ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, a group of unusually focused documentaries produced for the network that began airing in 2010, have become available on Netflix Streaming, and I’m here to testify that one in particular stands out as the finest, most entertaining sports documentary on any subject that I’ve seen in a very long time-- Dan Klores’ Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks.
Before I fired up the Klores doc, I watched Ron Shelton’s Jordan on the Bus, another 30 for 30 doc about Michael Jordan’s flirtation with Major League Baseball, and given my regard for Shelton's work as a filmmaker I was expecting something wonderful. JOTB was functionally entertaining but it never transcended its utilitarian purpose, remaining as stubbornly grounded as Jordan himself was often airborne in the NBA, and then guarded in the days following his first retirement and entry into the world of bats and stats.
However, Klores’ film took me completely by surprise, not only by its cleverness and deft editing, but through the energy and forthrightness of its main players—Miller, the driven would-be (and eventual) superstar of the Indiana Pacers who simultaneously shrugs off the significance of the game with theatrical absurdity while he’s flashing daggers into the hearts opponents on and off the court; central figures of the New York Knicks like John Starks and Patrick Ewing, who embodied the hero/goat syndrome that seemed to dog players on both sides of this rivalry; Miller’s sister Cheryl, perhaps the most dominant female basketball player to ever play the game; and even film director and high-profile NY sports fan Spike Lee, whose insistence on becoming part of the story (exacerbated by the NY media’s willingness to play along) provides the most heightened, unruly element in the story, underlining the theatrical hucksterism and understanding of dramatic potentialities that the two trash-talking “enemies” share.
Klores, who directed the 2008 documentary Crazy Love as well as other highly-regarded films like Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story (2005) and Black Magic (2008), does a smashing job of subtly providing grace notes to emphasize this connection in the way the movie has been assembled, with operatic musical choices and some of the sharpest, funniest, gasp-prolonging editing you’ll see in a sports movie, fact or fiction, which both emphasizes the suspense element and illuminates the strategy of the game itself.
I haven’t been vitally interested in the NBA since the days when I was a kid trying to get into the habit of following the exploits of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, and I bet I haven’t seen an entire game in 20 years, not since I last visited Staples Center to see the hapless Clippers. But in the short space of 70 minutes, Winning Time made me feel like a fan full vested in the outcome of a rivalry that in reality means absolutely nothing to me personally, caught up in the sideshow antics and the powerful drive of competition between what honestly seems, in its wildest moments, like Miller versus an entire city.
Miller was an unlikely looking superstar—he’s described at one point as “Mr. Potato Head on a stick”—and he often brought the force of a one-man gang-up on the Knicks. The movie emphasizes the game when he seemed to singlehandedly salvage a sure loss while stuffing the obnoxiously boisterous Lee, relentlessly shouting and heckling from his courtside seats, with as much crow as the bespectacled director could eat. Couple that extended aria with Miller’s marvelous feat at pulling victory from the snapping maw of defeat—by scoring eight points in eight seconds near the final buzzer he overcame a deficit that seemed so insurmountable even the owner of the Indiana Pacers gave up and left the arena –and you have a stretch of events so ridiculously suspenseful and entertaining they could have only happened in reality; a screenwriter with any integrity at all would be overcome with shame for even suggesting them.
Best of all, in a gesture of superlative comic grace, filmmaker Klores, with an assist from athlete Miller, puts perhaps the all-time greatest punctuation mark of an ending on this raucously entertaining story. Miller’s impish coda, told to the camera after the triumphant ending to the story of the Pacers game 7 win in Madison Square Garden, after the team (and Miller) having choked at the same opportunity a year earlier, is a marvel of showmanship that pricks a tiny hole in the self-inflated legends perpetuated by the showman himself, and all the others like him who were, at the same time, never quite like him. It would be a crime to give the punch line away, but I guarantee you’ll be tickled by it, even if not as much as Miller himself who, in this marvelous moment, acknowledges with a mile-wide smile, leaning forward like a man anticipating telling this story with relish to grandchildren yet to arrive, that for athletes great and small one moment of triumph is never quite enough.
If you’d like to read a much better, fuller account of Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks than mine, I cannot recommended highly enough my friend Jason Bellamy’s review, which I have tried mightily not to outright plagiarize here. Jason, two-time participant in the SLIFR Treehouse, writes a blog called The Cooler, and he unveiled terrific, well-informed essays on each of ESPN’s 30 for 30 films when they were first aired two years ago. Each of them is available, and as I go through the documentaries I’ve cherry-picked from Netflix, I fully intend to refer to Jason’s pieces afterward with the reverence of a lowly monk referencing a holy writ. If I’m lucky I’ll get to the 30th film before I pull back the sheets on my deathbed, and it’ll be a journey worth taking with Jason’s essays within reach, enriching each movie with his particular and particularly well-reasoned and eloquently articulated perspective.
Here's Jason Bellamy on Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks.
Here's Jason Bellamy on the entirety of the ESPN 30 for 30 series.