Saturday 3 December 2016

Windows to the soul of sport

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 16/10/2011 | 05:00

Al Davis died last week at the age of 82. One of those flamboyant owners, like Jesus Gil, George Steinbrenner and Sam Hammam, who sometimes seem to be bigger than their club, Davis had been at the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders for 48 years during which time the club won three Super Bowls, placing them fourth on the all-time list headed by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Davis was a central figure in a terrific documentary, Straight Outta LA, which told the story of the Raiders during their 12-year sojourn in Los Angeles before the owner moved them back to Oakland in 1995, and examined the links between the team and the birth of gangsta rap in the city at the same time. The film was fittingly directed by Ice Cube of gangsta rap progenitors NWA and was one of the 30 for 30 season of documentaries commissioned by ESPN and shown for the first time last year.

That the documentaries have also been broadcast on European ESPN has been a godsend for sports fans because 30 for 30 is the greatest collection of sports programmes ever made. If you haven't seen them, all of them, you don't know what you're missing and need to rectify this omission immediately. Whether it's waiting for re-runs on ESPN itself, hunting them down on the internet, buying the box set from America or shacking up with someone who was wise enough to store them all on Sky Plus, the price is worth paying.

The series is understandably biased towards American sport but the films are so well made this doesn't particularly matter. I remember sitting down with my mother, who hasn't an iota of interest in American football, to watch Pony Excess, about the Southern Methodist University team in Texas who became a massive success in the '80s thanks largely to rich donors who enabled them to illegally lure the best young players to the school and then saw the dream crumble when they were found out and banned from the sport altogether. The mother was utterly gripped from start to finish because the story itself was so compelling, like a crazy souped up cross between Dallas, Friday Night Lights and The Last Picture Show.

To get an idea of what makes America tick you'd be far better off watching 30 for 30 than any amount of those worthy travelogues where Simon Schama or someone similar rubs their chin and scratches the surface. You'd also see why Philip Roth was right when he said, "The American writer has his hands full, trying to understand and then describe and then make credible much of the American reality . . . finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist."

Because what contemporary novelist could invent a story as tragic as that of the phenomenally talented college basketball star Len Bias who in 1986, the night after he had signed for the mighty Boston Celtics and seemed to have the whole world at his feet, died of a cocaine-induced heart attack at the age of 22? (Without Bias)

Or a character as quixotic as the BMX rider Mat Hoffman whose quest to perform ever more spectacular stunts continued even after he'd suffered injuries which almost killed him? (The Birth of Big Air)

Or a story more instructive about racial tensions in America than that detailing the trial and jailing under questionable circumstances of Allen Iverson, later one of basketball's all-time greats, when he was still in high school in Virginia? (No Crossover)

The story of how Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest American sportsman of all, decided to honour a promise to his father by playing minor league baseball after he retired from basketball is so deep in the classic Hollywood grain you can't help thinking of the likes of Bull Durham and Tin Cup. Which is perhaps why Ron Shelton, the man who made those two classics, directed Jordan Rides The Bus.

But the masterpiece of the series wasn't about American sport at all, it was The Two Escobars, a tour de force which examined the links between the lives of Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar and his namesake Andres, the player tragically murdered shortly after scoring an own goal for the national team as they lost to the USA in the 1994 World Cup.

The film showed how closely the drug trade was implicated in Colombia's emergence to become one of the best teams in the world during the '90s. The cartels poured money into domestic soccer, enabling the best players to stay at home, before everything went sour both on and off the pitch. The harrowed look of the players when they discussed the unravelling of this Faustian pact and the cold-eyed stare of the drug trade players reminiscing about their heyday couldn't have been replicated by the best actors. Like all the best films about sport, and The Two Escobars is probably the best of them all, it was about so much more than sport.

As was Once Brothers. I don't think the tragedy of the various wars which followed the break-up of Yugoslavia has been so starkly portrayed as in this account of how the conflict between their countries drove a wedge between NBA stars Vlade Divac, a Serbian, and Drazen Petrovic, a Croatian. Muhammad and Larry, about the ill-advised fight between an ageing Ali and his former sparring partner Holmes, was almost unbearably sad as it portrayed a great who just didn't know when to quit. Unmatched, on the other hand, was an uplifting look at the way the great rivalry between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert had become friendship as the years went by.

The 30 for 30 documentaries are still popping up on ESPN who, better still, were so enthused by the reaction to the series that they've commissioned a new round of documentaries, some of which will air later this year. Get to see them, you'll be entertained, you'll be educated and you'll be profoundly moved in many different ways by these programmes. They are Exhibit A for the case that sport is much, much more than just games.

The talent involved shows how seriously ESPN took the project. Leading movie directors, Barry 'Rain Man' Levinson, John 'Boyz N The Hood' Singleton and the aforementioned Ron Shelton made films as did some of the greatest documentary makers of all-time, Albert 'Gimme Shelter' Maysles, Steve 'Hoop Dreams' James and Barbara 'Harlan County USA' Kopple.

It is, sadly, unthinkable that Sky Sports, ESPN's counterparts on this side of the pond, would produce work of this quality. Nor for that matter would the BBC. RTE wouldn't have the resources but perhaps the difference in what you see on 30 for 30 and what gets broadcast as sporting documentary here has as much to do with attitude as with money.

The 30 for 30 film-makers took the view that if you examined sport with seriousness and intelligence then you could show and say profound things about it. Meanwhile Match of the Day shows us lads picking their nose in the stands. What's that lazy cliché about the Yanks again? They're a bunch of crass simpletons who lack the intelligence and sophistication of us Europeans. Yeah right.

30 for 30. Believe me, you've never seen the likes of it. And I don't even have space to mention the one about Terry Fox or the one about the Springboks or the one about the guys who invented fantasy football or the Wayne Gretzky one or . . .

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