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: Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks

'Winning Time - Reggie Miller vs the New York Knicks' movie poster

Release: Sunday, March 14, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Dan Klores

When people talk about Reggie Miller, arguably the greatest to ever put on a Pacers uniform, they only seem to focus on two things: the New York Knicks and Knicks superfan Spike Lee. It’s never about Indiana, the very state and legacy Miller’s cold-blooded three-point shooting was designed to protect; nor is it ever about the controversial decision to draft him over local favorite Steve Alford in 1987. No, it’s always about how much fun it is watching Reggie struggle, and fail, to win games set in Madison Square Garden.

Acclaimed documentarian Dan Klores (Crazy Love) attempts to catch Reggie in a bottle in this highly amusing, high-drama profile of one of the most bitter and intense rivalries in league history: that which pitted the humble rural fans of Indiana basketball against the polished, urbanized Knick faithful in the quaintly nicknamed series “The Hicks Vs. The Knicks.” Winning Time: Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks may be a title that leaves precious little to the imagination, but there’s still a lot to discover here for fans who have let this chapter in NBA history get away from them.

How many remember the shadow Reggie had to crawl out from under, his immensely talented older sister Cheryl, who happened to drop 100 points in a single high school game? How many recall the Forrest Gump-like beginnings he had to overcome, relying heavily upon leg braces for much of his childhood? I mean it’s just too easy to forget after a sensational career like his that he wasn’t even supposed to be able to play. What of the charitable bets Spike and Reggie exchanged before one of the games: if the Knicks won, Reggie would have to visit Mike Tyson in prison (incidentally located just outside of Indianapolis); if the Pacers won, Spike would give Reggie’s then-wife a role in his next film. Ah, such beautiful symmetry.

Winning Time wastes precious little in constructing the stage. Reggie, the notorious trash-talker that he was, is first seen locking horns with would-be alpha male John Starks, by all accounts one of the Knicks’ great shooters, but one who made himself easier to distinguish because of his head-butting Miller in the middle of a packed Fieldhouse (a move, by the way, that did nothing to quell the ravenous Indiana fanbase). Then, a montage of other players with whom Reggie’s had run-ins — watch Michael Jordan being restrained from killing him.

Then the narrative turns the spotlight on the Knicks and their tough, physical style of play under head coach Pat Riley, infamous for refusing to allow his players to fraternize with the other team at any point during the season. The Knicks’ penchant for physically abusing opponents necessarily meant any playoff series featuring them and the Pacers (who combined for a 104 – 60 record over the ’94 and ’95 seasons) was bound to get nasty. Throw in Reggie’s ongoing feud with Spike on the sidelines and you officially have a party. His relationship with the filmmaker came to define not only that playoff run but the Pacers-Knicks rivalry of the ’90s, and it’s a narrative that nests itself cozily amongst all the other drama.

You’d think with a title like Winning Time there’s something to be said for the Pacers’ failure to make the NBA Championship series the year they triumphed over the Knicks, but apparently there such things as moral victories. It’s made abundantly clear Reggie doesn’t measure success based on championship series drama, the number of titles won or how many rings he has. To the uninitiated, this might come across a strangely vindictive process, but all that really mattered is what mattered to Reggie and that was putting a city that never sleeps to bed.

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Reggie Miller choke on it

Recommendation: One of the better offerings in 30-for-30‘s first volume of titles, Winning Time: Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks is, in the broadest sense, a psychological evaluation of an intensely competitive mind. It’s also quite adept at analyzing fan psychology, using the high-profile Spike Lee as a lightning rod. A highly entertaining package.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 78 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.pacersgear.com; http://www.sneakerhistory.com

The Judge

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Release: Friday, October 10, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Nick Schenk; Bill Dubuque 

Directed by: David Dobkin

The honorable David Dobkin, who’s responsible for giving the world Wedding Crashers, presides over his very first drama and makes a relatively strong case for his continued exploration outside his comfort zone.

Despite narrative clutter and a doggedly long runtime (almost two and a half hours), which is perhaps more indicative of Dobkin’s awe over the star talent amassed in his courtroom (who else gets to say they have three epic Bob’s working for them on the same project: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton?) than his ability to trim the fat from his scenes, The Judge is a worthwhile procession featuring performances that do nothing but exceed expectations.

