media. And maybe it’s just Cal (isn’t it obnoxious how I’m calling him Cal now, like he’s my pal or something!) being a great talker and sales pitchman, it made me believe this guy truly does care for his players, and believes in their futures, even if it’s off the basketball court.

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Recommendation: Absorbing film centered around a high-profile college basketball coach makes for a must-watch this time of year. (Yeah, yeah — I’m like a year late to this one. But the 2018 Tournament is still in play, so it still counts.) John Calipari is unquestionably a compelling and polarizing sports figure. I still see why people are rubbed the wrong way by him, but I don’t feel the same way anymore about him. And I am grateful for that. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “I tell ’em, ‘you’re gonna hate me.’ But if I do right by them, they’ll win.”

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Photo credits: http://www.kentuckycrazies.com; http://www.cbssports.com 

Live By Night

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Release: Friday, January 13, 2017

[Netflix]

Written by: Ben Affleck

Directed by: Ben Affleck

Even when Ben Affleck is off his game he still makes more thoughtful, involving pictures than many others who give it their all. Live By Night isn’t an example of Affleck giving it his all, but because the writer/director just does not know how to make something that’s not intriguing on some level his latest is a modest success.

I don’t really want to damn with faint praise something I quite enjoyed but there’s ample evidence throughout his second adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel — this time a Prohibition-Era, Florida-set thriller about a rum runner and reluctant gangster — to suggest Affleck is running a little low on the creative juices. Live By Night is a fine way to spend two hours but there’s not even an outside chance Affleck finds himself back up on the stage in the Dolby Theatre this February. The tale simply is unable to find any separation whatsoever from like-minded mob movies.

Live By Night opens as Affleck’s Joe Coughlin has returned to his native Boston from the Great War, scarred by the loss of life around him and by what he did — mercifully he never shows us what that was. He leaves that to our imagination. In a voiceover Joe reflects on how he has come back a changed man, vowing to never kill again. Perhaps the real erring on the part of Affleck, commander in chief, is in his failing to safeguard against our intense skepticism.

In fact the moment he tells us he won’t kill again is the same moment we become convinced that he will. This is that type of film, where the inevitable is just so obvious when it finally happens it is sort of underwhelming. The prodigal son of police captain Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson) finds himself blackmailed into doing the dirty work for a violent Italian mafia boss when he’s caught in a love affair with the mistress of a rivaling, Irish mob leader by the name of Albert White (Robert Glenister). Joe’s girl is an Irish immigrant, like himself, played by the chameleonic Sienna Miller. Joe must eliminate White, or face being . . . well. Yep.

His fortunes change when he is sent to Ybor City, a rough area just northeast of downtown Tampa, where he finds success expanding his employer Mr. Pescatore (Remo Girone)’s rum empire. With the help of his partner Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Joe helps to secure much of the southeast as a viable marketplace for other business ventures like gambling and drugs. But Joe constantly maintains he will have no part in the murderous aspects of his trade. He insists on being considered less a gangster and more an outlaw. He’s one cape and cowl away from becoming a bootlegging vigilante.

Speaking of outfits, everyone who appears in the film comes dressed to the nines. The costuming and production design are so authentic you feel as though you are walking these streets and enduring these hard times along with the characters. A few of the get-ups verge on the ridiculous — see Affleck in a white suit that’s the equivalent of NFL jerseys back in the ’80s and ’90s  — and more often than not you can’t help but think the lavish design is meant to distract from the lack of original material.

The trappings of the hard-knocked life are all here: the threats, the beatings, the back-stabbings. The boozing and the repentant behavior that’s far too little too late. The latter is of course what we’re ultimately anticipating, and what presumably Lehane’s book builds toward as well — the price tag attached to all this moral turpitude. In Live By Night it comes in the form of Chris Cooper‘s Sheriff Irving Figgis and his goody-two-shoes daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), both devout Christians whose own moral fiber becomes tested when daughter ships out to Hollywood only to return a drugged-out prostitute. At the behest of her father Loretta starts preaching the good word in Ybor City, vowing to put a halt on the development of the very casino Joe and his cronies are working to build.

Whatever is a non-violent (but very violent) bandit supposed to do when he’s shouldering the burden of one crime lord to get back at another? Turn to the Lord? Fall in love with another woman in a place where he is becoming a nuisance? (Spoiler alert: he does one of the two.) As with a great many gangster dramas, religion and family play a prominent role. There must be consequences to our actions. Affleck obligingly includes those elements as a measuring stick to help us judge how bad Joe really is, despite how gentle and caring he may seem when not on the clock.

