30-for-30: Trojan War

30 for 30 Trojan War

Release: Tuesday, October 13, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Aaron Rahsaan Thomas

Another story lamenting how the mighty have fallen. That’s how Trojan War will look to anyone not familiar with the University of Southern California, Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks . . . or really American football in general.

Carroll and his Seahawks have long been associated with some of the sport’s most recognizable brands, yet all this attention hasn’t always benefitted them. To a certain extent, that fall-from-grace trajectory is the genesis for the drama herein, although its exposure of infamous personnel (as well as famous personalities) is where the film sets itself apart.

Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, who brings much experience writing and producing popular television series such as Southland, CSI: New York and Sleepy Hollow, turns the spotlight on the former head coach of the USC Trojans, rewinding the tape to reveal what events precipitated his jump back into the NFL after nearly a decade of coaching inspiring college athletes in a part of the country where stardom isn’t exactly hard to come by. (The campus is but a stone’s throw away from the entertainment capital of the world.)

The Carroll era kicked off in 2001 and ended in 2009. In that time, he resuscitated a program that found itself on life support having struggled through one of the worst four-year stretches in USC history, a period in which the Trojans were essentially cropped out of the national collegiate football picture, failing to crack the top 20 in the national rankings from 1996 until 2000. Trojan War rushes through backstory, hastily developing the environment into which the new head coach would be stepping before slowing down to catch its breath and focusing on what happened in the early 2000s.

The 2004 and 2005 seasons are of particular interest, for these were the years during which Carroll and quarterback Matt “Lion Heart” Leinart led USC to 34 consecutive victories, tying the fifth longest winning streak in Division I football history. Consequently they’re also the years upon which current and past USC players and alums reflect with deep-seated bitterness. In the interviews with former players like LenDale White and Leinart, even Carroll himself, you can sense the discomfort and tension. And for good reason.

In 2010 the NCAA wrapped up a protracted investigation into violations involving star running back Reggie Bush (who played for Carroll from 2003-2005), and went on to hand down particularly harsh penalties against the school: USC was required to vacate all of its wins from the 2004 and 2005 seasons, including Bowl games; they were banned from participating in postseason games for two years as of the 2010 season; Bush was stripped of his Heisman trophy and his name permanently scrubbed from the record books. The school also forfeited 30 scholarships over the next three years.

For all intents and purposes, those years of dominance ceased to exist — years during which their profile had risen so high it wasn’t unusual to brush shoulders with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Henry Winkler, Spike Lee, Flea (of course), Jake Gyllenhaal and Andre 3000, just to name a few celebrities, at any given game. Blame it on Carroll, said the NCAA; he was the one who had fostered an environment that was both unhealthy and unstable. The specific language cited a “lack of institutional control.”

Yet ultimately these dark days don’t represent the spirit of Trojan War. Thomas, perhaps conscious of the pain the school is still experiencing now five years after the findings, elects to spend more time backtracking down the path to greatness that the team once journeyed throughout those years, reminding skeptics just how effective Carroll’s coaching and his squad were as they met each team with ever mounting confidence and matching up against old rivalries such as UCLA and Notre Dame with a cockiness that felt earned rather than created out of spite.

He profiles a few of the star athletes — including Bush (who appears in archived footage but never in live interviews for the documentary as he’s presumably trying to put this chapter behind him) and LenDale White, who comprised the ‘thunder’ part of the USC “thunder-and-lightning” duo — while taking time to assess Carroll’s thoughts and feelings on this part of his coaching career. Actor Michael B. Jordan narrates. Yes, it is all a little generic and clichéd but it does serve at least one purpose. The NCAA can wipe clean from the slate any set of numbers and names they like but in the minds and hearts of those who paid attention to this club, this is the kind of legacy not even the slow, inevitable passing of time can render irrelevant.

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Pete Carroll and the USC Trojans leave the field after another display of dominance

Recommendation: Trojan War will speak louder to California football fans but it should provide a sufficiently intriguing story to those who have been fascinated by Pete Carroll’s energetic personality. It could also benefit from a longer running time but I doubt a three hour feature would capture everything about this dynamic period either. This is a pretty worthwhile option for passionate followers of the sport and it’s right there on Netflix.  

Rated: TV-PG

Running Time: 77 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone.]

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30-for-30: The Legend of Jimmy the Greek

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Release: Tuesday, November 10, 2009

[Netflix]

Directed by: Fritz Mitchell

I’m wondering who in this room would recognize the name Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos. I’d be willing to bet many more might if I then revealed this was merely the less-glamorous birth name given to the one and only Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder.

