30-for-30: I Hate Christian Laettner

Release: Sunday, March 15, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Rory Karpf

The psychology that characterizes fandom and sports obsession isn’t complicated. Just as in movies there are the good guys you cheer for and the bad guys who you want to see fail. The good guys are the home team, who have a crowd behind them and are representative of a larger whole — a community, a culture. The baddies are whoever the visiting team is, strangers stepping on your turf. They’re the unwelcome, the outsiders. Or, more literally, they could just simply be bad people — dirty players, egotists or downright bullies. The people no one can afford to lose to.

Former Duke Blue Devil Christian Laettner fit snugly into the last description, an athlete so intensely disliked by his opponents — a.k.a. everyone who did not attend Duke University — he gave the term ‘trash talk’ a legitimate dictionary definition. Trash talk is the active, verbalized dissatisfaction over the presence of one Christian Laettner. Unlike the kinetic energy of rallying and general, outwardly positive support, trash talk requires putting in some extra effort. But just as positivity can be contagious, booing a group of unpopular players or a lone target has a galvanizing effect. Rory Karpf’s I Hate Christian Laettner is proof that hating the villain can be almost as thrilling as watching the good guys win.

The documentarian splits his time evaluating both the player and his environment, on a quest to determine which had a greater influence on the other. Rob Lowe narrates. Was Duke — a private school steeped in tradition and excellence, a lightning rod for bitterness and hatred well before the kid came to campus — responsible for shaping one of the greatest collegiate players of all time? Or was Laettner’s aura — a triple threat of looks, talent and confidence — simply so powerful it subsumed the team’s collective identity? Either way, over the course of his four-year career the hatred cast the Blue Devils’ way seemed to intensify. The school was and still is regarded as a model for exclusivity, a precinct of privilege and preppiness, its inviolability more closely and negatively associated with the aloofness of the Ivy Leaguers. And from 1988 until 1992 it had Laettner.

In an effort to obtain a consensus opinion of this controversial player, Karpf fields a rather impressive assortment of interviews that dissect virtually every aspect of the player’s life. Highlights include head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K for short) and wife Mickie; analyst Dick Vitale; former assistant coach Jay Bilas; former guard Grant Hill; and, of course, Duke alum Ken Jeong. Sports writers offer anecdotes about team dynamics and Laettner’s relationship with his coaches and teammates. Teammates cite specific instances in which they almost got into fights because of personal disputes and verbal confrontations with him. Of course the stories are recanted with a smile and a laugh, but underneath the surface you can still sense some tension.

With the combination of abrasive personality and court presence that Laettner had he was never someone people didn’t think anything of. If you knew the name, you had an opinion of the guy. Loved by his fans and hated by everyone else, Laettner’s something of a cliché on paper. Realizing it’s somewhat counterintuitive to rely wholly on emotive factors and especially gut reactions to paint the big picture, Karpf steers the latter part of the conversation towards his athletic ability. Trash talking may be fun, but thankfully I Hate Christian Laettner realizes that compelling sports stories must rely on some balance between public opinion and tangible aspects. Particularly worded accusations and criticisms eventually begin to give way to more productive talk. Yes, out comes the stats sheet, but how exactly is that not expected in a basketball doc?

Endowed with power, speed and a 6-foot-11 frame, number 32 was a hard worker and ruthless competitor. Arrogance off the floor translated to confidence and poise on it. Case in point, the buzzer-beating turn-around jumper that lifted Duke over Kentucky in the ’92 NCAA Finals. His clutch performances didn’t earn him more fans, though. In fact that habit did pretty much the opposite. Even his more obvious detractors in the interviews have to come to terms with his gifted athleticism, and they do. There’s no point in lying.

This documentary is most definitely less effective for those who consider themselves outside the circle, people like me who try not to become too swept up in melodrama. That’s not a knock against the subject nor the way it has been presented. Consider the target audience confirmation that what makes 30-for-30 often so intriguing is how niched each individual story is. Until this documentary I didn’t know who this guy was. Yet I learned a few things watching I Hate Christian Laettner. I learned that watching this once through was enough for me to arrive at a satisfactory (enough) conclusion: I learned that I guess . . . I guess, I hate him too . . . ?

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Recommendation: An intriguing slice of sports drama, the documentary will have far more of an impact for those who grew up watching these games and/or having experience with its stigmatic subject. It’s never less than an interesting watch, but at the same time an overriding sense of indifference prevents me from saying this is a 30-for-30 you absolutely need to see.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 90 mins.

[No trailer available. Sorry everyone.]

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

TBT: Miracle (2004)

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Ladies and gentlemen, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games are upon our doorsteps. While most of the world’s eyes are going to be set on Sochi and their questionable accommodations, hopefully there will be a few to spare as we push forward into February on TBT. After the polls closed on Facebook in which I asked which theme would be most suitable for the month of February, my buddy Josh suggested I look back on films that dealt with the Olympics. Great call, since I both love sports stories (despite the cliches) and I absolutely am transfixed by anything Olympics-related. The amount of talent and competition on display is something we should all marvel at, even if we don’t understand a damn thing about curling; even if we don’t care much about men in tights spinning in circles on ice to music that sucks. The point is that, for a brief moment, the world seems to put all of its cat-fighting on hold for the sake of watching some truly compelling competitive drama in a variety of disciplines across a wide range of sports action. Behold, the month of February on TBT

Today’s food for thought: Miracle. 