Admittedly, subtlety is not among Affleck’s many (strong) suits this time around. Live By Night does not bow out gracefully. The way it ends is something close to terrible but it’s not quite enough to bring down the entire thing. It does, however, add an exclamation point on the argument that this is nothing more than a generic crime thriller. If you’re looking for shock value or inventive deaths, twists and turns you never expected — you won’t find them here. It’s not even really that violent. The action is kept to a minimum, which is actually refreshing in the sense that it allows Affleck to explore moods and mindsets rather than showcase how scary bad men are with guns.

Live By Night won’t be remembered for much, but it’s by no means a sign that Affleck has become truly lost (cue Liam Neeson from Batman Begins). It demonstrates a clear appreciation for the kinds of people and experiences that have shaped the nation into what it is today. Affleck taps into a period in American history in which drinking was outlawed but racism and violence were given the thumbs up. There’s something beautifully contradictory with the way he juxtaposes these realities. I just wish he did so with a little more inventiveness.

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3-5Recommendation: Far from original or top-notch Ben Affleck in terms of his directorial prowess (though his performance is appropriately ice-cold, and in the same fascinating way he was in The Accountant as an anti-social enigma), Live By Night should suit fans of the writer/director/actor as well as those who don’t set their standards too high when it comes to the genre. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “This is heaven. Right here. We’re in it now.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

30-for-30: No Más

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Release: Tuesday, October 15, 2013

[Netflix]

Directed by: Eric Drath

Spectators historically aren’t accustomed to seeing a professional boxer not finish what they started — at least, not voluntarily. When Roberto Durán, the man with two of the most devastating fists in all of boxing, waved his gloves at his opponent in the 8th round of a 15-round bout signifying that he didn’t want to fight anymore, no one believed what they were seeing. On November 25, 1980, the man with “hands of stone” turned his back on more than just a fighter he did not respect.

The bout in the Louisiana Superdome became infamously known as the ‘No Más fight.’ Despite the fact he lost, Durán’s actions were so bizarre the story that emerged was all about him losing, rather than his opponent winning. That’s a reality Sugar Ray Leonard has had difficulty reconciling all his life, and as we are introduced to him in the opening frames there’s a bitterness barely hidden behind his otherwise calm demeanor, a bitterness about the way history has been written. Somewhat counterintuitively, No Más is (mostly) told from his point of view.

Eric Drath, associated with a number of sports documentaries and short films, wants to know, perhaps as desperately as Leonard himself, what it was that caused Durán to throw in the towel that night in New Orleans. Divorced from the event by several decades, the film offers a unique perspective as it captures the once-bitter rivals in much more casual settings — except for the part where it throws them back together in the ring for a casual chat in a climactic show-down (of words), set under bright lights but sans the bloodthirsty audience. It’s a little cheesy but I found the trick nonetheless effective. And despite being 60 years old Durán’s eyes can still pierce a hole straight through you.

Durán and Leonard famously hated one another. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the three fights they committed to was the fact that there actually were three fights — neither one managed to end the other outside of the ring, despite temptation. The Panamanian in particular was hostile, openly mocking Leonard by calling him “a clown.” (And remember that one time he saved a middle finger salute for Leonard’s then-wife?) Durán had several reasons to consider the American his enemy. For one, his childhood was spent enduring the political turmoil that made his hometown of El Chorrillo an often unpredictable environment, as the United States and Panama fought for control over the Canal. Durán’s father was an American-born man who bailed on the family early. Durán also perceived Leonard’s popularity as grossly overblown and that he wasn’t as good a fighter as he proclaimed himself to be. (For those keeping score, Durán only won one of these three fights.)

For a film dealing with such marquee names, No Más plays out in quite the understated manner. The story develops quietly and methodically, bobbing and weaving in between present-day footage of Leonard preparing for his visit to Panama and archived footage of the events themselves. If anything the final reveal is underwhelming in its brevity. I would have liked to have heard more about what these two talked about in the ring. Drath pulls interviews from family, friends, former trainers and fighters — notably Mike Tyson — to help contextualize events. Supermodel and photographer Christie Brinkley also weighs in. These soundbites are far from the most insightful clips the 30 for 30 series has featured, and Tyson in particular isn’t a very good talker, but his recollections of how he felt when he witnessed ‘no más’ delivers a surprising gut-punch.

Perhaps what we gain from the experience isn’t so much revelatory as it is a reminder of the fragile emotional state boxers are so often in while in the ring. Durán almost certainly quit out of pride, but you’ll never hear him say those words, nor give any indication this is how he really feels inside. If he says anything about it today he’ll still tell you it was stomach cramps, not Leonard’s attacks that caused him to quit. He also actively denies ever uttering those infamous words. Some may dismiss this as merely the hubris of the defeated. But “no más” was at such odds with the boxer’s comportment, the way he carried himself both publicly and privately, that it makes this documentary quite the fascinating mystery. We, like Leonard, may not get the closure we’re looking for, but at the same time we learn quite a lot along the way.