At its core and simultaneously where the film reel shows its most serious signs of wear and tear, this is a tale of tough love — a power struggle between a father and son who have lost touch and any interest in reconnecting. Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a successful Chicago lawyer, returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. He and his father, the powerful and widely-respected Judge Joe Palmer (Duvall), can barely look one another in the eye and after 20 years it’s all the two can muster to force an awkward handshake. Given the actors involved, the personal tension is inherently intriguing and, presumably, complex. They become characters we’re instantly invested in.

We are less invested in the roughly 30-40 minutes used in setting up Hank’s backstory and what kind of life he’s leaving behind in Chicago to deal with his family — one of luxury made less alluring by what certainly appears to be a failing marriage. We’re not asking too much by wanting to skip to the part where Iron Man gets to square off in court with his bull-headed father, now, are we? Does that overlook the point of having Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Vera Farmiga as strong supporting characters who help illustrate what it is that Hank left behind all those years ago?

Maybe a little.

Contributing to the excess is the fact that there are one too many peripheral characters that Dobkin clearly wants to develop so as to not leave them as secondary thoughts. Unfortunately by the time the denouement hits, it itself has become a secondary thought, sidelined by over-explained relationships that truthfully don’t have anything unique about them. It gets to a point we almost forget the real reason we’re here: not just to experience the power of two heavyweight actors within a courtroom — which, by the way, is a very interesting setting in which to try and contain the personality of one Bob Downey Jr. This is, after all, technically a crime drama. There must be plot beyond seeing how well the actors come together as judge, jury and executioner.

For what it’s worth, thanks to the insertion of Billy Bob Thornton as a bloodthirsty lawyer on behalf of the plaintiff, the drama on the floor crackles with intensity and emotion. As Dwight Dickham, Thornton is once again too good at what he does. He stands out from the local crowd as obviously as Downey’s Hank Palmer who, with a minor degree of reluctance, represents his father in the wake of a disconcerting discovery at their residence — one involving bloodstains found on his old garage-bound jalopy that he has been appearing to cover up. Hank (and to a lesser extent his brothers) immediately know what this finding will mean if his dad has to appear in court.

Yes, indeed — that old trick. The unlikely bond forming in the 11th hour, then the series of unexplained circumstances testing the durability of the new bond. I wouldn’t be so irritated by the writing had this involved quite literally any other cast; these actors are too good to be pigeonholed into predictable trajectories. The guy playing Hank Palmer, for one, is a rather unpredictable actor but even he can’t escape the shackles of cliched character development.

It ain’t all bad, though.

The emotions run high and there are several moments in which time seems to come to a stand-still as dialogue flows forth freely, on occasion exploding as if released from a fire hydrant. Legal mumbo-jumbo isn’t even an issue here, which is a compliment that ought to be paid the screenwriters. Nick Shenk and Bill Dubuque understand they needn’t alienate an audience with technical jargon when there’s already enough beating around the bush going on.)

Come the end credits it’s difficult to shake the feeling The Judge could have banged its gavel a little more. . .creatively.

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2-5Recommendation: This guy may seem to be ruling slightly harsh on this film but this is mostly due to those pesky expectation levels again. While what this cast bring to the table is worth the price of admission, I can’t say the same about a rather bloated narrative that almost threatens to undermine a Robert Downey Jr. who may never have worked so hard for a paycheck. He alone is enough to still warrant a recommendation for seeing this in theaters. I just wouldn’t recommend going in expecting a whole lot more than a solid episode of Law & Order with A-list names involved though.

Rated: R

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “My father is a lot of unpleasant things, but murderer is not one of them.”

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

TBT: Hoosiers (1986)

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Well hello there. Welcome to a new month of some blasts from the past, and this time we indeed do have a few of those. I’d like to officially welcome you to NBApril. The NBA Playoffs are just around the corner at the end of this month. One film that comes to mind that is a great ambassador for the sports genre is the highly improbable story of an Indiana high school basketball squad that defies all odds to compete in the state title game. With impacting performances, a strong sense of nostalgia for a more simple time, and a wonderful if not familiar story, this week’s entry quickly gets us into the spirit of the post-season. 

Today’s food for thought: Hoosiers.

Hoosiers

Release: November 14, 1986

[DVD]

Welcome to humble old Hickory, Indiana, a hardened agricultural community that comes together every fall to get behind their high school basketball team, the Hickory Hoosiers. Small-town Indiana isn’t the kind of place that takes quickly, if at all, to the idea of change or going against the grain of tradition and routine. Getting set in a certain way gives the impression of consistency and stability. But when a new head coach is hired to coach the boys and he is anything but their ideal candidate, how will the town cope with the choice they are more or less forced to accept?

