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.


Craig said...

Great write-up. I confess I disliked both teams intensely (Celtics fan through and through), so the whole drama was something of a sideshow, albeit one that couldn't be ignored. I'm looking forward to watching this with some distance.

Also, I'm no longer an NBA fan either. Haven't been in years. Won't David Stern retire already?

James Yates said...

I agree with Craig, great write-up.

After the 1990s, the NBA became horrible, but I stuck with it, and I feel that it's enjoying a resurgence. Of course, it's not what it used to be, but I'm sure fans in each decade have bemoaned the quality from the previous decade. It happens.

I could go on a long tangent, but in relation to Ewing and Miller, I feel that Ewing never won a championship because his teams always ended up facing a superior Bulls team in the playoffs (sorry, Chicago bias here). But Miller? Really, besides Mark Jackson and Jalen Rose, who did he have as far as a supporting cast? Sorry, I know this comment is getting away from the actual film, but you did bring up some excellent thoughts, sports-wise.

TC said...

I was 9 years old in 1987, and remember vividly the communal outrage in Indy when Donnie Walsh picked Reggie over Steve Alford. It was great to relive that section of the film. I can remember exactly where I was during every one of those Reggie "moments."

I agree that for the most part, the film is a masterclass in pacing - Klores packs a LOT of points together. It's interesting to note that this is the most current 30 for 30 doc so far. Comparing the overwhelming fever of Pacer fandom in the 1990's with the complete apathy just a handful of years after Reggie retirement is a stunning.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Jason - I remember all of these events very well (although I, like Craig, am a Celtics fan) - and I am so so intrigued by this documentary. I have loved all of your write-ups of this ESPN series.

I just have to say, and this may not be the time/place, and I'll try to be brief: I read everything you write, Jason. I don't comment much (or at all) - but you're one of my favorite "eyes" - meaning: I like to see what you see, and hear what you think about things. Your perspective is invaluable to me. Your writing is elegant, clear, engaging. I don't always agree with your opinion, but that is, in the end, irrelevant. What I love is HOW you say things. I'm picky when it comes to writers. You're one of the really good ones.

I guess I just wanted to take a second to tell you that.

Jason Bellamy said...

Before I respond to comments, a note: The above review has been slightly altered from its original publication in which I incorrectly wrote the Pacers never made it past the first round of the playoffs after that 2000 NBA Finals. My good buddy and fellow Miller/Pacers fan reminded me (or maybe I should say informed me) that the Pacers made the Eastern Conference finals again in 2004, losing to the Pistons. I'm now going to fire my researcher. Oh, wait. That's me.

Jason Bellamy said...

That out of the way, thanks for the comments so far ...

* Craig: I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on the film. Interestingly, I've never blamed my lack of interest on Stern; I'm not sure who I blame. And there have been times that as a baseball fan I've wished Selig had some Stern in him. Curious what you think the Stern connection is to the NBA decline? (Not disagreeing; just curious.)

* Jamie: Well, in a sense your comment underlines the way that winning championships (or not) tends to define the way we remember talent. Rick Smits is the forgotten guy from the Miller era; probably their most important player after Reggie. The Davis boys were tough inside, and though Dale Davis was limited he had outbursts where you just couldn't keep him off the boards. (My friend and I still jokingly refer to him as "The Show" after one game in which he decided he was an offensive force. It was like watching the preacher's kid go off in Hoosiers.)

In my mind the best Pacers team was probably the one that lost to the Bulls in the 1999 conference finals -- a loss I still blame on then-coach Larry Bird. In each of the Pacers' wins, Bird had gone from Mark Jackson at the point to Travis Best, and it had worked. Inexplicably, in Game 7, he stuck with Jackson and, as I recall, the Pacers lost a lead. Bitter.

* TC: It hadn't hit me that Pacers-Knicks was the most recent series of events chronicled in the "30 for 30" series. My bias sets in here, because I know every sports fan can vividly remember hard-fought series involving their favorite team, but I'm glad these games got called out for the great drama they provided so that they won't be forgotten. We rarely remember the great games played by teams that didn't win it all.

* Sheila: I may not get paid in this gig, but your very kind words make it all worth it. Thanks so much. I'm touched.

OK, keep those reactions to the film (and/or Pacers-Knicks and the NBA) coming ...

Troy Olson said...

First off, being a Blazer fan myself, I always found the Pacers as a kindred spirit. Both teams were in small markets that got so close so many times and just could never get over the hump to win a Championship. I know your pain.

(Oh, and being a Pacer fan currently would be a tough go...they are in pretty bad shape currently).

As for the doc, I absolutely loved it and loved reliving that era of basketball (though I have to question those who thought the basketball during the post-Jordan retirement era was wasn't. Scores like 85-79 were pretty common and the game had turned to a lot of pushing and shoving without the finesse).