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3-5Recommendation: Fascinating, if occasionally frustrating recounting of what may or may not have happened during Durán-Leonard II in New Orleans gives fans of boxing some food for thought. The interviews beyond the boxers themselves aren’t the greatest things ever but there’s certainly enough here to recommend for followers of the sport or those itching for some more in-depth coverage after seeing Hands of Stone, the semi-autobiographical account that was released in theaters earlier this year.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.latinosports.com 

Just a Quick Thought: Thank you, Craig

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Craig Sager, the long-time sideline reporter for the Turner broadcasting network, passed away today, December 15, 2016 at the age of 65 after a long and courageous battle with acute myeloid leukemia. He leaves behind a wife and five children, as well as a spot on the sidelines and a place in front of the TNT cameras that will likely never be filled again.

Perhaps the only thing that ever rivaled Sager’s enthusiasm for the events he covered or the number of iconic events with which he will forever be associated — Hank Aaron’s 715th home run in 1972 (which broke Babe Ruth’s record); the 2000 Sydney Olympics; the 2015 NBA Finals . . . while battling his illness — is his wardrobe. Over a 40+ year-long career Sager had shaped a public image as only he could; his colorful, outrageous suits have raised as many eyebrows as any NBA player sporting the latest en vogue fashion item. Or any Hollywood starlet trying to make a statement on the Red Carpet.

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The inimitability of Craig Sager runs far deeper than his outward flamboyance, a flamboyance that stood in a strange contrast to his direct, matter-of-fact line of questioning. If anyone needs evidence of the kind of influence he had around the league, they need look no further than the rapport he shared with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.

The way he continued to hone his craft even during the darkest periods of his life is a miracle. It, in all likelihood, will come to define the journalist as a figure we should all look up to. His stoicism (and his suits) were gems of the National Basketball Association. Two days before he passed he was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. He will be dearly missed. Rest in paradise, Craig.


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30-for-30: Fantastic Lies

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Release: Sunday, March 13, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Marina Zenovich

Marina Zenovich’s Fantastic Lies establishes one simple truth that cannot be disputed no matter what your feelings are towards Duke University and the air of superiority it cultivates. The scandal that rocked the Durham-based university in March of 2006 and the manner in which it was handled became nothing short of a farce.

Zenovich is primarily linked to her documentaries centered around filmmakers and entertainers, most notably director Roman Polanski and comedian Richard Pryor. She turns to sports in her most recent effort, sorting through the chaos that ensued when three players from a high-profile men’s lacrosse team were implicated in the alleged gang rape of an exotic dancer hired for a team-sponsored party. Fantastic Lies premiered on March 13, 2016, 10 years to the day of the event.

Driving the narrative is the frenzy generated by national media who were convinced the story had but one logical conclusion: Duke was guilty. What had long been feared to be festering below the surface finally had manifested publicly. A culture in which the privileged were given every benefit of the doubt had finally run amok. Along with the media circus, so too descended upon campus countless social activists who had been waiting for something like this to happen to Duke. Fantastic Lies, then, is as much about separating fact from fiction as it is about the media and the role they continue to play in shaping public perception; how, in this case, a “tragic rush to accuse” created such a toxic atmosphere protestors (some even Duke students) called for the castration of the players responsible.

The Blue Devils’ on-field triumphs are shoved so far into the background they almost don’t exist. Fantastic Lies engages in an altogether different and more sobering manner, developing into an often disturbing legal drama that very matter-of-factly presents the investigation and subsequent fall-out as the witch trial it was. In fact the only way in which athleticism factors into Zenovich’s film is in the context of how the team’s reputation had endeared them to the community. Their 2005 campaign is touched upon briefly, a season that unfortunately ended with a loss to rival Johns Hopkins University in the championship round. It’s also made clear only two things are taken more seriously on these hallowed grounds: men’s basketball under the immortal Coach K, and academia.

Yet an interview with a student who once lived next door to some of the players reminds us that not all who have been fortunate enough to be accepted into this prestigious community — Duke infamously rejects something like 75% of all valedictorians who apply — buy into that hype. If you do manage to slip the surly bonds of Ordinariness there’s no compulsion to embrace every aspect of campus life. It’s okay to hate jocks here, too; though you might well be identifying yourself as part of an even more elite group in your refusal to attend a single sporting event. Crucially this perspective is added to impress upon us how seriously the odds were stacked against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans when they became the players identified as the assailants of Crystal Mangum.

