Saturday, June 13, 2015


               I saw a couple of sports movies recently, one I liked and one I didn’t.
               The didn’t was “DRAFT DAY,” a paean to one of sports’ most overblown annual events. Kevin Costner plays the harried GM of a fictionalized Cleveland Browns who, with screenwriters’ help, pulls off draft-day miracles to right his listing club. The National Football League must have loved the script because some of its officials appeared in it, including Commish Goodell, playing himself, of course.  The real draft is a crapshoot but the movie treats it with the dead-pan seriousness the league applies to everything it does.  Costner and cast earned their pay by keeping straight faces throughout the flick’s two hours of nonsense.
               The one I liked was “RED ARMY,” a documentary about the USSR national hockey team that despite its “Miracle on Ice” loss to the U.S. in the 1980 Olympics probably was the best such squad ever assembled. The Soviet system of recruiting promising children and subjecting them to brutal training regimens in pursuit of adult excellence is well known, but director Gabe Polsky put flesh on the process by taking his cameras to present-day Russia and talking to the aging veterans who survived the ordeal and sometimes even prospered from it. The movie’s star is Vyacheslav Fetisov, the unit’s star defenseman, now 57 years old. Blunt, cynical and funny, his commentary illuminates not only Soviet hockey but life in general in the erstwhile peoples’ republic during the final years of Communist rule.

               That I liked “Red Army” is unusual because I think most sports movies miss the mark. That’s mostly because film writers and directors feel obliged to substitute the ethos of the stage for that of the playing field, creating suspense by making every pivotal screen game come down to a last-of-the-ninth, two-outs, bases-loaded, score-tied situation, or its equivalent. Great moments in sports occur now and then, here and there; that’s why we’ll watch a mid-August baseball game between two going-nowhere teams.  Sports’ dramatic impact owes mostly to its unscriptedness. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

               That said, I’m immediately going to contradict myself with my No. 5 choice in my five-best sports-movies list. That would be “ROCKY” (1976), the Sylvester Stallone opus about the tomato-can boxer who gets it together to vie for the title.

               “Rocky” and its successor films are hokey. Their fight scenes are the opposite of realistic, with more solid punches landed in any one round than in a whole month of actual fight cards. Every film in the series concludes with the hero triumphing or nearly so after taking enough punishment to kill an ox. Still, in Rocky Balboa writer-star Stallone created an archetypical underdog character strong enough to sustain a six-film run, and the flag-waving sock of the original turned the tide against the downer counterculture of the 1960s and early ‘70s.

               My No. 4 film is a quite-different sort. “MAJOR LEAGUE” (1989) is by me the funniest sports film ever, one that tickles almost as much on fourth or fifth viewing as it did the first time. It’s an annual cable-TV staple around baseball opening day and, I hope, always will be.

               The movie is about an ex-show girl who inherits the Cleveland Indians and designs them to bomb so she can break their lease and move them to Miami, something, by the way, LeBron James did by himself years later. Wouldn’t you know it, the Indians up and win, whackily.  Charlie Sheen, the off-the-rails actor, was great as Ricky Vaughn, an off-the-rails relief pitcher. Wesley Snipes plays Willie Mays Hayes, who was so quick he could flick the switch and get in bed before the light went out. Dennis Haysbert, now a sober insurance-company mouthpiece, plays Pedro Cerrano, a voodoo-practicing slugger, and Bob Uecker burlesques himself as broadcaster Harry Doyle. It’s a hoot! Every time I see a pitcher nearly throw one away I find myself saying “jusssst a little outside,” a la Harry.

               “Major League” was played for laughs but my No. 3, “THE NATURAL” (1984), stirs the sense of myth that sports can evoke. The ethereal Roy Hobbes (Robert Redford), wielding his bat “Wonderboy” (i.e., Excalibur), is a hero of old who overcomes corruption and venality to vindicate himself and the game, and win his lady-in-white (Glenn Close).  Baseball’s roots go deeper into American soil than those of any other sport, and this movie brilliantly taps them.

               No. 2 is “RAGING BULL” (1980), which deals with the violence of boxing. Robert De Niro plays Jake La Motta, a real-life middleweight champion of the 1950s, whose turbulent nature finds an outlet in—but can’t be contained by—the ring.  There’s blood in “Rocky” but it comes off as cartoonish. Not so in “Raging Bull,” whose slo-mo fight sequences makes one wince. Martin Scorsese directs this unsparing character study       of a man who tries to punch his way out of his own skin.

               My all-time favorite sports movie centers on an activity many don’t consider a sport. It’s “THE HUSTLER” (1961), which is about pool. It isn’t really about sports, it’s about winning and losing, measuring up and falling short, things that apply to any endeavor. That’s one reason it’s so good.

