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

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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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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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30-for-30: Believeland

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Release: Saturday, May 14, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Andy Billman

Imagine growing up in a city where you’re taught, almost assuredly from at least the eighth grade onward, that losing is a reality you must accept, simply based on some silly geographic lottery that you were thrust into at birth. Surprise! You’re from Cleveland, and your acclimatization to watching your sports team(s) losing is best done sooner rather than later. You’re not a loser, but you’re going to have to get used to the idea of losing.

Believeland, Andy Billman’s portrait of a city synonymous with bleak winters and even bleaker sports seasons, speaks to the harsh reality of being born and bred a Clevelander, and it doesn’t hide the fact that life is viewed just a little more pessimistically in these parts. Yet the film itself isn’t pessimistic and doesn’t beg for pity. In fact it does quite the opposite, demanding respect for a steely, hard-working community patiently waiting for the black cloud that had descended following the 1964 NFL Championship, the city’s last big W, to finally let the sun shine through.

The Fumble. The Shot. The Drive. Red Right 88. The Block. The Trade. The Move. The Lip. Are breaks in the cloud even possible?

Perhaps the film’s poster, bearing some of Cleveland’s most painful trials for all to see, is also the best way to describe Believeland: a series of vignettes that anyone watching around the Cleveland area would likely find a test of endurance. To everyone else it’s a laundry list of bad things that have happened. And, as is poignantly observed by Scott Raab, a native and novelist serving as a casual narrator as he regales us — and his son — at a local diner about all the ways in which his favorite teams have let him down: only Clevelanders will be able to look back and kind of laugh this all off. “That’s Cleveland.”

The story of the woes and the worries, of the pitfalls of being ever the optimist in a place that doesn’t reward optimism takes an interesting turn with the introduction of respected business man and former New York ad executive Art Modell, who in 1961 assumed operations of the Browns organization. A series of unpopular moves put Modell squarely in the crosshairs of passionate fans, who began viewing him as a villain rather than the savior they hoped he would be. It didn’t help matters that Modell didn’t strike anyone as a sports guy; he had no knowledge of the game though his business acumen was rarely questioned.

The firing of coach Paul Brown (the franchise’s first and namesake head coach) turned heads but didn’t earn him anywhere near the animosity his handling of star fullback Jim Brown did. Brown, who was exploring a career in acting on the side, had missed a week of training prior to the ’66 season from production delays on The Dirty Dozen which greatly upset Modell, who publicly threatened him with fines for each day he would continue to miss. Brown decided instead to retire.

Two Browns down; the rest to go? As fate would have it, in a way yes they would. As Modell had a lot of clout developing in Cleveland, he also had invested in repurposing the city’s old Municipal Stadium, agreeing to let both the football and baseball franchises (the Indians) sublease the space. Unfortunately after several fiscally disappointing years Modell became disillusioned with Cleveland as a prosperous venture, and, in an effort to save face decided he would try to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, Maryland. The news of course was enough to set light to an already crackling fanbase, a fanbase that had been growing restless for some time.

Despite a referendum in 1996 that ultimately allowed Cleveland to retain the franchise name, the Browns still faced deactivation for another three years (’97 – ’99). Meanwhile, Modell was busy introducing the Baltimore Ravens, to a decidedly torn fanbase who were simultaneously glad to again have a pro football team to back, but still aching over the loss of their beloved Colts (who relocated to their current city, Indianapolis). Indeed, one of the most heartrending moments of the documentary finds fans tearfully saying goodbye to their players on the last game of the ’95 campaign, a game they managed to win. There were few celebrations though;  instead violent confrontations and security staff at the game were assaulted by particularly unruly fans. Empty rows of seats were uprooted in the stadium and tossed onto the field. It came to symbolize the very antithesis of what a sporting environment should be.

Thus ‘The Move’ occupies a major spot at the table when it comes to all the perceived wrongs done unto the Cleveland faithful, representing quite possibly one of the darkest periods in their history. It makes the acquisition of recent burnouts like Tim Couch and Johnny Manziel pale in comparison. The latter especially may have been an embarrassment in its own right, but it was no back-stabbing like the one everyone saw Modell’s collective anti-‘land strategies as. But ‘The Move’ isn’t what ultimately defines Believeland, although it is all too easy to construct the argument that this documentary is designed almost as if to pardon self-loathing sports freaks.

The advent of LeBron James, and particularly the results of the 2016 NBA season*, go a long way in suggesting what Cleveland may have to offer the world going forward. A hugely promising, explosive power forward out of Akron, Ohio, James had been all but prophesied for greatness. Yeah, okay, so I guess we need to tack on ‘The Decision’ to that list of grievances, but the narrative has since evolved from one of bitter resentment to renewed enthusiasm and belief once more that Cleveland’s relevance is only a matter of appeasing The King with the hands he needs to rule a forgotten kingdom.