Mangum, an African-American woman struggling to make ends meet, was one of two dancers hired by the team and who had been paid $400 for a two-hour performance. When they refused to continue after five minutes, the mood soured and soon racial epithets and drunken threats were being thrown around. The players felt they had been hustled. Mangum proceeded to dial 9-1-1, claiming she had been sexually assaulted in the bathroom of a house belonging to captains of the Duke lacrosse team. It would take over a year of court battles, the dismissal of the head coach, the surrendering of the entirety of the 2006 season and the disbarring of a district attorney before the truth of what actually transpired in the moments before the call was finally recognized. In April of 2007 all charges were dropped against the players. Not only were there no traces of DNA found on Mangum — none belonging to the players anyway — there was compelling evidence none of the boys named were even in the house at the time of the phone call.

Zenovich does well in laying out the labyrinthian legal process in a way that’s both interesting and digestible for those not familiar with the judicial system. A significant chunk of the narrative focuses on District Attorney Mike Nifong, the man hired to represent Mangum and who was using the case to build a platform for his campaign for a higher public office. Confident the act was a hate crime, Nifong’s crusade, with the help of some corrupt cops, would soon prove to be an egregious example of how human nature can obstruct justice. The probe thus became an immensely flawed process that violated the accused’s fundamental right to due process. As one source puts it, that process would have been a comedy of errors if any of it was funny.

Of course the situation was anything but comical. Mangum’s false accusations bruised Duke’s reputation and irrevocably changed the lives of the three players and their families forever. If you aspire to become a professional athlete one thing you absolutely cannot afford is to become implicated in a rape case. And despite being found innocent, Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans are never going to be able to escape the stigma attached to their days at Duke. There has, however, been a silver lining to their trials and tribulations. These experiences had a transformative power, particularly for Seligmann who ended up transferring to Brown University to finish his undergraduate studies before pursuing a law degree at Emory University. In addition to his plans to pursue a career in law, he also has become an active member in the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization committed to exonerating the wrongfully convicted.

Fantastic Lies is a highly emotional documentary that to some degree feels like a peace-offering to the families of these students. Zenovich’s unbiased approach seems to uphold every major tenet of good journalism. There is truth and accuracy, humanity and fairness in her reporting. That this installment feels less like an ESPN film and more like a particularly twisted episode of Law & Order indicates the director felt no obligation to adhere to a certain formula. This is an independent voice, free of bureaucratic input. This is the bald-faced truth. If it isn’t, she and only she will remain accountable for further muddying the waters. The power of the account proves Zenovich is all too aware of this.

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Recommendation: Incredibly complex legal case proves to be a consistently absorbing watch. Bolstered by an emotional intensity and featuring an almost overwhelming amount of fact-based evidence to support the notion Duke had been victimized of a vicious smear campaign, Fantastic Lies feels as though it’s in another class when it comes to ESPN films. This is a remarkable work that should be seen by everyone who believes they have the Duke student body completely figured out. A must-see documentary that is as upsetting as it is vital. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone . . .]

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.businessinsider.my 

30-for-30: Four Days in October

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Release: Tuesday, October 5, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Gary Waksman

In October of 2004 the Boston Red Sox became the first team in major league baseball to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series at the championship level. In that famous set they sent their BFF’s the New York Yankees packing, eking out two desperate wins at Fenway before making the dreaded trip to The Death Star Yankee Stadium for their signature final two victories.

Boston was able to carry their historic momentum into the World Series, making short work of the St. Louis Cardinals in a 4-0 sweep, tallying eight consecutive playoff wins and securing their first World Series Championship in 86 years. The Curse had indeed been reversed. But as some players noted in interviews at the time, something about defeating them Yanks felt more satisfying than receiving their rings. Director Gary Waksman certainly seems to agree. Their dominance in the World Series becomes such an afterthought here, making only a brief appearance in the form of a line of text slotted in at the end credits.

Though, it sort of makes sense for Four Days in October to play out as more of an underdog story than an encapsulation of their entire too-good-to-be-scripted postseason run. October 17, 18, 19 and 20 were the most pivotal of all, and they successfully encouraged the seething hatred shared between the two cities to peak at perhaps an all-time high. There’s a strong, prideful, cultural component to the film that may not be understood or that does not translate well to those who aren’t represented by the talking heads in this film — including Boston native and series creator Bill Simmons — but that which is integral to the experience. The real meat-n-potatoes of this rivalry is the tension underlining every pitch, every stolen base, every out, every controversial call.