               Directed in black and white by Robert Rossen (“Raging Bull” is in black and white, too), “The Hustler” has an acridly authentic script, a great cast of principals (Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, George C. Scott and Myron McCormick) and a raft of flavorful character actors.  Its mandatory “big game” scene takes place not in a crowded arena but in a dim, near-empty pool hall, with the Newman-played hero capping his long road back by wearing down his nemesis, played by the superb Gleason.  Such private victories are all most of us can muster.


Monday, June 1, 2015


               “Rest” is a four-letter word in the National Basketball Association, which is why the seven-day break between the semifinal and final rounds of its current playoffs is notable. The league presents its players (and fans) with an annual seven-month grind of travel, one-night stands and lousy weather that tests bodies and souls.  It’s a wonder anyone survives, and everyone doesn’t.
               Things got so bad this season that many players, including stars, created or exaggerated injuries to get some relief.  Such things usually go unremarked officially but this time the league took note, saying it would review future calendars to try to eliminate pockets of particular stress. Simply reducing the number of games teams play from the present 82 would be commonsensical but the schedule is determined by commerce, not competition, so look for only marginal changes.
              Still, the finals will commence on Thursday, and, somehow, the two best teams—Golden State (i.e., Oakland) and Cleveland—have qualified to play for the Vince Lombardi (oops, Larry O’Brien) Trophy. That’s swell if you live in Oakland or CV but as usual it poses a rooting decision for the rest of us.  

               That decision is especially stark this year because the personifications of Warriors versus Cavaliers boil down to David versus Goliath. Goliath, of course, is the Cavs’ larger-than-life LeBron James, long the NBA’s dominant force. David would be Stephen Curry, the Warriors’ seemingly wispy main man.

 No greater physical contrast between stars has existed in an NBA showdown round within my memory, which takes in the NBA’s entire history.  The 30-year-old James stands a listed 6-feet-8 and 250 pounds and has muscles in places where most people don’t have places. Curry goes 6-3 and 190, and you have to take the latter figure on faith. He’s 27 years old but looks, maybe, 21. No Adonis he; he’d look at home clerking in a men’s-wear store.

 The differences extend to the two players’ biographies. James was born to a single mom of 16 while Curry is NBA royalty, a son of Dell Curry, who had a 16-year career in the league and pulled down seven-figure salaries most of those years. James was a manchild prodigy who entered the league to instant stardom at age 18 as a No. 1 overall draft choice and probably could have made the move earlier had the rules allowed. Curry was so slight of build as a teen that no major college offered him a scholarship out of high school. He played three years at little Davidson College before showing enough growth and chops to interest the pros.

As Wilt Chamberlain said “nobody roots for Goliath,” so it’s safe to assume that the Warriors will be the people’s choice during the coming hostilities. They’re a likeable bunch, led by the silky Curry and his back court mate Klay Thompson, another NBA legacy by virtue of his dad, Mychal’s, tenure in the league. High scoring and close defending, they had the league’s best regular-season record (67-15). Their coach is Steve Kerr, maybe the most civil man in professional sports. He’d make a great secretary of state if he ever gets tired of basketball. The team hasn’t been in a championship final since 1975 and thus is a welcome new addition to the game’s elite rank.

But hey! There’s something to be said for Goliath this time around. LeBron may have been basketball’s best player for the past decade but he’s gathered little love for his efforts and, paradoxically, now may have more to prove than the outlier Warrior gang.

  Personalitywise, James often has come off as arrogant, an impression that was underscored during ESPN’s overblown coverage of his jump from the Cavs to the Miami Heat in 2010, but he was just 25 years old at the time and, probably, reading from scripts prepared by others. His personal life to date has been exemplary for someone with his immense wealth and fame, and as he’s aged he’s shown increasing humor and insight in his public utterances.

James possesses two championship rings—from the Heat in 2012 and ’13—but he’s so good that most people think he should have more to show for his five previous finals trips. Further, he had to share his Heat title glory with Dwyane Wade, a Hall of Fame-caliber teammate.

This time James has pretty much carried his team alone. His supporting cast originally included Kevin Love, an all-star forward, and Kyrie Irving, an excellent young (22) point guard, but Love is out with an injury suffered in the first playoff round and Irving, while currently ambulatory, has been limited by foot and knee problems. Playing without Love and Irving in game three of the team’s third-round sweep of the very good Atlanta Hawks, James led his team with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists. It was about as good a game as anyone’s ever played.

Indeed, James’s career has reached the point where he is playing largely for posterity and against Michael Jordan for the best-ever crown. That forever will be a tomato-tomahto thing, with no clear winner. James has about two inches and 30 pounds on Jordan in his prime, and probably has superior skills. He can play or defend any position on the court, something the smaller Jordan couldn’t do.

 Jordan came up as a leaper but in his later, championship years got along mainly on the three “g’s” of grace, guile and grit. Tough on himself and on his teammates, he’d literally will his teams to victory even when they didn’t enjoy a physical edge.  James will have to do the same thing to get his depleted squad past the Warriors. If he can manage it he’ll deserve a Goliath-sized cheer.