The 2015-2016 NBA season is almost here. Media Day for the Wizards is tomorrow, training camp opens the next day and the first preseason game is just nine days away. Finally after a couple of months of waiting and waiting for something to happen, something finally IS happening. Here we go again.
With the start of regular season less than five weeks away, there's one other thing I know for certain and that's at some point in the next six months, I'll be hopping in a car, on a train or boarding a plane to watch my beloved Wizards play somewhere in this great country of ours other than D.C. I've already picked out a weekend in New Orleans when the Wizards visit the Big Easy this year and I've circled the Clippers and Lakers road games (on consecutive Sundays in the spring) as a possible second trip. I need to get some Western Conference venues under my belt and hitting L.A. in the spring seems perfect to do that.
As if it wasn't enough for me to shoot for being there for all 41 home games and a couple of road games each year, I need some basketball related entertainment while I'm on my way, particularly sitting in smaller and smaller coach seats on flights every year. So over the last decade or so in addition to watching a whole lot of hoops in person, I've watched a whole lot of hoops movies on my iPad Mini (and my iTouch before that) while heading to Philadelphia or New York or Milwaukee or Vegas or Miami or wherever else my travels have taken me. And there are some really good ones out there.
So to tip off this season right, I thought I'd share the best five basketball movies I've watched over the years with the dozen or so folks who read this blog. As a disclaimer in advance, I should note my bias towards truth over fiction. As much as I love Shaq and Penny Hardaway in Blue Chips, you won't find that flick in my top five. And yes, I've relied heavily on ESPN's 30 For 30 series in the past couple of years. Some of those films are fantastic; it makes me almost appreciate Bill Simmons (almost) for what he started there.
Like any best of list, I'm sure there is room for plenty of discussion and debate. Let me know where you think I've erred. Who knows, maybe I missed a real gem. There are for sure a lot more hours I'm going to be spending traveling to games. Here are my top five so far.
OK, so Broke is not really a basketball movie but for sure the majority of the stories in this film are about pro football and pro basketball stars who have made millions and gone stone cold broke. As a study in what happens to a lot of suddenly highly paid, financially inexperienced young men with all sorts of hangers on, this is essential watching for the NBA fan.
On one level, this film is hilarious. Half of the stories about how these guys parted with more money than most people make in a lifetime seems like complete fantasy: hundreds of thousands of dollars of custom jewelry; investment schemes from the predictable (restaurants) to the bizarre (furniture fitted with inflatable bottoms so you could float your furniture in the event of a flood); to making it rain in strip clubs with hundred dollar bills; to just plain gambling millions of dollars away. I remember Andray Blatche had a custom number seven Wizards jersey necklace that must have cost a fortune hanging around his neck one season. I wonder what that's worth now.
The characters that are real life guys are also classic. Andre Rison in his custom tailored suit and dark sunglasses telling all sorts of tales; Bart Scott talking about cashing his first NFL paycheck at a check cashing joint; Jamal Mashburn owning a Ferrari he can't drive because it's a stick shift; and Leon Searcy in his Sanford and Son "How 'bout 5 'cross your lip?" t-shirt. Rison and Mashburn and Scott look great. I'm sure they still have plenty of cash left. Leon Searcy and Keith McCants and Bernie Kosar…not so much.
But most of the stories are pretty sad. Stupid decisions are one thing and getting involved with women you hardly know and joint bank accounts is probably inadvisable. But the worst sort of predators in this film are the people the players are supposed to trust: parents, advisors and coaches. Hearing Bernie Kosar say he'd rather his dad have some more of his money than feel guilty about disappointing him just isn't right. I remember the Wizards' Cartier Martin trusted a former AAU coach with investing his money only to lose $375,000 when the Ponzi scheme the guy was running collapsed and he killed himself. Not smart but sad at the same time.
If we need proof of how important this film is, I can't remember any other movie release sparking such questions on Twitter of professional athletes, all of which wanted to know (a) had they seen it and (b) what did they think. A lot of guys in the NBA watched this on ESPN when it first ran and a lot of guys paid attention to it. It may not be a movie solely about basketball, but it's all about the NBA.
4. Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks
As a former New York Knicks fan, I feel bad about putting this film in my top five. But it's honestly an awesome movie.
From 1993 to 2000, the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers met in the NBA Playoffs six times. Eight years, six series. In three of those six years, the winner of the Pacers-Knicks series went on to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. These were important battles between two really good teams. And they were vicious. This was the kind of drama that you don't find in the NBA nowadays because the league has just cut out all this sort of conflict.
This film is all about Reggie Miller, the Pacers' now Hall of Fame shooting guard who took center stage in each matchup with the then-bad boy Knicks anchored around Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason with a little dash of Greg Anthony thrown in for good measure. Back in the 1990s I hated Reggie Miller. He whined. He complained. He pushed and claimed innocence. He trash talked. And he shot the lights out and kept the Pacers in it.
Reggie was truly the game's number one irritant back then. This film is worth it just for the scene where Michael Jordan loses it with Miller and tries to choke him. Following that fight, it's easy to see how John Starks, who I love to death, lost his cool and headbutted Miller in the 1993 playoffs. He didn't hit him as hard as Miller pretended in the subsequent flop but he did make contact. Considering the subsequent suspension, I'm sure John wished he'd laid Miller out for real.
Maybe this film hits me the way it does because I remember the Knicks-Pacers rivalry so fondly and those battles produced two Knicks Finals appearances. Eventually of course, Reggie beats the Knicks. But the best line in the movie for Knicks fans is the last one. I won't spoil the surprise.