On the matter of controversial calls (this really is a perfect segue): one of the pivotal acts, one of the defining moments of not only the series but of this film is the now legendary performance put on by Curt Schilling in Game 6, in which he pitched like a man possessed — or perhaps just in delirium from the pain he was in — against the Yankees, at Yankee Stadium, allowing only a single run in seven innings while his right sock turned red from blood loss following an impromptu medical procedure that allowed him to play. His heroic effort, along with some clutch homers from none other than David Ortiz enabled the Sox to best the pinstripes 4-2, forcing a decider and putting the Yankees even further back on their heels, heels that were threatening to give way at any moment.

The controversy? Four Days in October‘s original format runs fifteen-ish minutes longer than what you’ll find on TV now. The (six-year-old) film has been trimmed to fit within the hour block in an effort to accommodate live games that sometimes often run long. There are several episodes within 30 for 30‘s first season alone that fit within that time block, but few of them feel as obviously affected by editing as this. What’s worse, the nature of what’s missing from the final reel — a substantial amount of Schilling’s Game 6 performance — would have undoubtedly elevated the drama. It often feels cheap and lazy to criticize something based on stuff that’s not there or stuff you think you want to see included but no sports fan is going to say there isn’t enough material in this particular chapter of a storied rivalry to fill a time block twice as long. Or more.

Adding to the drama around the production is the acrimonious manner in which Schilling and ESPN parted ways earlier this year after the former pitcher (who had worked for ESPN for six years almost to the day) yet again engaged in what was deemed a social media no-no (particularly for employees who regularly appear on camera). He tweeted a rather radical political image that commented on North Carolina’s recent law changes regarding bathroom use for transgender people, a move that put the Worldwide Leader in Sports in a not-so-difficult position. They kinda had to fire him. There’s conspiracy, and fan paranoia can run rampant if left unchecked, and then there’s what can only be described as bad publicity. The re-cut version of the film aired after Schilling’s firing, and Schilling didn’t much appreciate it. Don’t you just hate it when things become overly political? I hate that Four Days in October slightly suffers because of these distractions.

Working with what we have here, there’s still plenty to become invested in, even if you’re not a believer in America’s pastime being a game that often lasts five hours long. The documentary features some truly compelling highs: Dave Roberts’ game-saving stolen bases; Ortiz’ walk-off home runs; A-Rod getting handsy with Bronson Arroyo (who could forget?). A good chunk of audience reaction and fan celebration — mostly the Red Sox faithful, occasionally a New Yorker with their mouth agape — is spliced in with soundbites from players and their little moments in front of the camera. The enthusiasm behind the scenes is genuinely contagious. If there’s one thing that isn’t missing in Waksman’s film, it’s the heart and soul of Boston baseball. This is unabashedly a film for those dedicated fans, and why shouldn’t it be. This really is a remarkable story.

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Recommendation: Unfortunate that some extracurricular stuff comes into play here, but Four Days in October is nonetheless sufficiently exciting and recounts several of the defining moments throughout that stunning week in the postseason. Bostonians have this one set on replay every fall, while Yankee fans, I just don’t see making the effort to track this down, even if it is right there on Netflix. I don’t blame them. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 53 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.beyondhe.com.au; http://www.foxsports.com 

30-for-30: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

30-for-30-small-potatoes-movie-poster

Release: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

[Netflix]

Directed by: Mike Tollin

When Donald Trump made the ‘small potatoes’ remark it was after he had wrapped up an interview with the director for this very documentary. He was referring to his dalliance with sports team ownership, his dismissiveness hinting at days that were so far in the rearview he couldn’t even see them anymore. He was already over it, the way you get over a summer fling.

In the early 1980s Trump briefly owned a franchise within the United States Football League — the New Jersey Generals — before growing bored with it and selling it to an Oklahoma oil magnate who in turn sold it back because he couldn’t keep pace with the travel schedule required to watch his team play. Trump did agree to speak candidly about his involvement with the USFL so anything seemed fair game. However, at the time of the interview (sometime in 2009), Trump’s magnificent hair was already thinning, evidence that at this point his image was so firmly cemented he no longer seemed obligated to care about his hair. And if he didn’t care about how thin his hair looked, how could he possibly still care about a business venture that fizzled out all the way back in 1986?

Mike Tollin (executive producer of such shows as All That, Smallville and One Tree Hill) seeks multiple perspectives rather than going all Salem Witch Trial as he tries to find out the cause of the USFL’s collapse a mere three years after its establishment. A variety of interviews with former players, coaches and team owners alike — Burt Reynolds even weighs in — are spliced in between segments from the present-day Trump interview.

