Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Joy of Sports Documentaries

I have always been a fan of documentaries, especially as it pertains to sports.  There’s something infinitely enjoyable about watching an athlete or team go through so much to hopefully accomplish their goal.  These glimpses into what it takes to be a high level competitor are both entertaining and jaw-dropping.  Witnessing struggle and sacrifice makes you truly appreciate what these individuals go through.

For fun, I wanted to countdown my all-time favorite sports/competition themed documentaries.  In all honesty, there are not criteria to be eligible for my list outside of needing some type of competition in the backdrop.  Hopefully you’ve seen them, but if not, I hope this provides you with an enjoyable list if titles to check out.

Honorable Mention

Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs the New York Knicks – From ESPN’s exemplary 30 for 30 series, Winning Time documents the heated rivalry during the 1990’s between Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller and the New York Knicks.  As told through the eyes of Miller and many of the key participants, it’s a fun look back at some of the more memorable moments of the NBA during that era.

More Than A Game – The story of LeBron James and his teammates as they journey through high school into superstardom.  It’s an amazingly crafted piece that not only shows the evolution of an international icon, but also shows what it is like to be in that shadow.  While LeBron jumps off the screen with his presence, it’s truly enjoyable to watch how this group is one unit.  No one was bigger than the team and that team was the epitome of family. It is a beautiful portrayal of sport, family, support and growth.

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows – In the incredibly scripted world of professional wrestling, this story documents the very real side of the industry.  Following 90’s superstar Bret Hart, we see the struggle of a man grasping for integrity, while losing focus on his reality.  The story culminates in the infamous “Montreal Screwjob”, in which the script is thrown out the window by WWF CEO Vince McMahon and chaos erupts.  This is truly an outstanding look into a world most often ridiculed, but needs to gain more respect.

The U – Another entry into the 30 for 30 series, The U documents the rise and fall of the University of Miami’s football team.  Watching the team rise up under Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmie Johnson and Dennis Erickson is fun, but the meat of this story is the multitude of interviews by former players that really tell the tale.  For Miami fans, it is a must see to enjoy to great moments.  For the Miami haters out there, it’s likely a great reminder of why you hate them in the first place.

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters – Probably the most unlikely inclusion on my list, King of Kong tells the story of an everyday man trying to break the arcade scoring record on Donkey Kong.  As simple of a story as it sounds, the characters and twists involved are absolutely surreal.  It is truly like watching an alternate universe of humanity.  Such an entertaining trek into an obscure world.

Now on to the top five favorites!

The ESPN 30 for 30 series set the bar for what sports documentaries should be.  The stories have been so well crafted and exposed so many aspects of sport.  The most intriguing and eye opening one, for me, was Catching Hell.  The story surrounds Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series between the Florida Marlins and Chicago Cubs.  While that may not tip you off, you may remember this game for the “Steve Bartman incident”.  As the story goes, Steve Bartman possibly interfered with a foul ball and started a chain of events that prevented the Cubs from reaching the World Series.

There are so many interesting stories in this film; ranging from other spectators in the crowd to the security guard who assisted Bartman out of the stadium that night.  What struck me most during the film was the usage of fan-made video from that night.  We were placed right into the stands at Wrigley Field that night and witnessed some of the more disturbing images of that evening.  The fan reaction, all pointed at one individual, was shocking.  Sports are taken extremely serious in this country, and unfortunately, that can be reflected in a negative way.  A bright light was shone on the ugly side of sports and really makes you evaluate how you conduct yourself at these events.  The mob mentality is a scary thing and is on full display during the film.

The only negative was the lack of Bartman himself.  However, he’s a man that has never come out to tell his story.  Despite numerous attempts over the years (including some very large monetary possibilities), he has never spoken out about the events of that night.  While I mention it as a negative, I can’t help but respect the fact that he has stayed true to himself and never capitalized on his fame…or infamy.

It’s no secret that I am a fan of professional wrestling, and have been since I was a kid.  While it isn’t considered a “sport”, the athleticism is undeniable.  The stories they tell, utilizing larger than life personalities, is simply a fun escape from everyday life.  It’s something fathers and sons can bond over, which is something quite meaningful to me as the proud father of a 3 year old son.  Not long ago, Marshall walked downstairs to see me watching WWE Monday Night Raw and saw the performer CM Punk.  He paused for a second, looked at the TV and back to me and said, “He has tattoos like you, Daddy.  I like him.”  You can’t beat moments like that.

There are millions of positive stories like that people can tell, but the greatness of Beyond the Mat lies in the storytelling of men all in different stages of their careers.  The story of New Jack, a hardcore performer in the now defunct ECW, as he explores possibilities outside of wrestling.  The heartwarming story of Mick Foley, whose years of hard work has paid off to become one of the top draws of the industry.  The heartbreaking story of Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who was working independent shows in small towns.  Broke, out of shape, drug addicted and estranged from his family; his life is out of control and there seems to be no hope in sight.

