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30 for 30: This Magic Moment

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**½

With the first pick, of the 1993 NBA Draft, the Orlando Magic select Chris Webber.

Do you like 30 for 30s about basketball teams? Well this one certainly is made for you. It looks like Shaquille O’Neal watched some and wanted one to stoke his ego and let him feel less guilty about leaving the Orlando Magic for the L.A. Lakers. There is nothing wrong with this film except that it is formulaic to the point of being worth watching only for the vintage game footage. Highlight was remembering about Little Penny, the small puppet voiced by Chris Rock to sell Reeboks.

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30 for 30: Four Falls of Buffalo

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****

We want Scott! We want Scott!

Ken Rogers of NFL Films directed this piece of apparently revisionist history. Instead of casting the Buffalo Bills as frustrating losers—which was contemporaneously considered accurate—it shows them for the football winners they were.  The context for the film are the 1990 to 1993 NFL seasons where the Buffalo Bills did the unthinkable and made it to four consecutive Super Bowls. By losing those four Super Bowls they should have broken Buffalo’s heart and its spirit, but they did not.

Just seeing the stars of Bills living well is nice. Jim Kelly has had an incredibly challenging post football career that featured a disabled child who died before the age of 9 and then at least one bout of Cancer. Much of the narrative comes from the players being interviewed, including Thurman Thomas (running back, 1991 MVP) and Bruce Smith (defensive end, defensive player of the year 1990 & 1996) watching the games together.

I called this revisionist history because history is written by the winners and with some distance the truth has snuck out—the Buffalo Bills were the most dominant football team of the early 1990s. Did the underperform in the Super Bowl? Yes. That led to people ignoring that facts that were contrary to the narrative of Bills as losers. The one that jumps out was how the AFC was considered so much weaker than the NFC, with the Bills as the poster child. But they were a poster child who lost only 2 of 16 games in those 4 years against their NFC opponents.

In 1990 the Bills lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl on a 50/50 shot field goal. However, the Bills went into Giants Stadium and beat them 17-13. That was on the road and it was week 14.

In 1991 the Bills lost the Redskins in the Super Bowl—Andre Reed called them the greatest team he’d ever seen.

In 1992 and 1993 the Bills lost to the Cowboys in the Super Bowl, but beat the Cowboys in Dallas during that 1993 season…and led at halftime.

The logic that calls the Bills losers means that every other team were even bigger losers. Even the Super Bowl winners. They all lost to the Bills. And if they did not play the Bills (to lose to them) it was because they did not even make it far enough into the playoffs to lose to them. The people who know this are the people of Buffalo. People who cheered for Scott Norwood after he missed that field goal. People who rallied behind their team, and continued to do so when things went South. They may have deserved a win, but it is just a game.

Oh, and watching Don Beebe run down Leon Lett brought tears to my eyes again. I think it brought tears to lots of eyes.

 

30 for 30: Bad Boys

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***

It was definitely one of the worst days of my life, I lost a game, was accused of being a racist and I’m a bad guy now.

This documentary did a very good job of introducing me to a Pistons team that peaked before I really cared about basketball. I knew the names, but did not appreciate who they were in their primes. For those of you who do not recognize the name “The Bad Boys”, they were the Detroit Pistons of 1987-1991, more or less. Their story starts in the early 1980’s with a new Pistons general manager, Jack McCloskey, and the drafting of Isiah Thomas. I had heard the nickname “Trader Jack”, but did not realize just how much wheeling and dealing he did. I knew that, at one time, Thomas was a hero in Chicago and considered to be on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats. The film only touches it in passing, but Thomas was left off of the 1992 US Men’s Basketball Team, The Dream Team. Thus if he was not good enough for the Dream Team, then he should not have been on it. Of course through that prism Larry Bird was still a top 3 player, which is preposterous. Rumors have persisted that Michael Jordan kept Isiah Thomas off the Dream Team.  That fascinates me, but to Detroit, and the focus of this movie, it was just a footnote.

The context for the animosity between Jordan and Thomas came from three consecutive NBA playoff series between the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons. In 1989, the Pistons debuted “The Jordan Rules”, where they focused on just funneling him towards more defenders and more contact. Physically they wore Jordan down, exposing a weakness. That year the Pistons won the championship against the Lakers. In 1990 Jordan had bulked up and prepared for the physicality of a best of seven series with the Bad Boys, so they focused on stopping Scottie Pippen instead. Pippen had his first migraine during game 7 and played terribly. Then Pistons won championship number two from the Portland Trailblazers. In 1991, the Pistons had failed to protect one of their two enforcers, Rick Mahorn, from the expansion draft, which meant that Bill Laimbeer had a lot of people coming at him. When they faced the Bulls they got swept. Famously they walked off the floor before the end of the game, similar to what the Boston Celtics did in 1988 when the Pistons beat them. This offended Jordan, who is a petty, sad basketball god.¹