The USFL was first envisioned by a New Orleans businessman named David Dixon some 17 years before Trump’s acquisition of the Generals in 1983 helped legitimize the league as something worth investing not only money but time into. The establishment of the league was predicated on the notion it would run differently than its older and more popular brother, the NFL, which played its schedule through the fall season, concluding with the Superbowl in February. The USFL, then, would be played in the spring and summer months, capped off with a National Championship game. Following what was known as ‘The Dixon Plan,’ the USFL found the inaugural season somewhat successful though crowd attendance and media exposure disappointing. It was after that first season franchise owners started having eyes larger than their stomachs.

The Dixon Plan had set into place limits on spending and had also helped teams secure prominent locations where they would play their games, all moves which helped make the USFL a little more competitive with the NFL, even if that was ultimately not the intent. Not until Trump, anyway. The advent of legendary running back Herschel Walker, who cost Trump a whopping $4 million, indicated a shift in the league’s priorities — rather than looking towards long-term security team owners began signing higher-profile talent which ultimately broke many a franchise’s bank, with single-player signings often exceeding salary cap space four or five times over.

There were other significant moves made that steered the USFL toward an altogether uncertain and less stable future. With Trump’s business savvy he began poaching NFL talent and even went after collegiate players in an effort to “level the playing field.” This ultimately triggered yet another out-of-control spending spree and further set the league back financially. But that was nothing compared to what the Donald had up his sleeve next. In perceiving the USFL to be an organization that could possibly rival the more institutionalized NFL, Trump advocated for a schedule change so the games could be shown on TV alongside those other “more important” games.

In 1985 everything changed when the league decided to pursue an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL for their monopolization of television markets. It was a disastrous move that all but spelled the end for the USFL. Over the last season many teams had already folded or had merged with other more notable franchises, and Trump’s Generals was still trying to pile on the star talent to make them the team to beat. While the court ruled in favor of the USFL there would be no flags for excessive celebrations. Damages amounted to a grand total of $4 (that’s not a typo — they had a check cut in the amount of $3.67 or something), which is not quite enough to get franchises up and running again. No one, not even Trump’s sexified Generals, would see a fall season of action.

Small Potatoes, for obvious reasons, leans heavily on the business side of things and while that could spell boredom to many viewers, it’s a narrative that only gets more interesting as it goes on. We needn’t live in denial; the real game is played behind the scenes rather than on the field and the competition is far uglier. What had begun as a potentially prosperous and exciting alternative to mainstream football had been decimated by a series of hasty, if not altogether poor decisions that were never actually made in the league’s best interests. David Dixon would be spinning in his grave if he ever knew what became of his idea.

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the-donald

Recommendation: Packed with fascinating insight into the inner workings of a fledgling football league, Small Potatoes, one of the very earliest installments, asks that simple question: who’s responsible for the USFL’s sudden disappearance? There’s something bittersweet about this film, about knowing how dominant the NFL has become over the years and realizing that even if the USFL hadn’t folded in the 80s, it almost assuredly would have in the 90s and early 2000s. I also had no idea Donald Trump ever owned a football team, so that was fascinating in and of itself. It’s also funny coming to the realization that apparently he was never good enough to become an NFL franchise owner. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 51 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . . ]

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.youtube.com

30-for-30: Four Falls of Buffalo

'Four Falls of Buffalo' movie poster

Release: Saturday, December 12, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Ken Rodgers

It’s easy to see why Ken Rodgers’ retrospective has been described as a love letter, not just to sports fanatics but to the city of Buffalo itself. Pro football has a certain stigma attached to it in this part of the country. The Bills are more freely associated with blown opportunities than they are with blowing out their opponents. Four Falls of Buffalo chooses to block out all that noise, focusing on the positives rather than the negatives — not an easy thing to do all things considered.

The film recounts a period in the early 1990s in which the Bills managed to make four consecutive Superbowl appearances. Unfortunately they lost every one of those games and typically in heartbreaking fashion. Influenced by nostalgia and reverence for accomplishments the rest of the nation dismissed instead as embarrassments, the tone often strikes deep chasms of melancholy and the story, much like a devoted fanbase that braves frigid winter temperatures for the sake of a good pre-game tailgate, longs for different results in the Wins/Losses columns. But as the cliché goes, if you were to ask members of the ’91-’94 squad if they would do it all again, you’d receive a resounding response in the affirmative.

After all, it’s not every season you see last year’s Superbowl “losers” return to the big stage. And then do it again, and then a third time. Four Falls of Buffalo shows how history can be interpreted in lots of different ways, and those recounting it here show impressive levels of stoicism as former players and executives alike open old wounds by reliving the moments. Rodgers works through the timeline chronologically, focusing on the unique situations that arose on each Superbowl occasion: missed field goal opportunities, mysteriously disappearing helmets, excessive trash-talking, critical missed tackles.