To put it insanely complicatedly, David Anspaugh’s riveting sports drama Hoosiers is a classic. One cannot think of a basketball movie and not have the iconic images found in this love-letter to the fifties in mind almost immediately. The throwback look and tones in his film recall a much more simple time, but it’s not so old-school as to avoid being relatable. It tells the story of a very unlikely high school team that goes on to compete in the Indiana State Championship game, adding in a few excellent twists on the conceit and establishing a strong sense of nostalgia not to be forgotten by those who have seen it.

The modest school had been looking for a new coach, when they finally came across Norman Dale (Gene Hackman)’s résumé. Dale was a man with an interesting reputation, with his last job ending in a firing for physically abusing his players. He arrived in Hickory, somewhat hat-in-hand, knowing his old friend Cletus (Sheb Wooley) would approve of his credentials.

But no sooner the news of the hiring broke out did Coach Dale get mobbed with questions from the inquisitive community at an impromptu town meeting held at the barber shop (of all places). From the get-go it’s apparent the outsider never had made friends quickly, and with this particularly opinionated crowd, Dale drove a much harder bargain by being short on words and light on reassurance that he was on their side. The way in which he performed his job would prove to be an even bigger shock, though the film’s overriding tension is established in the aforementioned scene.

Hickory High is a town so small its basketball team originated with seven players. On the first day of practice Coach let two of them go since they refused to pay attention while he was addressing them. It would be but one of many instances of him demonstrating his desire to control and drive his basketball team hard. He had purpose in Indiana, and was willing to do whatever it took to prove he had coaching chops despite what his personality may have lacked. Thanks to Gene Hackman’s committed performance, Dale was portrayed as a man with a fiercely competitive spirit that bordered on obsessive. It’s his clash with the community and the odds that were stacked against him personally that made Hoosiers such an engaging watch.

Though Hackman brought on a tour de force performance playing the controversial high school head coach, there was a second contribution that stood out as particularly memorable and emotional. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Coach Dale approached one of his player’s fathers, the town alcoholic Shooter Flatch (Dennis Hopper) and requested he become the team’s assistant coach. It was an offer not without strings attached, however. Dale informed Shooter he would need to clean up his act in order to be present at the games. It’s a memorable scene given Hoosier’s undeniable thematic search for second-chance opportunities. For Shooter, this was his own pivotal moment of redemption.

But for the young squad, their moment of redemption was standing behind a coach frowned upon by the entire Hickory community. During a second community meeting at town hall, in which a vote was to be taken regarding the future of Coach Dale as head coach, his players decided in order to do the impossible this season it would have to be with him and no one else. While it may be the movie’s most outstanding cliché, it hardly feels like one at the time. The team unity from this point on is actually incredibly inspiring. The Hickory Hoosiers proved almost everyone wrong as they advanced further in the tournament, eventually stunning the state by proving themselves worthy of a trip to Indianapolis to face the much more athletic and physically dominant team from South Bend.

Anspaugh did little with his direction to sway opinion on the film’s tendency to walk a cliched path. It’s very easy to set this fact aside, though, when the performances and circumstances were this good. Hackman is eminently watchable as the rough Coach Dale. The kids are a likable bunch of no-named actors who provided just enough charisma to give the illusion they were all the actual basketball team who accomplished the unthinkable. The illusion is one to be watched again and again. On top of being a thoroughly enjoyable throwback to the fifties, Hoosiers has incredible relevance. Though it was made in the 1980s, it’s unrelenting passion and focus on the game withstands the test of time as it seems just as inspirational a film for coaches to show their teams before competing in this year’s Final Four games as it probably was in the decade it came out in.

Exciting, engaging and tremendously earnest, this is a sure-footed underdog story that remains to this day a thoroughly investing and nostalgic watch. It’s one that can be enjoyed again and again, especially this time of year.

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4-5Recommendation: Though it undoubtedly helps to be a follower of the sport, Hoosiers compels as a true story dramatization even for non-fans. It’s beautifully shot and is imbued with a heartwarming tone that allows its central performances to truly flourish. If you want to talk classic basketball films, let’s talk Hoosiers.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Let’s win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”

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