And if you’re still finding yourself asking, “Who?” — that’s perfectly okay. The controversial sportscaster was a fixture for those tuning in to CBS’s popular pre-game show, The NFL Today, during the mid-1970s and through the ’80s before he was (some say deservedly) fired for making off-the-cuff remarks about black athletes being superior to whites. Frankly, anyone not of the thinking that off-track betting and professional football go hand-in-hand probably don’t much care for The Greek’s bold approach to sports journalism.

Snyder should be considered as something of a man before his time, though to call him a visionary would be a little sensational. He was, in a sense, a niched journalist before the advent of social media gave rise to the bona fide niched market. If The Greek were alive today he’d easily have his own show, based solely on his curious, roughshod mannerisms and enthusiastic way of presenting information.

Not to mention the fact the man had trouble disenfranchising himself with the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas, where he learned how to build himself as an effective and respected gambler. He took the skills he acquired there and applied them to betting the odds of things happening (or not happening) during football season. As evidenced in seven-time Emmy Award-winning documentarian Fritz Mitchell’s contribution to 30-for-30, its a strategy that paid off for The Greek in more areas than just sports.

One of his more impressive gambles — the one used as a catalyst for the film’s dramatic unraveling — was a bet Jimmy made on the odds of incumbent President Harry Truman (very unpopular circa 1948) surviving against incoming presidential hopeful Tom Dewey. He based his hunches on the fact that of the many women he had polled that year, mustaches like the one worn by Dewey weren’t exactly a popular style. In one of the greatest presidential election upsets in history, The Greek seemingly validated his quirky intuition and market research.

The Greek went on to make several impressive bets that are elucidated throughout this hour-long documentary. Mitchell captures the man’s interesting life (and lifestyle) using a combination of interviews ranging in tone and objectivity — featuring the likes of Jimmy’s former colleagues, and some bigger names many are likely to recognize (Dan Rather) — and an overlaid narration created by someone who sounds quite like the deep booming voice Jimmy possessed. The film also includes several amusing clips taken exclusively from CBS and their affiliates.

The most rewarding aspect to this particular installment in the series is witnessing the varied reactions of those who knew him with appropriately varying degrees of intimacy, and hearing what it is they have to say now. Jimmy passed away in 1996, and many have coldly dismissed the event as a matter of inevitability. Death by broken heart. After his racist comments were made public, the great Greek never worked a job in news again. His spirit crushed, he would return to Vegas, tail between his legs and become lost to the machine of ill-advised gambling and scheming.

The heartbreaking documentary harps on the inevitable downfall of a once-proud journalist, in the process making a particular comment about the state of his funeral that left this reviewer cold but moreover sympathetic to a man who may not have made the best decisions in public, but one who knew what he loved and tried to die defending it. We of course all make mistakes, and for Jimmy it seemed the timing could not have been worse. This is the ultimate impact of Mitchell’s film.

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3-5Recommendation: Those who grew up watching CBS’s The NFL Today will get more of a kick out of this particular entry than those who did not. Fritz Mitchell makes the discussion lively and open to general interest viewers, as well, of course. This may be a pretty obscure docu but the entertainment/intrigue factor here have long-ranging implications in the world of sports. General sports fans surely will find something to be surprised by here, and if this is the first time meeting Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, what a welcoming it will be for you.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 60 mins.

[No trailer available. Sorry everyone.]

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30-for-30: Bad Boys

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Release: Thursday, April 17, 2014

[ESPN]

Love ’em, hate ’em, you don’t even know ’em. And for most people who grew up following pro basketball in the 1980s, you didn’t give a damn about ’em, or their back-to-back championship titles in 1989 and 1990.

The circle of those who actually did care barely encompassed the city of Detroit, Michigan. The rest of the league not only didn’t care about the talented Isiah Thomas and his merry band of basketball punks, but they couldn’t stand them. In fact the general opinion of this team was so bitterly divided ‘Bad Boys of Detroit‘ actually became a galvanizing chant that could be heard echoing off the glass and concrete of this city. Elsewhere, the name was something to be cursed.

This time, confidence wasn’t building only to be dropped like a brick the next moment. Starting with the draft of Isiah Thomas from the University of Indiana in 1981, the team began a multi-year reconstruction process that would throw the door wide open for future criticisms, controversies and career-defining moments. Their environment embraced the storm of critics as if welcoming home a friend or family member at the airport. The attitude was growing and the games played against the Pistons were becoming “dirtier.” Everyone knew this, and not everyone loved it.