3. The Other Dream Team
The Other Dream Team begins with the Soviet Union defeating the United States in the gold medal basketball game of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. An hour and a half or so later, it ends with Lithuania claiming their bronze medals for basketball at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona wearing tie-dyed shirts provided by the Grateful Dead. And both are victory scenes.
In between the two medal ceremonies, the movie tells the story of a country with a proud basketball tradition gaining their basketball and actual freedom from a nation that had occupied their lands for 50 years. Of the five starters on the 1988 Soviet Union gold medal winning team, four (Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomicius) were Lithuanian. They were labeled by most of the rest of the world that didn't know any better as Soviets or (even worse) Russians. If you watch this film, you'll be pretty convinced that they were never either of those two things.
This movie is a tear-jerker. I'm serious. There are some truly awful things happen here, from deportations to Siberia to tanks crushing peaceful demonstrators. As a college kid in the United States reading the newspapers in the late 1980s and early 1980s, change in the Soviet Union seemed so benign and Mikhail Gorbachev seemed so different from past Soviet leaders. Watching this movie really provides a lot of perspective and re-sets my own version of history from my coddled existence in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Syracuse, New York. The struggle for independence in Lithuania was real and it cost a lot for some people. It's absolutely heartbreaking in spots.
There are some great triumphs in this movie and watching film of Arvydas Sabonis is always amazing no matter his age. But by all rights you'll walk away from this film changed a little and hopefully inspired at the same time. Please watch it. A few years ago, the Wizards played Zalgiris Kaunas in a pre-season game at Verizon Center. I wish I'd known about the history of that club before I attended that game. Missed opportunity. The only thing I can do from here is make up for it.
Look for any sort of top ten sports movies of all time and you will likely find Hoosiers on the list or at least near the top. It's a David and Goliath story of tiny fictional Hickory High taking their shot at glory and the Indiana state basketball title under beleaguered head coach Norman Dale played by Gene Hackman.
The movie is set in the 1950s and is pure heartland of America folklore in a place that most people associate as the breadbasket of basketball. Sure, Dr. Naismith may have invented the game at the Springfield YMCA but the game grew up in the midwest. Indiana's the perfect place to set this movie.
At number two on my list, Hoosiers is the only fictional work in my countdown. But before you dismiss this too good to be true story as untrue, it is actually based in fact, loosely telling the story of the 1954 Milan High School team that did in fact win the state title despite apparently long odds.
To show how much I love this movie, I've owned it on VHS, the deluxe two-DVD re-issue (I think for the 20th anniversary of its release) and now as an HD version on iTunes. I love Gene Hackman in general and he's great in this film as the uncompromising my way or the highway believe in fundamentals at all costs head coach clinging to what is surely his last shot. He literally has nowhere else to go. Clips from the film regularly appear at crunch time in NBA arenas all over the country.
Yes, it's confusing when Buddy suddenly appears back on the team. My DVD reissue explains how that happened. I could watch Hoosiers over and over and over again. I need to get to the gym where they filmed the movie one of these days. I see a road trip eventually through central Indiana. Not this year but maybe one day.
1. Once Brothers
The reason Hoosiers is not my number one basketball movie of all time is because Once Brothers is just that good of a movie. It looks like it was made on a shoestring budget (I'm sure it wasn't) but the story here is just so incredible.
The Other Dream Team told the story of a country coming together using the national basketball team as a metaphor for the nation's re-birth. Once Brothers tells the story of a nation coming apart over ethnic lines which destroys the friendship of two of the first European stars to play in the NBA. I can't begin to try to understand what the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia meant or what it did to the relationships between men from Croatia and Serbia who might have known each other. All I can say is this film genuinely breaks my heart.
The story is told from the perspective of Vlade Divac, who is Serbian, about the loss metaphorically and ultimately literally of his friend Drazen Petrovic, who was Croatian. In 1988 the two men started on Yugoslavia's national basketball team and won a silver medal at the 1988 Olympic Games. Two years later they would take home gold medals from the 1990 FIBA World Championship. Yugoslavia started to collapse the very next year with the secession of Solvenia and the dissolution of that country would eventually devolve into ethnic cleansing and horrible war crimes.
Divac was always one of my favorite NBA players (I love big men who can pass) and so I'm naturally interested in his story. But more than that, I think this is a tragic tale of what we let happen to each other and how we fight and kill each other over things that ultimately make little sense like national boundaries and hatred between people who are different from one another.
It's difficult to understand if Divac's story is biased or untrue (ultimately there is bias in everything, I suppose) but I believe he is genuinely hurt by the divide that existed between him and Petrovic over something that leaders of their countries were fighting over. Petrovic was one of the first players from Europe to find real success in the NBA but his career and life were cut short by a fatal car accident during the 1993 NBA offseason. His death obviously prevents him from telling his side of the story.
There's little joy in this movie but you get a sense at the end of the film that Divac achieves some sort of closure, which I guess is all you can hope for. But the 75 plus minutes you spend watching this movie are powerful and meaningful and I've watched it several times. It's terrible what we do to other people but it's worth it to sit through at least once. Not happy. But better than any other basketball film I've seen.
So that's my list. What am I missing? He Got Game? Hoop Dreams? Other films yet to be released. I'd love a comment or two pointing me towards something I haven't seen yet. Wizards Media Day tomorrow. Can't wait, even though pretty much nothing happens that day.