Along the way actor William Fichtner, a Buffalo native, steers us through the major events that shaped the era. Viewers are invited into the personal and professional lives of this rich fraternity of football talent. Here are but a few stand-outs:

  1. Jim Kelly, quarterback (1986-1996). Kelly once spurned the harsh wintry environs of northern New York for a couple of seasons to play in the United States Football League, but when the USFL folded he decided to check out what Buffalo was all about. He then spent his entire professional career with that team, his incredible athleticism and devotion to the community marking him as a fan favorite. In the comfort of his home he draws parallels between the mental battle he endured in those Superbowl defeats and his private battle with cancer. He also bravely discusses the impact the loss of his 8-year-old son Hunter had on him.
  2. Scott Norwood, kicker (1985-1991). It’s long been debated whether it was Norwood’s failed 47-yard field goal attempt — a miss so famous you can dig out the footage just by Googling ‘wide right’ — or if it was the way the game went that put the kicker into a position he never should have been in that ultimately cost the Bills their first Superbowl victory. Watching him relive the moment face-to-face with Rodgers and his camera crew is surprisingly difficult. Perhaps it was his honesty and refusal to hide from the media in the immediate aftermath that established Norwood as one of the most class acts you will ever see, not just in a professional athlete but in a person.
  3. Thurman Thomas, running back (1988-1999). Thomas became a crucial component in the “no huddle offense” inspired by Kelly’s preference for up-tempo football, a style of play that netted the team four consecutive division titles. Unfortunately he didn’t always benefit from such attention. Thomas has never been able to untangle himself from a series of misfortunes speculated to have played some part in the Bills’ losses. The first hiccup was his helmet being removed from its usual spot (on the 34-yard line) by stadium officials setting up the stage for Harry Connick Jr.’s Superbowl Halftime Show, a fit of confusion that ultimately resulted in him missing a few critical plays. The next year Thomas created a costly turnover which was converted into a pivotal Dallas Cowboys touchdown. And the fourth and final Superbowl he wasn’t able to impact the game as he would have liked thanks to an ailing body. Despite all that, fans have continued to revere him as one of the great household names.
  4. Don Beebe, wide receiver (1989-1994). As one of the fastest runners in the open field in NFL history, Beebe has been linked to one particularly stunning play — his chasing down of Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett, who was so sure he had a touchdown that he slowed down before the goal line only to have a rude awakening in the form of the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Beebe. The man was clearly destined for glory and went on to join the 1996 Superbowl-winning Green Bay Packers. His justification for leaving may not sit well with everyone but, and lest we forget, at the end of the day football is a business.
  5. Bill Polian, general manager (1984-1992). It’s not often we pay much attention to the front office, but Polian seems an exception — an amiable sort with a great love for Buffalo and the game itself. He rose to league prominence with his assemblage of the four-time-Superbowl-appearing squad, even if he wouldn’t be around to manage them during their fourth run at the title. Polian is now an analyst with ESPN.

Four Falls of Buffalo develops into a powerful testament to the pride and character of a community long plagued by hardship — a not-so-great economy, bad weather, even worse football. Season in, season out Buffalo endures. Looking back, the ’90s were comparatively an oasis amidst a sea of mediocrity. No one on the current roster was even in the league the last time the Bills saw a post-season. Indeed, many dark days have followed since. And they will continue to come.

But silly little things like “losing relevance” and “credibility” in terms of how they have stacked  up against the competition ever since don’t really seem to bother Bills fans. It still hasn’t really stopped them partying in hot tubs in near-subzero temperatures before games. That’s a spirit no force of nature, not even a bullheaded NFL commissioner can extinguish.

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Bills kicker Scott Norwood

Recommendation: For Buffalo Bills fans, it’s a must-watch. The tradeoff for reliving painful memories is watching a film treat your hometown/city/whatever with the respect and dignity it deserves. It also is a good one to watch to gain a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices professional athletes make. So often sports are dismissed as trivial events, and perhaps in the grand scheme of things they are, but Four Falls of Buffalo is a great story, one that has much to offer even casual fans. (Full video included below . . . with apologies in advance for the quality of the audio.)  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone . . . ]

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Photo credits: http://www.usa.newonnetflix.info; http://www.cuyahogafalls.trade 

30-for-30: The ’85 Bears

'The 85 Bears' movie poster

Release: Thursday, February 4, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jason Hehir 

There will never be another quite like the 1985 Chicago Bears defense. Or their offense. Or their coach(es). Or their cult of personality. If you’re from the area you probably don’t need the reminding, but Jason Hehir’s surprisingly moving documentary makes it abundantly clear to the outside observer that times have certainly changed.