The public perception of the Celtics, Pistons, and Bulls varied a great deal and affected how we look at their actions. When Pat Riley told the Knicks he would fine them for helping up an opposing player, that is championship experience and leadership. When a cerebral, obnoxious player like Laimbeer does it, then he is a jerk. Jordan talking shit about the Pistons (the league will be better without their dirty style of play) while up 3-0 gets chalked up to his ascendancy to basketball supremacy and fit into what most NBA fans thought about the Pistons. I do not know if this changed many people’s minds about this team, but it definitely made me appreciate the talent and skill thereon. Should Isiah have been on the Dream Team? If you say yes, whom do you remove? Does he deserve the second point guard spot over Stockton? Over Johnson? Laettner was on the team to represent the past by representing the future,² so replacing him would confront issues other than basketball skill and merit. A 12 man team meant 5 positions, each with a backup, and two floaters. Ignoring Laettner, again, the only position three deep was small forward: Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, and Chris Mullin. From a basketball standpoint, this made sense since Bird was a physical liability. But in 1992 Isiah had been the best player on a back-to-back champion team, had the record for most point in a quarter in NBA Finals (25). Not only was Isiah better than those three players, but he was probably better than Stockton and certainly superior to the HIV-positive Johnson.

If the documentary had focused more on what I wanted, it probably would have been a less accessible and nerdier movie. Zak Levitt gets credit, as director, for putting together this nice movie, and his biggest prior directing credit was on the 2012 documentary for NBA TV, The Dream Team. That can explain why he no longer felt compelled to address that team. Oh, and Kid Rock narrated this. He was neither as terrible as I expected, nor as good as I had hoped. He was the perfect choice to represent the Detroit of the Bad Boys—mostly Black with one white guy whom most of the country hated.

 

¹ I do not like Michael Jordan and the mystique around him. I know that he is one of the five greatest basketball players of all-time, but he had the guy who took his spot on the
² Until 1992 no NBA players could play in the Olympics, so in the past the US team only used college athletes, thus having a college player tied the team to its traditions. Also, having the best college player was designed to have someone who would return, thus creating a cycle of greatness.

Straight Outta L.A.

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**½

I love L.A. (But as sung in that Randy Newman from the song in The Naked Gun way)

Well this ESPN 30 for 30 from Ice Cube is only his second attempt at directing—the first being the forgettable The Players Club. This felt like an ad for how cool Ice Cube used to be. To be fair, he was pretty cool, but he still talks like he did in the mid 1980’s. It is not that I want him to have changed, but Daddy Day Care has changed and he refuses own up to that. This documentary showcases the story of how the Raiders moved to Los Angeles and then left again. Contemporaneously Ice Cube’s NWA became the first gangsta rap group. The narrative is about how LA loved the Raiders and how NWA and the desire to not wear gang colors led to Raiders gear selling out for years. This led to schools identifying Raiders clothing as gang colors and banning them. It is an interesting story and one with lots of facts, but almost no concern with linear storytelling or with proving any causal relationship between gangsta rap, Raiders gear, and the Raiders leaving LA.

Broke & The U

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They knew when payday was. They knew it better than I did. They had it circled on the calendar. Broke

This was an excellent informational film for professional athletes. So I learned a lot that would have been extremely useful, if I were a professional athlete. However, my physical abilities left me a bit shy of making it to the pros in any sport. I did appreciate how difficult it must have been to get these proud men to talk about their embarrassing public bankruptcies. Even talking about being broke Andre Rison seemed cool. Although wearing reflective sunglasses for his indoor interview was a bit odd.

Billy Corben directed Broke and two years prior directed The U for part of the original 30 for 30. The only thing that was improved upon in Broke was the obnoxious music from The U. Besides that, the story of how the University of Miami became excellent at football and then hated by the nation is an interesting one. As a member of the the American nation The U had more meaning for me so watch it before you watch Broke.

*** for Broke and ***½ for The U.

June 17th, 1994

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****½

There is no transition to this.

That was Bob Costas talking to his producers at NBC about his job of sending the NBA Finals pregame show to NBC News with Tom Brokaw for coverage of the OJ Simpson chase. I do not know how much I need to tell people about the OJ Simpson case, since the level of knowledge is wholly dependent on the age of the reader. I was 12 in 1994, so I believe that I am at the perfect cut off age. Anyone older than me remembers how it took over television and dominated the national discourse, even in New York. Anyone younger than me probably has grown up in the post-reality tv world that June 17th spawned, and can just go to wikipedia to find out.

This day included the NY Rangers celebrating their first championship in 50 years, the Knicks playing the Rockets for game 5 of the NBA finals, baseball on the brink of a strike, and Arnold Palmer’s last PGA match. I cared a little about the Rangers, but I loved the Knicks and this was their chance. While the game was interrupted with the white Ford Bronco chase, I just wanted to see if my Knicks would go up 3-2 on the Rockets.

