Sunday, March 14, 2010
Until the Skinny Guy Sings: Winning Time
The last time I watched a full NBA game on TV was June 19, 2000. That was also the last time I watched half of an NBA game – maybe even the last time I watched a full quarter. On that night, the Los Angeles Lakers closed out the Indiana Pacers, 116-111, in the sixth game of NBA Finals. The win gave the Lakers their first league title since 1988, while the loss effectively ended the Pacers’ championship hopes in the Reggie Miller era. Miller, the charismatic sharpshooter and team captain, would play five more seasons before retiring, but he and the Pacers only once made it past the first round of the playoffs; over the previous six seasons, the Pacers had gone to the Eastern Conference finals four times. In Miller’s prime, the Pacers were always on the doorstep of an NBA Championship, but they never got through the door.
I mention all of this on my way to reviewing Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks, the latest in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, in the spirit of full disclosure. I am no longer an NBA fan. I couldn’t name a single starting five or maybe even five players on a single team. I hear the Lakers are still great in the West and the Cleveland Cavaliers are favorites in the East, but I haven’t seen it with my own eyes. Today the NBA is as foreign to me as Jupiter. But back when I did follow the NBA – and I followed it passionately, though not quite devoutly – I was a monogamous Indiana Pacers fan, and I was a Pacers fan because I was a Reggie Miller fan. All of that said, perhaps you should be skeptical when I tell you that the best word to describe Winning Time is “joyous.” I am, of course, inclined to enjoy any film that flatters Miller and highlights the suffering of the Knicks. But I don’t think that’s the extent of this documentary’s charms. Far from it. Winning Time isn’t so much about glorifying Miller but about celebrating those moments when sports provide great theater.
Director Dan Klores sets this mood from the outset. Before we see a single frame of basketball footage, as the opening titles appear in white text over a black background, we hear, of all things, opera. From there, Klores cuts to a montage of some of his narrative’s major players – Patrick Ewing, Pat Riley, John Starks and, of course, Miller – that culminates in Starks’ gentle head butt and Miller’s resulting melodramatic sideways stagger, performed in this case to the sound of Luciano Pavarotti belting out “Nessun Dorma.” Starks’ famous forehead bump occurred in the first round of the 1993 playoffs, and, despite all the media hype it inspired, that act managed to be a mere overture for what was to come. Winning Time’s core drama is constructed from the still-memorable Pacers-Knicks postseason match-ups in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals and the 1995 semifinals – “blood battles” that saw Knicks superfan Spike Lee become part of the action, that saw Miller score 25 fourth-quarter points for a come-from-behind win, that saw the Knicks choke, that saw Miller gag, that saw Starks be both a hero and a goat, that saw Miller score 6 points in less than 6 seconds and that enjoyed trashtalk so sensational that the New York tabloids struggled to embellish it.
This isn’t all that Winning Time covers. The film reverse pivots to remind us how Ewing came to the Knicks with great expectations and how Miller’s underdog mentality and need to break out on a big stage was shaped by a childhood spent in the figurative and literal shadow of his sister Cheryl, one of the most dominant female basketball players of all time. But Klores’ documentary is less about obsessing over detail than about basking in the power of Miller’s show-stopping arias – magnificent athletic performances that were enhanced by Miller’s all-eyes-on-me love of the spotlight. How appropriate it is that Miller’s top individual rival wasn’t Ewing or even Starks so much as it was Lee, the man of Hollywood, who was often in a jersey and was sometimes on the court but who was never officially “in” the game – at least not until Miller made him part of it, staring down Lee so frequently that you halfway expected the loquacious filmmaker to get whistled for 3 seconds in the key. At one point in Winning Time, Lee shows off a wall covered in framed newspapers with headlines blaming him for inciting Miller, and in that moment we remember that the Miller-Lee rivalry wasn’t only a sideshow but was sometimes the main act. Even no-nonsense sports fans had to concede that the frequent TV cutaways to Lee, chirping from his courtside seat, were as intrinsic to the action as following the ball. That is, if you believe Lee helped to motivate Miller. Winning Time includes a clip from a 1994 on-court interview in which Lee tries to shed responsibility for Miller’s 25-point outburst, but though Lee says his role was “blown out of proportion,” his tone is that of a man who knows he lost an arm by dangling meat in front of a lion. He’s hardly convincing.
Lee also isn’t so convincing in some of the film’s recent footage in which he claims he never joined the chorus at Madison Square Garden that taunted Miller with “Cheryl” chants. But that’s part of the fun of Winning Time. Even in their talking-head interviews (filmed separately), Miller and Lee are still playfully at odds, spinning their own legends and doing everything short of conducting the orchestra. These are men who understand drama. It’s a tribute to Klores that most of the key players return to relive these events. Even Starks is there, wearing a smile that suggests he’s at peace with the past. Ewing is interviewed, too, and he’s as polite as ever, though the bags under his eyes suggest the weight of never having won a championship. Talking-head interviews are often a bore in documentaries, but in Winning Time they become almost musical, as in the sequence when a handful of interviewees praise Miller’s “presence of mind” on his famous steal-and-3 play in 1995. Winning Time is expertly edited from start to finish, lingering in just the right places (Miller’s 6 points in 6 sections and Ewing’s Game 7 miss) and never overstaying its welcome, with the possible exception of giving us a little too much Cheryl Miller near the end. The film’s only significant fault is its title, spun out of something Ahmad Rashad says about clutch players, which is curiously applied to video of Miller sinking two pressure free throws just minutes after we watch Miller choke at the charity stripe in a similar situation. But this is a minor error.
Otherwise the documentary is close to flawless, thriving on the way that Miller, with his big ears and skinny frame – “Mr. Potato Head on a stick,” he gets called in the film – didn’t seem to fit in the era of physical basketball in which he was a star (though not a superstar). Add Miller’s charisma to the mix, and he’s a guy that even non-sports fans will find fun to watch – a guy who seems to take sports too seriously and not seriously at all. Miller was an on-court assassin, a showman and a clown. On that note, just as opera is the perfect way to open Winning Time, Klores makes another inspired musical selection to send us to the closing credits. As Paul Simon plays “Loves Me Like a Rock,” Klores provides footage of Miller embracing Starks and then Lee, brief scenes that are surprisingly touching and altogether important reminders of the ultimate frivolity of these rivalries. On the court, these men were foes. When it came to entertaining us with great drama, they were partners.
Winning Time premieres tonight on ESPN at 9 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. The next "30 for 30" picture won't be released until April 3.