It might have worked as a short. ESPN Films has released two of them so far in its "30 for 30" spinoff series. The first, on Pete Rose's life as a memorabilia peddler, is just under eight minutes long. The second, on Arnold Schwarzenegger's quest to be a body builder, runs just over 12 minutes. Split the difference, cut the fluff, and maybe There's No Place Like Home could have been a light yet agreeable 10-minute documentary. But at an hour it's a disaster. Monotonous. Artificial. Utterly irritating. Previously, the low point in the "30 for 30" feature series was Little Big Men, and it wasn't close, but There's No Place Like Home is in a class all its own, reaching depths you figured the series could go 10 years without nearing. True enough, the "30 for 30" series includes so many good-to-great installments that it's tough to impress — even incredibly strong pictures like Tim Richmond: To the Limit get lost in the shuffle. But with those high standards comes a reputation worth protecting, and seeing this documentary added to the proud "30 for 30" library is like watching an over-the-hill Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson climb into the ring for another paycheck. I didn't even reach the 10-minute mark before wishing that someone could ring the bell and stop the bleeding.
The crux of the problem with There's No Place Like Home is its very premise. The movie opens at Sotheby's in December 2010, where, according to a Sotheby's consultant, "the most important sports document that has ever been offered at auction" (note the qualifier) is about to go under the hammer. And what might that document be? If you guessed Jackie Robinson's first major league contract, sorry, you're wrong. But the artifact is indeed significant: James Naismith's original rules of basketball, first taped to a wall inside the Springfield, Massachusetts, YMCA in 1931. These initial rules, recorded on two typed pages with handwritten corrections, are the seed of what is now one of the most popular sports in the world. Whether they deserve to be equated to the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta and the Ten Commandments, all within the same documentary, well, I'm not so sure. But they're of great historical significance, no doubt about it. This despite the fact that until now you probably didn't even realize they existed.
Don't feel bad. Until he read about the Naismith rules coming up for auction in the newspaper, basketball superfan Josh Swade didn't know the original rules existed either. Once he learned of the artifact, however, Swade decided that it was his mission to raise enough money to buy it at auction so that the rules could be returned to their rightful home: the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Wait, what's that? Sorry. My mistake. Swade's mission was to bring the document to its rightful home in, uh, Lawrence, Kansas. See, Swade is a graduate of Kansas University, a school with a rich basketball history that traces all the way back to, yep, James Naismith. Springfield might be where basketball was conceived, but Lawrence is where it was born and raised. And, sure, there's a perfectly good hall of fame in Springfield, but why return the document there, to its place of origin? Instead, Swade thought it best to barely acknowledge the Springfield connection, to completely ignore basketball's official museum and, last but not least, to co-direct a documentary with Maura Mandt about his quest to acquire the document, essentially deciding ahead of time that he was at the center of a great moment in sports.
Swade's belief that he's on an almost biblical quest would be comical if he weren't so obnoxious. Over and over again in There's No Place Like Home he oversells the gravity of the situation to the point that you'd be forgiven for assuming that Sotheby's plans to burn Naismith's rules if no one comes up with a worthy bid. A few times, Swade expresses fear that someone from KU's dreaded rival Duke University might attempt to acquire the document to display the rules in their trophy case. As if! Swade uses these melodramatic techniques not only to justify documenting his adventure but also to coerce some of KU's major donors into pledging toward his effort. And when traditional fear tactics and guilt-tripping don't work, Swade resorts to curious imagery: "You ever see Raiders of the Lost Ark?" he asks one stone-faced donor. "You remember, Indiana Jones, he's trying to get to the Ark before the German army, right? Because if the German army gets the Commandments, they're unbeatable, right? Well, I feel like if we have those Commandments, I'm not going to say we'll never lose, but ..." Yep, you read that right: Swade paints Duke as the enemy but enthusiastically compares Kansas to popcorn movie Nazis.
You need only watch Swade trying to squeeze proud alums of six or seven figures of donor dollars by appealing to their school spirit with a camera in their face before you start feeling sorry for the 1 percent. Swade's financial contribution to this whole operation seems to be the airfare necessary to stalk his prey and the There's No Place Like Home T-shirts he practically forces into his interviewees' hands. Meanwhile, he gets to chat with his heroes, like former Kansas coaches Larry Brown and Roy Williams, and to portray himself as guardian to KU's storied history — even giving himself a badass, slow-motion Reservoir Dogs-esque strut as he walks toward Allen Fieldhouse to share the good news with a rowdy fan base that's ready to cheer for anything. In the end, major KU donor David Booth — who winds up paying A LOT of money for the Naismith rules — insists that he'll never do anything as "satisfying" or "cool." But watch his face during the auction, when he pays far more than he first pledged, and ask yourself if he'd part with all that money if he didn't have a camera in his face and Swade anxiously shuffling around behind him like a first-grader who is desperate to go to the bathroom. I have my doubts.
"Why are these treasures so important to us?" Swade asks in the opening voice-over narration, and yet his film doesn't do much to suggest that the Naismith rules are all that important to anyone but Swade and a few wealthy KU donors with very close ties to the school. Is the KU community proud to have the original rules of basketball in its midst? I'm sure it is. But without Swade's glory orgy, they'd never have missed them. And without Swade's desire to star in his own movie, there's a good chance they wouldn't have them. The creators of the "30 for 30" series intended from the start to enable filmmakers to get personal and follow their own interests, and that's noble, and it's led to interesting films like Barry Levinson's The Band That Wouldn't Die, Steve James' No Crossover and Ice Cube's Straight Outta L.A. But this is nothing short of shameful self-promotion, a masturbatory exercise passed off as a newsworthy event. There's No Place Like Home is an embarrassing edition in an otherwise proud series. It's also motivation enough to start cheering for Duke.
There's No Place Like Home premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler hopes to review each new film in the "30 for 30" series upon its release.
See the Volume 1 and Volume 2 archive.