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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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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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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30-for-30: Survive and Advance

'Survive and Advance' movie poster

Release: Sunday, March 17, 2013

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jonathan Hock

Thrown off balance by Houston’s sudden switch to the zone defense, the North Carolina State Wolfpack, “the cardiac kids,” scrapped to find a last-second shot that would once again elevate them over their opponent and into the upper echelon of improbable victories. But there were seven seconds left on the clock and Houston was frustrating almost every available option. Finally, a dangerous cross-court pass to Dereck Whittenburg at the top of the key. He was 30 feet from the basket when the ball went up.

In hindsight, of course that shot was going to go in . . . well, in a way. The shot came up short but power forward Lorenzo Charles was there for the put-back to lift the sixth-seeded NC State over #1 Houston in one of the most iconic college basketball moments of the 20th Century. In the aftermath, college hoops was gifted one of the more amusing and simultaneously heartwarming sequences of video feed: head coach Jim “Jimmy V” Valvano running around on the court, looking for someone to embrace and finally grabbing some random fan before his players finally found him in the crowd. Seriously, what does a guy have to do to get a hug?!

You couldn’t find a Hollywood script that had an ending like this. And even if you could find someone who would write this Cinderella story, good luck casting the parts — Jimmy V in particular. If it’s not the sheer unlikelihood of the Wolfpack’s nine consecutive come-back victories, seven of which they were losing in the final minute of play, then surely it’s the enigmatic, emotional and beloved head coach that makes this story one for the ages. This is the kind of thaumaturgy sports fanatics would drag their better halves to a theater for to prove sports are something worth investing your time in.

Jonathan Hock, a nine-time Emmy Award-winning sports documentarian, weaves together two distinct but inextricably linked stories in a patchwork of emotion and nostalgia for an era that has long since passed. One story, set in the present, finds the members of the 1983 squad gathering for a reunion at a small restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, where they share and compare stories and memories of their collegiate careers. The other constructs a profile of Jimmy V, introducing him as an enigmatic, emotional and supremely confident young coach before integrating him further into the community after he boldly announces to his players on the first day that he will win the national championship.

But this is far more than a pep talk about the vitality of team synergy, a filmic letter of encouragement to future college prospects. In the process of forming the shape of the now iconic head coach Survive and Advance, a title that dually serves practical and philosophical purposes, also traces how Valvano embraced life challenges, namely his cancer diagnosis, post-college coaching. Part of that profile building is laced with painful reminders of how fleeting the moments that define not only players and coaches but people, ordinary people, really are. Valvano’s appearances at NC State 10 years after the win and at the 1993 ESPY Awards are masterfully placed within the context of the story.

Though the facade may look and feel familiar (this is not the first time a documentary crew has become invested in a miracle team, and that’s just within the realm of this sport), Survive and Advance is nonetheless one of the best that ESPN’s long-running series has to offer, manifesting as a classic underdog story whose ability to inspire transcends college athletics and for that matter, the world of competitive sport. It’s the essence of the personnel that make it great, but also difficult to write a review without waxing lyrical about the coaching, about the circumstances or the conviction Hock has in the notion that sports teams are family units.

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Recommendation: This particular documentary is one of this reviewer’s favorites, as it offers one of the most emotionally satisfying and at times devastating narratives available in the series. I doubt I’m talking to anyone else here but the college hoop fans but even if you hold a general curiosity about miraculous stories, I highly recommend giving this one a shot, if for no other reason than the chance to familiarize yourself with the wonderful human being that was Jim Valvano. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “Every day, every single day, and in every walk of life, ordinary people do extraordinary things. Ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things.”

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30-for-30: Guru of Go

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Release: Saturday, April 3, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Bill Couterié

When Loyola Marymount University’s Hank Gathers dropped to the hardwood without warning, his teammates and close friends thought he was fooling around. It was a fair assumption to make given the charismatic player’s inability to take anything seriously off the court. But an irregular heart rhythm wasn’t anything to joke about. After the frightening event he was put on medication in an attempt to control the condition, but as the combined pressures of being in the West Coast Championship Tournament along with his greatly reduced efficiency on the floor due to the prescribed drugs began to mount Gathers’ overwhelming confidence in his ability to overcome anything foreshadowed tragedy.

On Sunday, March 4, 1990 in the WCC semifinal against the Portland Pilots Hank collapsed again after a blistering drive to the basket for a slam dunk. This time he wouldn’t be getting up.

Documentarian Bill Couterié presents an emotional but restrained film that pays tribute to the obscenely short lifespan of a talented college player whose prospects of going pro were more than decent. However, Guru of Go centers around the controversial fast-break playing style (known nationwide as ‘The System,’ where the team would run virtually non-stop the entire game) enacted by LMU head coach Paul Westhead and how this may have played a role in the premature death of the school’s star player.

One of the more common criticisms leveled at the game by non-fans is that too many points are amassed for the individual shots to really mean anything. However you feel about the scoring system in basketball, there’s a caveat to bear in mind: no one scored more than Westhead’s squad during the 1990 season, who averaged 122 points per game. Though it’s an outdated style of play for LMU, particularly in the wake of that tragic game, some aspects of ‘The System’ have survived generations of play. After all, modern basketball has adapted to a much faster pace, played with superstar athletes who exist in many fans’ minds as gods and goddesses. In Westhead’s mind ‘The System’ is a thing of beauty, an application that has defined who he is as a coach and the teams he’s implemented it with over a 40-plus-year span. Most recently that would be the WNBA team the Phoenix Mercury. He currently is the only head coach to claim both an NBA (with the Los Angeles Lakers) and a WNBA title (with the Mercury).

Guru of Go, in such a brief running time, makes time for interviews with Gathers’ former LMU teammates, his brother Derrick, and Coach Westhead, while setting up enough context at the beginning for viewers to get a feel for the time and place in which this particularly talented athlete — undoubtedly the pride and joy of the Californian college of the late ’80s — ran into one of the most brutal game strategies ever implemented. ‘The System’ was designed to condition LMU to be able to strengthen as the game clock ran on, whereas typical teams unaccustomed to running so much would by and large be weakening. It really was a beautiful concept, but was it too much for players, even ones as talented and seemingly built to last like Hank Gathers?

Couterié briefly delves into the ugly reality following LMU’s strong run in the college championship tournament when the Gathers family sued both the school and Hank’s doctor for negligence. While this side of the story may have deserved further examination, Guru of Go is clearly aimed at lifting spirits rather than drowning viewers in sorrow and finger-pointing. In some way, the questions left unanswered in this documentary serve to add to the legacy of Gathers. How could such a triumphant player go down so suddenly? Of course life is not fair, but this is one example of how sobering that sentiment really can be.

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3-5Recommendation: If you find yourself a fan of college basketball I doubt I need to recommend this important bit of film to you. You either have it lined up to watch at some point or have already seen it, possibly many times. Guru of Go comes highly recommended to anyone wanting to know a bit more about the landscape of college basketball in general. (I knew zilch about Loyola Marymount, personally, so that was cool.) The story of Hank Gathers and Coach Westhead’s approach to the game is not one to miss. 

Rated: N/R

Running Time: 60 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone.]

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