Welcome to Four Down Territory! This is a space where I’ll write about four things in professional sports every Saturday. Whether it’s the four greatest moments or the four worst blunders or anything in between, the only rule is that I’ll discuss four things. In my eighth installment, I’ll be outlining some of my favorite 30 for 30 documentaries.
ESPN nailed it with this series and for me, these are the best of the best with regards to their intention of telling a story through sports. These four cover a wide range of topics, from pure sports to history to the real-world problems that former athletes face today. Not only are these the best stories in sports, the way they are told is second to none. ESPN brought out all the stars to give firsthand accounts of these stories, giving us an insider’s look on our favorite players and teams. Hope you enjoy!
Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies
I had to include one about pure sports, and this was an easy choice. This is easily the best rivalry throughout NBA history, and arguably the best one in sports. Both franchises have been incredibly successful, combining for 33 championships and countless stars. It’s safe to say that this rivalry and these two teams have come to define the NBA. The height of this rivalry began in 1979, when the Lakers drafted Magic Johnson out of Michigan State. A year prior, the Celtics drafted Larry Bird from Indiana State, and the two took the NBA to new heights in the 1980s. The 1970s had been riddled with player scandals and rampant drug abuse, so Johnson and Bird entered the league at a time where it needed a face. The league got two. For every year in the 1980s, Bird or Magic would be in the Finals, and they met three times. Every time they met, it was a clash of two titans, and a couple plays here and there decided who was the champion of the world. On the court, they were fierce rivals. But off the court, Magic and Bird’s admiration of each other was second to none. Together, they saved the NBA and lifted its popularity to where we see it today. Though the rivalry was most intense during the 1980s, it has lasted from the 1960s to the present day, always inspiring passion among fans. Director Jim Podhoretz felt it was most appropriate to have fans present the documentary: Donnie Wahlberg for the Celtics and Ice Cube for the Lakers. It was a great choice to have completely partisan narrators telling their tale from either side, making for an entertaining five hours for basketball fans everywhere. This is a film that any basketball fan should watch, regardless of who they might support.
The Best That Never Was
A superstar athlete getting taken advantage of by “mentors” and “caring” family members is a tale as old as time. A superstar athlete uniting a community together is also a tale that’s been told over and over. But this documentary is compelling because it combines both of these elements, and the tantalizing potential of the best that never was draws us to his story. This is the story of Marcus Dupree: a man with no proverbial ceiling to his greatness, barely scraping by as a truck driver today. Dupree grew up in Philadelphia, MS, the site of the Freedom Summer murders. In 1964, three black men were shot and killed by a mob consisting of several members of the KKK and the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office, sparking national outrage and heightening already-tense race relations in the area. One of the members of this mob was Cecil Price Sr., who becomes an important figure in Dupree’s story. As Dupree worked his way up the high school ranks, people of all races began attending his games. Eventually, he broke Herschel Walker’s national record for high school career touchdowns, scoring 110. As it so happened, Cecil Price Sr. was at the record-breaking game, cheering along with the rest of the crowd. It’s wrong to say that Dupree totally changed Price’s attitude or that he made up for his horrific mistakes. But it’s fair to say that Dupree became a rallying point for the town of Philadelphia, someone that white people, black people, and Native American people could cheer for. His high school performance led to him becoming the most sought-after recruit ever, and eventually he committed to Oklahoma. He tore it up his freshman year, averaging 8.5 yards per carry and rushing for a Fiesta Bowl-record 249 yards on 34 carries. Injuries hampered his sophomore season, and Dupree was unhappy with the Sooners. Sensing an opportunity, the Reverend Ken Fairley won Marcus’ ear, and advised him to go to Southern Mississippi. Eventually, Fairley took over Dupree’s finances when he signed with the USFL’s New Orleans Breakers. Dupree never saw a penny of his signing bonus because Fairley ended up taking it all. Fairley was also given power of attorney by Dupree, essentially giving Fairley complete control over Dupree’s life. Today, Fairley is in jail for taking money from a federal housing program. After Dupree’s career was over, he had to become a truck driver to make ends meet, and the man who helped him get his license was none other than Cecil Price Sr. Marcus Dupree had all the tools: freak athlete, hard worker, good person. It goes to show that circumstance is hugely important in pro sports, and we’re left with the tantalizing possibility of the best that never was.
