Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Hoop Documentary Power Rankings

It's the season when movie critics look back and evaluate the best films of the year. Fueled primarily by the astonishing output of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, 2010 has been the richest year for outstanding basketball documentary films that we can remember.

And this is on the heels of several hoop docs worth watching in the last few years, on a wide variety of topics, including Black Magic, Heart of the Game, More Than a Game, Gunnin' for That #1 Spot, Sonicsgate, Kobe Doin Work, 3 Points, Battle for Tobacco Road, Quantum Hoops and more.

With so much compelling stuff out there this year, I wanted to take a moment to offer my 2010 Hoop Documentary Power Rankings:

1. No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (ESPN 30 for 30)
Director Steve James established himself as a documentary filmmaking legend with Hoop Dreams, not only the greatest sports documentary ever made (by leaps and bounds), but also one of the best-ever American documentary films, period.

With No Crossover, James offered the most fully-realized execution of the 30 for 30 ethos of first-person POV filmmaking, which led to disjointed narratives in the hands of other filmmakers (even some very talented ones) in the series.

In No Crossover, James revisits his hometown of Hampton, Virginia, and explores the effects of the celebrated - and racially divisive - 1993 trial of then-high-school-superstar Allen Iverson for his role in a bowling-alley brawl between a group of white kids and a group of black kids.

The brilliance of James's application of the first-person POV approach is that he manages to remain non-judgemental. He unearths the information, lays it on the table, and then leaves it up to the viewer to decide how they feel about the trial, and ultimately, how they feel about Allen Iverson.

James shows how the Iverson trial - ostensibly a search for truth - breaks down into stark black-and-white lines of racial perceptions, and demonstrates that the real truth behind the trial, and behind Iverson himself, is wrapped into all sorts of ambiguities and contradictions.

In the hands of James, the trial is really the perfect lens through which to explore one of the most compelling and polarizing athletes of this era, Allen Iverson.

2. The Street Stops Here (PBS; TeamWorks Media)
An absolutely riveting behind-the-scenes look at the 2007-08 season of Bob Hurley, Sr.'s basketball program at St. Anthony's High School in Jersey City, New Jersey.

To suggest that Hurley is old-school, is unrelenting intense, and provides tough love to his players is a massive understatement. In addition to following the St. Anthony's season, The Street Stops Here also tracks the lives of St. Anthony's players (showing how vital the relentless discipline required to survive in Hurley's program is off the court as well), and tracks the fundraising efforts required to keep the St. Anthony's school alive (showing how vital the marketing of the basketball team - and Hurley's commitment to and participation in said marketing - is to the school's existence.

Hurley, who was very justifiably inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in August, is simply a force of nature, a hugely compelling character who drives the film along. Kudos to director Kevin Shaw.

3. Once Brothers (ESPN 30 for 30; NBA Entertainment)
What an incredibly moving story of the breakdown of the friendship between Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic - and of the legendary Yugoslavian national team of the era - due to the devastating war between Serbs and Croats.

I certainly thought Once Brothers was first-rate, though the ending wrapped up a little too neatly for a story which probably called for more No Crossover-style ambiguity.

I absolutely loved the footage of the Divac-Drazen-Kukoc Yugos in action - what a beautiful team to watch. Would have loved to have seen even more of Kukoc, who offered wise and sober commentary at multiple intervals.

4. Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (HBO)
I wrote extensively on Magic & Bird after it aired in March.

I can't believe I have this rated only 4th, because I really loved it. Magic & Bird was an incredibly satisfying piece of nostalgia. As usual from HBO Sports, a well-known story was expertly constructed, with a flawless narrative which still managed to mine new information and rare footage - such as the downright breathtaking stuff of Magic and Larry playing together in the World Invitational Tournament as college players in the summer of 1978. I could watch Magic & Bird over and over, and probably will.

5. Guru of Go (ESPN 30 for 30)
I enjoyed this look at coach Paul Westhead and his fast-breaking Loyola Marymount teams, with an inevitable focus on the tragic 1990 on-court death of star player Hank Gathers.

It's hard to explain how insanely entertaining those LMU teams were to watch, with an emphasis on insane. It was the most relentless run-and-gun approach I've ever seen, and they remain one of my all-time favorite basketball teams to watch, on any level.

I would have preferred a little less of a focus on Westhead and his career journey, and more on those specific LMU teams and their execution of Westhead's vaunted system.

Still, any recap of Loyola Marymount's run to the Elite Eight of the 1990 NCAA Tournament, in the immediate aftermath of Gathers's death, gets me every time. I agree with 30 for 30 co-creator Bill Simmons that Bo Kimble's sinking of a left-handed free throw in honor of his close friend Gathers, in LMU's first tourney game, is underrated as one of the most moving moments in recent sports history.

6. The Association (ESPN; NBA Entertainment)
I know that The Association could be considered more of a reality-TV show, per se, than a documentary film, but I wanted to include it here, anyway, to share a few thoughts. There were two installments of The Association in 2010. One, in April, was a one-hour show tracking the Lakers' 2009-10 regular season. The second, in December, was a half-hour program on the 2010-11 Celtics, the first of five episodes over the course of the regular season.

Both installments were entertaining, for sure, especially with the comedic value of the cast of characters on this year's Celtics. The main problem for me is that HBO's Hard Knocks and now 24/7: Penguins/Capitals have shown that these types of documentaries can be so much more, and dig into storylines so much deeper. The Association is just trying to track too much real time with too little air time to explore storylines or personalities in a meaningful way.

7. Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks (ESPN 30 for 30)
Dan Klores's epic Black Magic is on the short list of great basketball documentaries, but I was left largely unmoved by Winning Time.

I mean, I thought it was fine, but I had trouble getting past the fact that the importance of the Pacers-Knicks rivalry seemed to be wildly over-inflated. There were a couple of indelible performances by Reggie Miller (Game 5 in 1994, and Game 1 in 1995), for sure, but overall, these were not series which really decided championships or had an impact on NBA history, and were frankly pretty ugly to watch. It's a second-tier rivalry to me, but one of the teams was from New York, so I guess that makes it important.

The irony is that the Knicks *were* involved in an epic, pivotal rivalry in the '90s, it just happened to be against the Chicago Bulls. Winning Time tries to paint Patrick Ewing's miss at the end of Game 7 vs. Indiana in 1995 as a definitive moment of that Knicks era, but that team wasn't good enough to win it all; Charles Smith's denial at the hands of the Bulls' Dobermans in 1993 is much more definitive, to me.

Bulls-Knicks had better series, more-important series, more great moments, more compelling characters, many more dramatic storylines, and was just a better rivalry overall. I know that one of the missions of 30 for 30 was to present some lesser-known stories, but if you want to tell a story about a '90s Knicks rivalry called "Winning Time", it's gotta be Bulls-Knicks.

I didn't find Winning Time to be terribly groundbreaking stylistically, either. I'm not trying to be a hater, it was a well-made documentary overall, I just don't totally understand where all the over-the-top praise came from.

All that said, the John Starks reaction to Reggie Miller's eight-points-in-nine-seconds eruption - "Man, did this dude just did this?" - may have been the single best line uttered in any film this year.


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