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Release: February 6, 2004

[Netflix]

Kurt Russell is Head Coach Herb Brooks. His team is an unlikely band of collegiate hockey players. The opponent is the dominant Soviet Union hockey team, who haven’t lost in 15 years. The stage is the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York.

Miracle may not break free of the genre’s cliches, but let me know of a sports film that really and truly does. If you want to sit there and gripe about how many ways in which this film sticks to formula, you can go ahead and sit in the penalty box. Or be a benchwarmer, for Gavin O’Connor’s film is a sensational realization of a most absurd circumstance, one that helped transfer the bitterness of the ongoing Cold War onto the ice.

At the time of the XIII Olympic Games, anti-Communist sentiment had reached a fevered pitch in the United States as the U.S.S.R.’s involvement in Afghanistan became increasingly violent and unstable. This was reflected in the sea of signs and banners present at the many venues in Lake Placid, also evidenced in many shots throughout O’Connor’s film. The politics made the showdown between American collegiate athletes and the heavily favored Soviet juggernaut all the more epic. Since the Russians had dominated virtually all levels of men’s ice hockey since 1954, logic follows that Coach Brooks would bring top American talent to the Games in an attempt to match their skill and athleticism. Such was not the case.

As the iconic Coach Brooks, Russell delivers an impressive, intimidating performance. He makes sure that for the majority of the film, he won’t be your buddy. His dedication to whipping his players into shape through brutal training is put on display in this two-plus-hour sports drama. Instead of relying on naturally gifted players, he built up a team whose power would be generated from their conditioning and hard work. Under the leadership of this less-than-personable coach, life for Team U.S.A. was more akin to life in the military.

One moment in particular remains vivid: during a qualifying game for a spot in the Olympics, a few players on the bench are commenting on some of the girls in attendance. After the game, Coach ‘rewards’ the team’s distraction during gameplay by forcing them to do ice sprints (later termed ‘Herbies’) for an unspecified amount of time — needless to say, this punishment lasted long enough to ensure they were the last people out of the building that night.

Coach Herb Brooks didn’t only invoke questions from his own players, but his unorthodox methods — an overhauled training schedule and his unwillingness to allow anyone other than himself select the final team roster — sparked serious concerns from the overseeing Olympic Committee from the outset. Miracle opens with an immediately engrossing discussion between Coach and the governing body as to how they might go about facing a seemingly unstoppable Soviet Union squad. In a single scene we get the impression of a team leader endowed with supreme confidence. As the movie expands, we learn where such confidence is derived from.

Though this is that same story of a man haunted by his own personal shortcomings, using a deep pain to fuel his team’s future, it’s nonetheless inspiring, without ever going over-the-top. Given that we know the real-life outcome, the film’s a foregone conclusion in which beauty lies in the details. O’Connor sets a brilliant pace that guides us through all the requisite growing pains, the failures and the tiny window of success Coach Brooks managed to squeeze his team through. It’s a two hour film that is over in what feels like a few minutes. Rocketing towards an awesome final half hour of hockey action, in which almost no detail is spared — save for the excessive swearing and trash-talking that undoubtedly occurred — the other three-quarters of Miracle is equally moving, as we also learn of the personal challenges faced by Coach Brooks. Having to balance work with family life can never be an easy task, and because of the magnitude of his own ambition, it’s a miracle in itself the guy doesn’t wind up in a divorce.

Patricia Clarkson portrays Patty Brooks with a warm empathy that offers a welcomed change of pace from the cold machinations of a former player-turned-coach trying to do whatever it takes to drop the prefix ‘im-‘ from ‘impossible.’ Though he must often be away from family, Patty keeps Herb from disappearing completely into an obsessive state.

In many senses, O’Connor’s third directorial effort is a classic. Providing all the hallmarks of a biographical sports drama, it perhaps sets a new standard for inspirational. How one former University of Minnesota hockey coach managed to unite 20 players from different schools is one step. Taking them to the Olympics, quite another. And then going on to claim the gold medal? Scripts like that would ordinarily seem hokey if drafted for fictional purposes. Some moments in sports history are naturally born to produce winning films, and this belongs among the best of them.

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4-5Recommendation: It took yours truly until this year to get to Miracle, which is pretty embarrassing. Sure, it’s a sports film through-and-through, but the underlying story, coupled with great performances, makes for a great movie for even the casual viewer. If you haven’t checked this film out yet, then no time is better than now, particularly as we head back to Russia for another fortnight of spirited competition. Tell me, where do you hail from, and who will you be rooting for this year?

Rated: PG

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “Great moments… are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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