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* The 2016 NBA Finals featured a re-match of last year’s Finals, between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. After an historic 73-9 regular season record, largely on the back of a virtuoso regular-season performance from shooting guard Stephen Curry, the Warriors shocked the world by failing to clinch their second consecutive title when they ran into the powerhouse that was LeBron James and a healthier Cleveland Cavaliers squad. Because of the results, Billman has stated that he is going to offer an alternative ending to Believeland to reflect the fact that James has finally, finally put an end to that championship drought in the nation’s most cursed sports town. Stay tuned for a quick blurb on my thoughts over this edit. 

Recommendation: Believeland speaks to the loyalty of fanbases and it ties the obsession with sports into the economic health of a city in intriguing and often heartbreaking ways. It might not be enough to sway those who see Clevelanders sports fans as rabid people with too much anger, but it just might be enough to entice those curious about the state of things in a city that doesn’t on the surface seem to have much to offer. I found this to be quite an interesting take on sports history and the way those closest to sports teams choose to interpret that history. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

https://vimeo.com/157732750

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30-for-30: This Magic Moment

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Release: Thursday, April 14, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Erin Leyden; Gentry Kirby

What happens when big money and even bigger egos obscure a clear path to victory? You get This Magic Moment, a documentary filled to the brim with ‘what-if’s and ‘what-could-have-been’s. In it, the flashy Orlando Magic finds itself under scrutiny for handling the Shaquille O’Neal-Penny Hardaway era with butterfingers.

Many questions are raised here, but none linger quite like the one concerning the very fabric of what the Magic were and what they could have been. How could a team that slammed the brakes on the damn near unstoppable locomotive that was the Chicago Bulls, also make so many consecutive playoff appearances without ever bringing back the hardware? Even given Shaq’s infamous superstition, there was something else going on, something other than bad luck. Senior ESPN Films producer Erin Leyden and producer Gentry Kirby, sharing directorial credits here, seek tangible explanations.

This Magic Moment jettisons viewers back to the early days of the franchise, where we see a much younger (and trimmer) Shaq being courted like the new Prince of the Magic Kingdom. His noncommittal attitude at the time foreshadowing the uncertainty that lay ahead. These days weren’t all gloom and doom of course, and while Shaq doesn’t dominate the narrative quite like one might expect, he certainly gives us plenty of reasons why the years in Orlando were the most cherished of his 19-year career. The film is as much about the organization’s failures as it is about Shaq’s trajectory from collegiate talent to world-famous personality. (In the ’90s he was breaking backboards. Now he’s the seal of approval for at least 50 products, including essentials like Dove For Men, Drone watches, Vitamin Water, Gold Bond, and — oh yes — sleep apnea masks.)

Indeed this is more Shaq’s show than anyone else’s. Even still, Leyden and Kirby budget their time efficiently enough to make room for Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway — the jelly to Shaq’s peanut butter — who, as he steadily worked his way into the national spotlight, threatened to take some of it away from the Magic’s most prized possession. Moving away from the formative years, This Magic Moment delves into the veritable pissing contest that developed between Shaq and a second burgeoning superstar, an off-court game of one-upsmanship that threatened to derail the whole enterprise. As per the life of a professional basketball player, success is typically measured based on their commercial appeal: shoe deals, new commercials, international trips to foreign lands to spread the goodwill of an American monopoly.

There’s also the whole debate swirling around whether Shaq made the right decision to bail for the sunny beaches of southern California in 1996 to become Kobe Bryant’s partner in crime on the Lakers, leaving Hardaway as the sole alpha male back in Orlando. Comments he makes in the present seem to suggest that Shaq at the very least thought it wasn’t the right one. He’s left pondering poolside with a 40-something-year-old Hardaway about what they could have done together had he stayed. How many titles could they have won if certain other things had worked out differently?

There’s a lot of emotion to be invested in this story, even if you’re not a diehard supporter of the glitz-and-glam of the Orlando Magic. Amidst all the talk of numbers, odds and probabilities, there lies a fundamentally human story about what it takes to be successful in life. And just because you find that success doesn’t mean it’s going to last.

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Recommendation: This Magic Moment isn’t exactly the definitive story of Shaq but it gives viewers and fans of the game some insight into his beginnings as an NBA star. The film is made so much more watchable due to the personalities involved, and for anyone who calls themselves a fan of basketball they can’t deny Shaq was one of the biggest players in NBA history, in more ways than one. This is a commentary on the business of the NBA as much as it is a personal journey for a big-time player. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 101 mins.

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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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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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