Detroit did, though.

Specifically what they loved was their team’s physicality on the court, as it represented a new, stronger gusto for winning. ‘Game face’ was now more like ‘maul-his-face.’ The Pistons of the day were most known for two players that particularly drew ire from opponents and their crowds: the big, physically dominant Rick Mahorn and the equally (if not more) controversial and clunky Bill Laimbeer, a goon who loved to taunt and be a general nuisance on the hardwood. Between the two of them, more fights and more player ejections occurred than with any other Piston.

Then there were quieter contributors like Vinnie Johnson, also known as ‘The Microwave’ for slowly but surely heating up as the games went on, becoming an incredibly clutch performer down the stretches of many a playoff series. The 1989 squad would emerge as one of the most competitive units Detroit had put on the court in years, one that would be willing to do anything to win. Anything on the court, that is. Fortunately the team’s reputation didn’t also include a propensity for hard-partying. (Or they at least avoided making the news while doing so.)

By comparison, off-court antics (read: distractions) might have been preferable for anyone not a fan of the Bad Boys. Then-head coach Chuck Daly emphasized a physical presence that bordered on UFC brawling with the opponent, a teeny little characteristic that separated them fairly efficiently from the rest of the league’s style of play. But oh buddy was it effective; they won 63 (of 82 total) games in the 1989 season, shattering their old season-best 54-28. This was due to the addition of more players who were keen on implementing Daly’s street-ball mentality. That year, they had the opportunity to use them against a team they had lost to in the finals the year before. And that year, they not only prevailed over the Lakers, they won four consecutive in the final seven-game series, effectively sweeping one of the most elite teams in the nation at the time.

Not only was Detroit aggravating in the sense they were so effective in riling up opponents — frequently becoming the source of multiple player brawls and ejections in those years — their completely frowned-upon game plan actually led to success. This was clearly a reality the other teams couldn’t handle. They even managed to piss off MJ, albeit for starkly different reasons.

When their cage-match-style approach to the game led to a second consecutive title only then it was official: the Bad Boys of Detroit were the ones to beat. Some to this day adamantly deny that they contend for ‘legacy’ status, however. They never quite reached it in the same way that teams like the Boston Celtics (a team that to this day holds the longest consecutive championship winning streak of any American professional sports team, with eight amassed from 1959 to 1966) or the Los Angeles Lakers (who’re only one championship ring shy of the Celtics’ total) had; and the Detroit Pistons lacked any sort of player who was likable outside of the city, even despite many personnel changes over the years.

Somewhat ironically, being the thorn in everyone’s side had given the dent in basketball history that Detroit had been needing to make; not necessarily the controversies so much as the back-to-back championship titles, with the win over the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989 arguably being the more rewarding of the two. This documentary gives fascinating insight into the culture that sparked inside the Pistons locker room, with the backdrop of a city clinging to any hope of making championship runs in the 1980s. It is packed with footage of games gone awry, with several interviews clearly marked with still latent heat over certain memories of games long ago.

The Bad Boys represent something of a bygone era in professional basketball. The game of today is far more regulated, with players being kept more at an arm’s length rather than being allowed to get right up in each other’s faces; the Bill Laimbeer’s of today are certainly less aggressive even if they still are thorny little pricks. Some say the game has lost intensity, lost its edge. It has certainly done a decent job expelling the fever-pitch animosity like the one directed toward the Detroit locker room of the 1980s.

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4-0Recommendation: This most recent installment in the 30-for-30 film series is informative as it is revealing. It shows a different side of basketball, a more desperate and certainly more controversial side. For basketball fans, clearly, but specifically for those wanting to know more about this interesting period in Detroit Piston history. Why do I get the feeling that this is an extremely niched documentary, though. . .?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 101 mins.

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30-for-30: The Price of Gold

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Release: Thursday, January 16, 2014

[ESPN]

Why? Why? Why. . . .wasn’t there more security in the building at the time of the incident?

In this relatively high-profile documentary, we are entreated to an inside look into the lives of two gifted female figure skaters — Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan — and how their worlds would ultimately intersect in dramatic fashion prior to the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, which took place in Lillehammer, Norway.

Academy Award-nominated director Nanette Burstein, whose filmography includes feature films such as Going the Distance, The Kid Stays in the Picture and a documentary spoof on The Breakfast Club called American Teen, takes on the responsibility of revealing the truth of what happened behind the curtains — literally — following Nancy Kerrigan’s practice skate session the evening of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Kerrigan, having barely left the ice, was assaulted by an unidentified man and clubbed across her right knee with a police baton, rendering her unable to skate for the competition and quite possibly for the upcoming Olympics.

