Let me illustrate for you just how cool I am.
While channel surfing last week I stumbled upon a documentary about the genesis of Fantasy (Rotisserie) Baseball. I was riveted, like I had just caught a glimpse of the face of God. I dropped everything I was doing (not really very much) and sat transfixed until the very end of the movie. It was entirely awesome. Funny and ironic, the movie managed to maintain an intelligence and sincerity in spite of the completely dorky subject.
I found out much later that the movie was called “Silly Little Game,” but at the time, the menu on my TV listed it simply as ESPN Films, and so I decided at that moment that I absolutely loved ESPN Films and would watch whatever they had to offer. For the next couple of weeks I tuned in whenever possible and watched about a half dozen different sports documentaries.
For the most part, sports fans have to endure pretty lame treatments of the culture surrounding the games we watch. There are the shrieking furies of talk shows, which really just provide sensational, often grotesque amplifications of the event we’ve already seen, or reduce it to a militaristic, statistical analysis, with virtually no effort made to decipher the anthropological or social meaning implicit in the game.
Well, the documentaries that ESPN produces have more in common with literature than they do with box scores. They’re really social documents, rooting themselves in a particular time, place, and experience that speaks to a much larger and more lasting reality than what happened on the field.
The documentaries never stretch too far back (most of them took place within the last 15-25 years) so there’s an appealing and familiar nostalgia to them. It’s kind of like flipping through an old yearbook, and as you come across names and faces you’d long ago forgotten, you find each one inspiring an avalanche of memories that return with a biting, emotional clarity.
I watched one on the 1995 Knicks-Pacers play-off series, and when I saw Rick Smits, the awkwardly white Indiana center doing battle with a flat-topped Patrick Ewing, I was as happy and astounded as if I had bumped into two old friends. And look, there’s Spike Lee yelling from the sidelines! Remember when he was, well, edgy? And there’s Reggie Miller, (who has always reminded me of a Ferengi), impossibly erasing a 6-point Knick lead in the blink of an eye!
With the movie as a prompt, I was instantly able to recall the world of 1995, and all that it contained for me. I remembered who I was in love with, the stupid bar I waited in line to get into and that Christmas party where Dan threw up in the sink. The movie was the gift of time travel.
But the movies are a lot more than just an opportunity to wallow in the tranquilizing buzz of personal nostalgia. The films, now many years past the focus event, are able to encompass so much more than we saw at the time. In particular, ESPN Films does a great job of showing how sports cast a light on different realities of race in America.
Watching the story of 17-year-old Allan Iverson’s sentencing following a racially motivated brawl (he was called a “nigger”) back in 1993, what became clear was not just what informed the man Iverson became, but what must inform the lives of so many black youth living in Virginia. The movie was really about the intersection between race, sports, and celebrity in America, and it was bracing.
Using the cut-and-paste documentary template, the movies tell their stories through video clips, archival photographs and interviews with the participants and observers of the time, and through this pastiche a clear picture of what happened and what it might mean emerges.
In “Without Bias,” a movie that examines the death of Len Bias, the Boston Celtics first round pick back in 1982, we see a portrait of a young man who seemed near perfect. Impossibly gifted and alive, he was just the sort of person we all hoped to be. Likeable and optimistic, he was a hard-working and grateful exemplum. It was happily obvious to everybody that his career was going to be exciting and rewarding, and he would step out of the University of Maryland like a single combat hero and seize the world that eluded the grasp of the rest of us, who sat back watching. However, just two days after the draft, he died of cocaine intoxication, his potential, and somehow that of the rest of the community, too, never realized.
There’s perhaps nothing quite as heartbreaking as watching a gifted athlete die young. Teammates, journalists, coaches, and family, now almost 30 years after the tragedy, still seemed shell shocked by his death. Speaking slowly and with hard-earned wisdom, they try to make sense of the sadness and to find virtue out of necessity.
It’s widely and sincerely believed that Bias was not a drug user, and that his first foray into cocaine also proved to be his last. There was a cocaine epidemic at the time, with crack exploding into the culture like a dirty bomb. It was everywhere, and everybody was doing it. Bias, who was living in Washington D.C. would have been surrounded by friends and a culture in which coke was as common and culturally accepted as bottled water is now. It would have been weird, perhaps even rude of him, not to try it with his buddies on a night out celebrating his future.
The death of Bias, who everybody rightly loved, sparked a media tsunami that resulted in the evisceration of the University of Maryland basketball program, and helped inspire a Congress eager to crack down on drugs to impose Draconian new sentencing laws where anybody possessing five grams of cocaine was thrown in jail for five years. This, of course, nailed small time users, stripping communities, largely black communities, of young men like Bias. It was an awful law that yielded devastating results, and through this movie we saw that what we really lost on the night that Len Bias died was not just his beauty and potential, but that of an entire generation.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.