Sports is generally our refuge from the issues plaguing our world today. We get to watch our favorite athletes for two to four hours and we can forget our troubles. Not so for Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac. These two players were crucial parts of the NBA vanguard from Europe, and I would argue that without their contributions, the league would have little to no diversity today. They both came to the NBA in 1989, Petrovic as a guard for the Portland Trail Blazers and Divac as a center for the L.A. Lakers. Divac was immediately inserted in the starting lineup, and the Lakers made the Finals in his second season. Petrovic didn’t experience initial success despite being the greatest European guard in history. He was relegated to the bench and only played as an off-ball shooter during garbage time. When he got traded to the Nets, he blossomed into one of the top guards in the NBA, shooting 45% from deep and averaging over 20 points per game in his two seasons there. Petrovic shattered the stereotype that European guards can’t succeed in the NBA, and I still believe he is the greatest shooter in history. This already would’ve made for a good story: foreign guys from Communist Yugoslavia paving the way for today’s European players to succeed. But that’s not all. Petrovic was Croatian, and Divac was Serbian. This put them on opposite sides during the catastrophic Yugoslav Wars, despite their closeness while they were on the Yugoslavian national team. That team had a number of stars, including Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja, who made a significant impact on the NBA as well. They won the silver medal at the Olympics in 1988 and followed it up with gold medals at the 1989 and 1991 Eurobasket tournaments and the 1990 FIBA World Cup tournament. The team was on the verge of greatness when war broke out, and a friendship was broken when Divac threw out a Croatian flag in 1990. Petrovic and Divac never got a chance to mend the fence when Petrovic died in an automobile accident, robbing us of the opportunity to watch the greatest international player ever. Though the actual structure of the film is cliche, it’s still a great if tragic story and a good reminder of the players that helped shape the NBA as it is today.
The bigger sports have gotten, the bigger athlete contracts have become. Moreover, we view athletes as superheroes these days, capable of no wrong. It seems unfathomable to us that a successful pro athlete can go broke: after all, they make so much more money than us. Reality could not be further from this flawed idea: 60% of NBA players go broke within five years of their retirement, and 78% of NFL players face financial stress within two years of their retirement. While we tend to think that athletes could not spend all their money in a single lifetime, this just isn’t true. From a financial perspective, jumping from college to a pro league is like winning the lottery: a young athlete in his 20s is suddenly coming into what they believe is a lot of money. As a result, they behave like someone who just won the lottery. The first inclination is to spend. Cars, houses, jewelry, any kind of conspicuous consumption is fair game from these athletes. If you’re a pro athlete, it means you’re about as competitive as anyone out there, and so they suffer from an extreme case of Keeping Up With The Joneses. Michael Jordan always used to say that his gambling stemmed from a competitive problem and he may have been right. Secondly, these athletes just don’t make as much as they think they do. This is especially true in the NFL: nothing is guaranteed except the signing bonus. And that money doesn’t continue coming in during the offseason, leaving some athletes out to dry. Third, athletes think their careers will be longer than they actually are, and they have no plans for what to do after it’s all over. Patrick Ewing always likes to say that the ball will stop bouncing one day, but not all athletes take this to heart. As a result, they’re barely scraping by, working service or manual labor jobs to make ends meet. The documentaries feature some really vulnerable interviews from prominent pro players like Keith McCants, Bernie Kosar, Andre Rison, and many others. Opening up about financial difficulties is hard for anyone, and it took a lot for these stars to talk about what happened to them. Ultimately, Broke is another great idea for the 30 for 30 series in that it explores a side of sports we rarely think about. It’s a cautionary tale that’s worth a watch for any fan.