ESPN’s latest 30-for-30 couldn’t have had better timing, what with the Sochi Games a mere three weeks away. Burstein’s work here is all the more impacting thanks to the (okay. . .yes, intentional) scheduling of its airing. Centering around an exclusive interview with Tonya Harding with a variety of other interviewees both current and past, The Price of Gold buries its head into the controversy and tries to establish who was responsible for the attack. It has other goals as well, such as verifying whether or not this could have been an attempt by Harding’s camp to improve her odds of winning the gold medal, and showing how this singular event came to be the catalyst for a resurgence in the event’s popularity.

The two skaters both came from humble beginnings — Harding much more so, as she was born into a poorer family that could barely afford her to go to the skating sessions she attended as a child. Her mother, an abusive alcoholic, never truly supported her daughter’s passion. Kerrigan, on the other hand, while certainly not from wealth, grew up in a slightly more privileged family and as the documentary expands, we get to appreciate the subtle differences in the two athletes. (Naysayers be damned, this is an athletic sport.) But Harding found it much more difficult to rise to the top in her sport as her reputation for being the skater from the wrong side of the tracks never really helped her image.

As Tony Kornheiser (a personal favorite sports analyst of yours truly) points out, figure skaters are the dainty, precious commodities corporate America is interested in seeing achieve Gold medal status, if only because they represent the red, white and blue. Nevermind the fact that these are extremely young girls pushing their bodies (and minds) to their absolute limits. With the Olympics being the largest stage imaginable for any competitor, the slightest sense of anything out of the ordinary occurring in the weeks and/or months leading up to the event potentially can spell disaster. No one could have seen anything like this coming, though.

Like most (if not all) 30-for-30 documentaries, there’s no special, winning formula to the proceedings. Its structure is quite linear. Tracing the developmental stages of these girls’ careers and their relative trajectories heading into the Games, the focus is primarily on Harding, seeing as though Kerrigan declined to be interviewed. Frequent cuts back to the chat with the 43-year-old reveal her reactions now to the events being described and depicted in archived footage in the meantime. One cannot help but feel that some part of her perhaps deserved what was coming. One does not get the strongest sense that this was an innocent skater terrorized by a media storm; yet one cannot dismiss the sense of sorrow they feel towards a woman caught in constantly abusive environments.

Her first marriage to Jeff Gillooly continued the pattern of physical abuse and emotional fragility — hardly the picture of a world-class figure skater. This image she carried with her became such a burden that when the incident occurred, her name was instantly linked to it. But, as it turned out, the national opinion wasn’t so prejudicial.

The Price of Gold is jam-packed with fascinating footage. Burstein has done quite a job assembling a story that nitpicks through what can only be considered one of the most controversial and bizarre occurrences in Olympic history. . .in sports history. Quite likely, there will never be a Games quite like the 1994 Winter Olympics again. However, she is lacking one critical piece of the puzzle — an up-to-date conversation with the other side: Nancy Kerrigan. Though it would be harsh to consider it a misstep considering Kerrigan’s understandable resistance to being thrust back into the spotlight and talking about her own blemished history — and the documentary can’t be considered biased because of this — the end product does suffer a little bit as a result.

Imagine the juxtaposition of these would-be conflicting interviews. The depth of perspective. We get a little taste of that from the footage taken back in the early to mid-90’s, but there is so much more to speculate about how these two people have grown and changed since. There are interviews from the Kerrigan camp (her current husband gets some camera time) but it’s just not the same. We have to believe Burstein tried her best to get her involved, but at the end of the day, The Price of Gold falls just short of gold and lands on the second-highest podium position because of one simple trip up.

Such is the nature of competitive skating, too. Now here’s a photo gallery of what figure skating looks like to those who don’t partake in it:

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And here’s just an awesome pic of Tonya (right) getting her clock cleaned when she started boxing.

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3-5Recommendation: For anyone interested in learning more about the backstory, The Price of Gold is quite valuable. It’s surprisingly digestible and enticing (particularly for sports fans who don’t necessarily buy into figure skating as a “legitimate” sport), with the interviews with Harding and others being at the top of the list of reasons you should see into this.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 60 mins.

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30-for-30: Big Shot

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Release: Tuesday, October 22, 2013

[ESPN]

The minute I realized that ‘E’ from Entourage would be directing one of ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary films, Big Shot, I was set on focusing my eyeballs on the nearest T.V. that would be showing it. Annnnd then I missed it the evening it came on.