Those Knick-Pacer games are the stuff of legend and I loved how Klores related those moments, as you pointed out, through the use of opera and slo-mo. My wife hadn't seen those games and even she was enthralled by the documentary as it showcased the great drama that was on display -- seriously, you couldn't have written it any better if it was scripted.

I'll agree with you on the talking head comment as well -- where it's typically mundane, I thought the way they were done kept the story moving along, and it was nice to see all involved able to take everything tongue-in-cheek after all these years, making for fun recollections (I wasn't even aware the Ewing HAD a personality).

Glad you are sticking with these 30 on 30 recaps, Jason. They've been fun.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, Troy. Happy to be writing them. They're fun.

I have to question those who thought the basketball during the post-Jordan retirement era was wasn't. Scores like 85-79 were pretty common and the game had turned to a lot of pushing and shoving without the finesse.

Again, I don't watch the NBA at all now, and I don't even see highlights. What I know, I know from listening to PTI as a podcast on training runs. (Often they're talking about players I've never heard of and could never identify in a lineup.) So I'm not commenting on what the NBA is now, but ...

One of my problems with the NBA is that the desire for "finesse" often lead to a lot of standing around. One guy drives and shoots or dishes. Or the ball gets dumped down to the block for a post-up move. Pushing and shoving might not have been pretty, but at least it felt like team basketball a lot of the time.

Jason Bellamy said...

Troy: Wait, you were talking post-first-Jordan-retirement, right?

Troy Olson said...

Yeah, I was speaking post-first Jordan retirement. Even after he came back it wasn't the same, even if the Bulls were dominant, the rest of the league was fairly weak in comparison.

Yes, the league did and still does devolve into a series of iso plays and posturing, but I think it's starting to find its way out, to an extent. From 1996-2004, there was some bad, bad basketball being played, in general (which I guess leaves out the Knicks-Pacers games, though that rough-and-tumble style the Knicks played seemed to become the norm until defensive rules were tightened). It's taken quite a while for the league to recover, but I think it's more enjoyable to watch now than it has been since the first Jordan three-peat.

Of course, all of this could simply coincide with the fact that my Blazers are fun to watch again, thus I enjoy the league more now...

Daniel said...

Great discussion here - like stumbling onto a treasure trove of 90's era NBA memories. Timberwolves fan here, and while I can't relate to a decades-long basketball championship drought (Vikings, though? That's another story...), I can still speak to the absolute mismanagement of a pro sports franchise. Kevin McHale has essentially wasted a decade of everyone's time here with his bungled decisions in the Wolves front office.

Anyway, one of the things that struck me while reading this (I missed the documentary but it looked fantastic) was Miller's age in 1995 (you said he played years into the 2000's, which just shocked me). What I find fascinating is that he was not a young brash rookie right out of high school. He was a legit veteran and yet he still got that fired up in the heat of battle. You just don't see "older" guys in any sport really talking trash like that anymore.

Side note - isn't a little curious that ESPN didn't schedule a March Madness-related film during this time?

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: I thought the release date was odd, too. I believe the next one is on Hank Gathers -- who I think of every year at tournament time, and the 20 year anniversary of his death was last week, I think. (20 years. Wow. I'd say, "Man, I'm getting old." But Gathers is a reminder of how grateful I should be. And I am.)

So, yeah, NBA playoffs covered in March and NCAA playoffs covered in April. A little odd. But, whatever.

Troy Olson said...


As a Trailblazer fan, I'd like to thank you guys for Brandon Roy.

That's low, isn't it ;)

I do have sympathy for your Kevin McHale era. Hey, at least you had the Twins win some championships!

Daniel said...

Incredibly low, thank you. >-I

Not that it was an isolated incident anyway - Minnesota has a terrific legacy of spreading All-Star talent around the league. You may remember Bill Simmons publicly thanking us for the likes of David Ortiz, Randy Moss, and Kevin Garnett. Our generosity knows no bounds, as does our incompetence in wasting the talent we currently have on the Twins and Vikings.

The Twins championship in '91 (one of two championships the state has ever won) is becoming a generational breakpoint right now, and if none of our four teams win a title in the next decade there will be some serious pain around here.

Anonymous said...

My wife kept telling me that she would be ready in five more minutes to go shopping and the television was tuned to ESPN and Winning Time came on: Mommy went to Target without Daddy.

It was one of the most engrossing and clever documentaries I had ever seen; and the characters!

I recommend this 90 minute film to anyone and everyone and the end credits turned me onto a song by Dion called King of the New York Streets that basically shows Mellencamp and Springsteen how to do it.

Memorable and deeply enjoyable!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jason, I finally caught up with Winning Time last night, and I knew right where I had to go this morning. I was thinking about writing my own review of the documentary, but after reading yours I think a simple link to it is the best tribute I could fashion, both to the movie and, to echo Sheila's sentiment, your masterful treatment of it. I feel sure that anything I might conjure up would amount mostly to plagiarism anyway!

Winning Time was thrilling to watch and, thanks to you, thrilling to read about too. Thanks!