There are so many images of this film that stand out, but nothing will resonate more than watching Mick Foley’s family sit front row during one of his matches.  It’s almost painful to watch his family as they see the patriarch of their home bleed profusely after taking repeated steel chair shots to the head.

The tears are genuine.  The pain is unbelievably real.  The warmth, passion and love for family and business are unparalleled.  In an unreal world, we see the reality of what goes into their lives.

#3 – Tyson

The best stories can only be told by the people who experienced them.  In Tyson, legendary boxer Mike Tyson lets the world in on his history.  Almost presented like an interview, Tyson narrates his life growing up poor in a bad neighborhood all the way to the heights of his fame and fortune.

Tyson tells his story with such an understated energy.  He’s not boasting, nor is he humble.  He’s simply Mike Tyson and the stories he tells are told in a “matter of fact” way.  That’s what makes this such an interesting watch.  It’s not just a peek behind the curtain, it a complete view behind the scenes of a man once considered the “Baddest Man on the Planet”.  By the end of the film, you feel like you have watched Tyson grow and evolve as a person.  He has learned some hard lessons; lessons that seemingly beat him down, but in the end, couldn’t knock him out.

Redemption stories are fun to watch, and when this was released, his complete story had yet to be finished.  Since the release, he has appeared in the Hangover films and made various appearances (including Broadway) making over his once frighteningly rough exterior.  Tyson is the ultimate story of redemption.  He had it all, lost it all and is regaining the most important part…himself.

I grew up a fan of mixed martial arts and, specifically, the UFC.  When the first UFC event took place a stone’s throw away from me, I was immediately hooked.  The basic premise was simple back then, which fighting style was the best?  Was it karate, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing, etc.?  The UFC set out to prove that, and would eventually evolve into the amazing combat sport it is today.

The Smashing Machine tells the story of Mark Kerr, a Division I wrestling champion who had taken the MMA world by storm.  He, along with film co-star Mark Coleman, popularized the “ground and pound” style in which they took their opponent down and brutalized them with fists and elbows.  Kerr’s story is sad, though, as he struggled with addictions that derailed his promising career.

The thing that makes this film special is the dichotomy between Kerr and Coleman.  Kerr seemingly relied on natural ability while Coleman worked harder than others.  Kerr focused on a volatile relationship with his girlfriend while Coleman was happy with his wife and daughters.  Coleman’s maturity burst through the screen while Kerr’s immaturity was shown in stark contrast.  These differences are never clearer than in the last tournament they were to compete together.  While Kerr’s life seems to collapse around him, Coleman’s thrives.

The stark differences between these two competitors shine during the film.  That’s what really stands out during the film.  Kerr struggles through addictions and his life, which while sad, are an indicator that not all elite athletes possess the internal drive it takes to be a champion.  Physical gifts can only take you so far.  The mental make-up of athletes is almost more important, and it is on full display in The Smashing Machine.

#1 – Murderball

I can’t recall being moved by a film as much as I was for Murderball, the story of the United States Paralympic rugby team.  Wheelchair rugby is a full-contact sport, specially designed for competitors with disabilities.  The sport itself is covered and central to the film, and is clearly an intense competition.  However, the sport is simply a backdrop for the amazing stories of the participants themselves.

When seeing someone confined to a wheelchair, the regular reaction is one of sympathy; almost a pity of what that individual has to go through.  This film takes that feeling, that stereotype, and shatters it.  There’s no pity needed.  These are just regular people, living their life in an extraordinary way.  You get to watch them interact as a team, interact with their rivals and overcome adversities.

The greatest aspect of this film is getting to know the players as people off the court.  You get to take a journey with them and understand why they are who they are.  The most recognizable of the group is Mark Zupan; the outspoken, tattooed breakout star of the film.  Zupan is wheelchair bound due to an automobile accident from when he was in college.  While passed out in the back of the truck, his friend behind the wheel got into the accident that threw Zupan from the bed of the truck.  During the film you see the two of them together, although there is distance between them that comes through the screen.  Watching them together during the Paralympics is so powerful, as the feeling of forgiveness and acceptance radiates through.

The film also contains the story of a man recently injured and wheelchair bound.  While attempting to cope with everything and the changes his life is faced with, he discovers wheelchair rugby.  As low and defeated as he seems, you can see the light in his head pop on the moment he gets in the custom rugby chair.  You can see his journey has just started, but that simple chair pushes him in a better direction.


I hope you take the chance on these films, if you haven’t had the chance previously.  They encompass the joy of sport, but moreover, the power of the human spirit.  They display resilience, pain and obstacles that need overcome.  No matter what the reason you watch, I just know inspiration is right around the corner.



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