Fortunately it was airing a couple of times over the next night and I was able to catch it, and now here I am, giving Connolly even more credit than what he’s already due from me with his role on one of my favorite T.V. shows of all time. To me, Connolly’s been a highly likable, intelligent actor who is overlooked more than he should be (I will forever gloss over his minor role in The Notebook, though not on purpose. . . ). But as a native Long Islander and huge supporter of the Islanders, here he comes with a fascinating look into one of the greatest scams in all of sports history.

The year was 1996. The team? The New York Islanders. Desperate to get back to where they once were — the Islanders in the decade prior were perhaps the most dominant team the NHL had ever seen, winning four consecutive Stanley Cup trophies from 1980 to 1983 — the Islander front office hired a man by the name of John Spano to take over ownership of the team. In thinking this move was the team’s best (heck, their only) answer to getting back on track, it would later become obvious that this was one more chronic mistake made by management, a choice that would demote the team from former dynasty to the laughingstock of the entire league.

The team’s new owner was arrested and incarcerated less than a year later on multiple counts of bank and wire fraud and forgery, acts which were committed not only in New York but also in Texas, where previously, before taking over the Islanders he had made an attempt at owning the Dallas Stars team. His purchase of the Islanders was worth $165 million — half of that going to the television rights and the other half to John Pickett, the former team owner who held a 90% stake in the team. Later on, Spano then would buy up the remaining 10% share. The new owner’s upbeat attitude, hard-work and apparent wealth seemed to be everything this team needed, especially after going several seasons without even so much as making the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the wake of their early 80’s dynasty. At the time of his purchase, Spano was maybe worth $5 million, and had no legitimate way of paying his share of the team.

Connolly’s documentary weaves in and out of interviews with Spano and many high-profile figures representing the New York Islanders. There’s an extended section wherein Connolly gets to chat with the former owner and 72-month-long prison term-serving Spano face-to-face. Footage of the Islander’s facility springing leaks and floods throughout the building demonstrated the state to which this community had deteriorated prior to Spano’s arrival. A couple of statements are made by former players as well to further emphasize the dramatic changes surrounding this team pre- and post-Spano. The numbers are staggering, as is the other data that gets presented — all of which prove just how associated Spano’s name is with the term ‘fraud.’

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Big Shot is hearing the story in Spano’s words. Time and again he explains away his reasons for how he was able to keep the Islanders in the dark on just how little money he had at the time, describing the dread he would perpetually awake with, having the knowledge of needing to extend a lie of his own epic construction for just another day. He even claims at one point that ripping off a professional hockey team for millions of dollars was never his intention; that he had indeed at first been honestly committed to doing whatever he could to bringing this team back from the dead. Unfortunately, his legacy would leave the team reeling even more.

It also should be noted that this Spano guy was a bit of a slop, on top of everything else. His involvement in several lawsuits at the time of his purchase of the Islanders went unnoticed for a time, though this would ultimately contribute to his demise. The extent to which he lied about his wealth and his professional background slowly started to become evident as Newsday began conducting investigations into the man’s life. The team’s suspicion of his credentials reached its fevered pitch in the summer of 1997, after Spano had failed to come up with much money at all, on numerous occasions. At one point, he even had mailed in amounts as little as $5,000 and $1,700 in an attempt to fool management into thinking these were misprinted checks (when they were meant to be amounts of $5 million and $17 million, respectively).

Indeed, the life story of John Spano devolves from something of an honest reputation, to becoming a pretty good liar and a cheater, to becoming a full-blown fraud, and, finally, a prisoner. One would think such a fall from grace would be enough to learn from once around. However, when Spano was released after his six-year term, his appetite for ruinous business deals still not satiated, he was subsequently indicted on additional charges of fraud in February 2005 having moved to Cleveland and ripped off several companies there.

What Big Shot is great for, ultimately, is demonstrating the ease with which one man had pursuing what most would likely call ‘the American Dream,’ but doing it with such little money! The story of John Spano and the Islanders is almost cartoonish at times. But sometimes the truth is harder to accept than the lies. Just go ask an Islander fan.

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4-0Recommendation: Connolly’s work here is quite impressive. Sports fans are obviously the target here, and hockey fans may take more to this kind of story than others. Even if you don’t call yourself an Islanders fan, or even much of a follower of any sport, his documentary is eye-opening simply considering the scope of this fraud and the terrible ways the team was managed in the 80s and 90s, and therefore has a broader appeal that should interest more than a few peeps who don’t like sports.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 60 mins.

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