Today fans are expected to embrace quarterback Jay Cutler, a Vanderbilt alum who looks like he might cry at any given moment. Sure, the guy’s built Ford tough but I’m convinced neither he nor the cast that surrounds him is as entertaining as the freak show the mid-80s spawned. Granted, Cutler is also no Doug Flutie. Under the thumb of head coach Mike Ditka and his defensive coordinator, the late Buddy Ryan, the Bears were less of a sports team than they were a hit squad powered by a trifecta of brute athleticism, mental tenacity and celebrity swagger. There was no pretense about them; they were the real deal, asserting their dominance throughout an historic regular season campaign and an even scarier post-season run that netted the great city of Chicago its first and so far only Superbowl victory.

The ’85 Bears, narrated by Vince Vaughn (who also executive-produced), is a love letter to those glory days, gathering together the surviving members of the team (may Sweetness rest in peace) for a candid chat about how they viewed themselves as young, emerging stars as well as their thoughts on the legacy they ultimately shaped. There’s a lot of the banter and inside joking that one expects from former players reliving their heyday — the way Hehir’s able to cozy up to a group of guys who have never seemed so vulnerable is a major factor in the film’s appeal — but undoubtedly one of the most intriguing aspects is the running discussion about the Bears’ unique coaching situation. What happens when you have two alpha males jockeying for a position of authority?

One would naturally assume nothing but dysfunction. In this case you’d assume incorrectly. In this case you get the formula for establishing a championship caliber team. And yeah, okay, a little dysfunction as well. Ditka vs. Ryan: a heavyweight bout, a battle of contrasts forged out of the former’s gruff, urban machismo and the latter’s rural southern roots, one that resulted in an oft-icy tension between the two on and off the field. Players recall Ditka becoming irked by Ryan’s insistence that weekly practices assume the same level of physical intensity actual games demanded. Ditka didn’t deem it necessary for players to sustain injuries during practice, a point of view that is as understandable as Ryan’s, who believed the only way to victory is through militaristic discipline and routine. (After all, his ’76 – ’77 Minnesota Vikings didn’t earn the nickname ‘Purple People Eaters’ because they stood around crocheting during scrimmages.)

The ’85 Bears feels more like a family reunion than a sports documentary. Relationships trump all, be they ones characterized by conflicting egotism or remembered for their controversial nature. If you’ve never met Jim MacMahon, the successor to Walter Payton (according to some, the greatest Bear that ever lived) and a BYU alum, wait until you get a load of him here. MacMahon’s infamous appearances at press conferences with a beer in hand or his off-hand comments about how people in New Orleans are all ugly and dumb may have earned him a certain reputation, but his contributions on the field spoke for themselves . . . even if his habit of improvising plays routinely frustrated Ditka.

Then of course there’s Mike Singletary, who now finds himself shouldering assistant coaching duties for the recently relocated Los Angeles Rams. Many of the interviews are information-dense and insightful enough on their own but it’s Singletary’s recounting of a once-turbulent relationship with Ryan that gives the film a beating heart. Watching him visit Ryan at home as he deals with increasing health problems is both touching and a reminder that football is more than a game. It is family. And good luck keeping a dry eye when Hehir exposes the handwritten letter Ryan wrote to his players. We also meet William “The Fridge” Perry, who remains to this day one of the largest men to ever don a football uniform at 6′ 2″ and 335 pounds. Well-spoken and extremely amiable, Perry’s demeanor is the epitome of, in MacMahon’s own words, the “big, happy fat guy.”

The ’85 Bears makes it clear no opponent looked forward to dealing with them. If other rivals — namely Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers and the Windy City’s BFFs the Green Bay Packers — claimed they happily embraced the challenge of solving Ryan’s smothering defense or MacMahon’s ability to change plays at will while maintaining a high completion percentage, they were lying. Few, if any, teams looked forward to getting broken the way the Bears broke people. Their physical brutality all but locks the narrative in a time capsule, particularly as the league today continues to feign a stronger interest in advocating for the well-being of its players, both active and retired. One can’t help but think that such an evolution has naturally come about as a direct result of this epic chapter in Chicago’s storied football history.

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Buddy Ryan and Mike Singletary share a moment

Recommendation: Thoroughly entertaining and moving in equal measure, The ’85 Bears is much more than a film about a rare collection of football talent. It is about legacy, about pride and about how sports bring people together. I absolutely love this one. One of the best ESPN films has to offer. Definitely seek this out if you come to the realization that this chunk of NFL history is one of your blind spots.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “You know when there’s a pack of wild dogs, if one of them is mean, they’re all going to be mean. Guys are getting their asses handed to them out there.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.usa.newonnetflix.info; http://www.chicagotribune.com