The unique feature of this documentary was how this exclusively used  footage and audio from the day itself. The one “cheat” the director, Brett Morgen, employed was to not solely show all of the stories contemporaneously. For instance Arnold Palmer seemed to still be talking after his bed time. That knit picking aside, this was an achievement in documentary filmmaking.

From Elway to Marino

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***

Not as catchy of a title as From Miami to Ibiza, but definitely more man-centric. By which I mean that I do not recall seeing a single woman in this entire documentary. There were almost no non-white men in this, actually. But when the subject is the 1983 NFL Draft and the drama involved in it, I am always willing to give 75 minutes to watching it.

The draft featured more than its titular stars, but they had the same agent and the best careers. For your reading pleasure, here is a rundown of the entire draft:
1. The Baltimore Colts selected John Elway. What a completely bizarre sentence.
2. The Los Angeles Rams selected Eric Dickerson. Good pick, but this reminds me of a conversation I recently had trying to explain the former existence of the St. Louis Football Cardinals.
3. The Seattle Seahawks selected Curt Warner. Apparently he played running back in the NFL before going to the University of Northern Iowa, becoming white, and then not getting drafted.
4. The Denver Broncos selected Northwestern’s offensive tackle (OT) Chris Hinton. He went on to have a great career for the COLTS. Do the math here…
5. The San Diego Chargers selected linebacker (LB) Billy Ray Smith, who went to school at Arkansas. Arkansas? With a name like that? I bet he fit right in.
6. Da Bears selected Jimbo Covert. He was the first player from Pitt selected, not Dan Marino. And the have not had a quarterback since. Yes they did win the Super Bowl three seasons later, but imagine that defense with Dan f’n Marino.
7. The Kansas City Chiefs selected Todd Blackledge, who sounds like he never got his fair shot. But as the 2nd quarterback (QB) taken in this draft, he seems like a huge bust. Note, the Chiefs have not taken a QB in the first round since.
8. The Philadelphia Eagles selected Michael Haddix, running back (RB) from Mississippi State. His son (Jr.) played for the Siena Saints.
9. The Houston Oilers selected future Hall of Fame Guard Bruce Matthews. Good pick.
10. The New York Not-Baseball Giants selected future Pro-Bowl safety (S) Terry Kinard.
11. The Green Bay Packers selected another player from Pitt not named Dan Marino.
12. The Buffalo Bills famously drafted…Tony Hunter. Wait for it…
13. The Detroit Lions draft the eventually-replaced-by-Barry-Sanders James Jones.
14. The Bills now select Jim Kelly, who actually did not play for them—thanks, USFL—for three years.
15. The New England Patriots selected QB Tony Eason because Jim Kelly was gone. That means 4 QBs selected before Marino.
16. The Atlanta Falcons selected defensive end (DE) Mike Pitts, who played for a dozen years in the NFL.
17. The St. Louis Cardinals selected future All-Pro S Leonard Smith.
18. The Chicago Bears originally rented their C logo from the University of Chicago. Seriously. They also took speedy WR Willie Gault here.
BearsMaroonsReds19. The Minnesota Vikings selected S Joey Browner for someone who went to six pro bowls.
20. The San Diego Chargers selected another player who opted to play in the USFL for a couple of years. The famed Gary Anderson. No, not the place kicker the less famous running back.
21. The Pittsburgh Steelers selected nose tackle Gabriel Rivera, who wound up in a car accident, unlike Pittsburgh’s local football hero, Dan Marino.
22. San Diego also selected cornerback (CB) Gill Byrd, because they had Dan Fouts. He might be in the hall of fame. Byrd is not, but he was a very good player.
23. The Cowboys picked Tony Romo. Just kidding, they picked Jim Jeffcoat, who was not on the team by the time they were good again.
24. The Jets selected Ken O’Brien. Ken was a good QB, but no Marino. When you can take Dan Marino or someone who did not play Division 1 A—now the FBS—you have to take him, because you are the Jets.
25. The Cincinnati Bengals selected Dave Rimington, who might be the all-time greatest NFL bust whom you have never heard of. Did you know that he never started an NFL game? He “played” 5 seasons, but never started. And he has an award named after him in college awarded to the best Center. That is like drafting a Johnny Unitas and him never being good enough to start, or Dick Butkus never making it in the NFL. Talk about The Best That Never Was.
26. The LA(?)/Oakland(?) Raiders selected C Don Mosebar because they forgot about Marino, or almost traded for Elway. Oy.
27. The Miami Football Dolphins selected Dan Marino. And have made no good decisions in the intervening 30 years.
28. The Washington Redskins picked one of my favorite Madden players of all-time, Darrell Green. Unfortunately the Redskins were no fun to play as besides him and you cannot CB blitz on every play.

Tada! This took me far longer than I expected…

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