The middle of March means that March Madness is upon us. Therefore I’m going to talk to you about a film that is about the NBA. This might seem strange to you. But it makes sense to me. With the exception of a few years following Duke after I was at the school when they repeated in 1992, I’ve never been much for NCAA Basketball. As a singular event full of spectacle and drama, there isn’t much that can beat the NCAA tournament. But that doesn’t mean the basketball is that good. People will call me nuts, but what bothers me about the college game is that, well, the players are not that good yet.
To understand where I am coming from, you have to understand the basketball that I grew up with. My basketball education came at the hands of the Larry Bird Celtics, the Magic Johnson Lakers, the Dr. J and Moses Malone Sixers, the bad boy Pistons and the very beginning of the Michael Jordan Bulls. This, I claim, is the best basketball that ever was. We will never see teams like this again. Get off my lawn, and so on. You cannot have watched these teams battle each other in the NBA playoffs and think that the NCAA tourney comes close to the same level sheer basketball goodness (offense, defense, court sense, passing, and “basketball IQ”), not to mention the incredible physical intensity of the NBA game. Need I remind old time Celtics fans of the fact that in 1987 Kevin (“I traded a championship back to the Celtics 25 years later”) McHale played two series on a broken foot to try and get a repeat championship to Boston? You don’t see that in college.
So I’m delighted to tell you about this new film from ESPN about this period in NBA history. The film is the Dan Klores production Winning Time and it is part of the ESPN documentary film series 30 for 30 where they have made thirty documentary films to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the network. If you want to feel old, finding out that ESPN is thirty years old will do that to you. I heard about the series via the Bill Simmons podcast. He’s also one of the producers.
Anyway, I told you a small lie about this film. It’s not really about the classic NBA period at all, it’s more about the early 90s, a dark time for the league if there ever was one. And, it’s not really about those classic teams either. It’s about the Knicks and the Pacers, both teams that were perennial also-rans. In particular, it is about how Reggie Miller tortured the Knicks repeatedly in the playoffs over the years.
So why am I so happy about this film? Because it is an almost perfectly constructed ode to some fantastic characters and performances that might otherwise have been forgotten because they involved two “second tier” teams. If you need more convincing, here’s a detailed list:
1. The interviews great. For whatever reason, it seemed like every person that Klores interviewed comes off as engaged, personable and interesting. There isn’t a stiff in the bunch. Even Patrick Ewing, who had a reputation for being morose and monosyllabic during his playing career is funny and charismatic.
2. You don’t need to be a basketball fan to enjoy the film. This is because the film is not about the game, it’s about the people. The basketball sequences are important for establishing the characters and the drama, but you don’t need to know how the game works to appreciate how everything fits together.
3. The pacing and editing are perfect. No segment ever feels too long or too short. There is just enough back story to set up the meat of the narrative, but Klores never dwells on insignificant details. Finally, there are several sequences where Klores creates tension and/or humor just by how he edits the interviews together. These will make anyone who has ever edited video together grin with delight.
4. Best use of opera in a sports documentary ever.
5. Finally, for me, the two best basketball highlights in the film were the “eight points in 15 seconds” game (or maybe the “Spike Lee” game), and all of the vintage NBA footage. You will be amazed at how much more physical the game was back then. None of the modern flagrant foul rules had yet been created. People fell down a lot in very painful ways. While it’s arguable that the game back then was too ugly it’s pretty clear that the rules have swung too far the other way since then.
Up until now, the 30 for 30 series has been a bit of a mixed bag. The subjects are all interesting but perhaps a bit too specific to appeal to a general audience. Winning Time changes this. It is by far the best film in the series so far. More importantly, it is the most accessible to the non-fan. If the rest of the films in the series are even half as good, you owe it to yourself to get all of them into your Tivo and then buy your favorites on iTunes or DVD. ESPN is repeating Winning Time a couple of more times over the next few days, so see if you can find it.
Now I’m gonna go watch Reggie crush the hearts of all those Knicks fans all over again.