By Bill Simmons
I have a dream.Many years from now -- I'm talking way down the road, like when Cinemax 7 becomes available in HDTV, one of Shawn Kemp's 23 kids is playing in the NBA, and Julio Franco's career is finally winding down -- some Japanese company will release a revolutionary form of technology: the digital home editing system. For something under a thousand bucks, we'll have the chance to edit movies ourselves. You know Adrian's coma subplot in "Rocky II"? Gone. The random locker-room shot of the lineman's "package" in "Any Given Sunday?" History. Rod Tidwell's ridiculous touchdown dance at the end of "Jerry Maguire"? Wiped out. In the blink of an eye, we'll be able to tinker with our favorite DVDs -- fix nagging flaws, change soundtracks, clean up plots, you name it. Hell, with the right amount of money, we can even use CGI to make Tim Robbins throw like a man.
|SPORTS GUY AT THE MOVIES|
|In no particular order, Bill Simmons presents his "72 Best Sports Movies Of The Past 33 Years." Here's what we have so far:
Because, yes ... Spike screwed up. Screwed up a movie that was crying out to be made, something that would have tapped into the spirit of "Hoop Dreams" and Darcy Frey's "The Last Shot," as well as everything happening in basketball at the time. Even with a misfire, he inadvertently foreshadowed LeBron James's big splash five years later -- insane expectations, impossible hype, mysterious gifts, legions of groupies and leeches, relentless coaches and agents, everyone lining up to get a piece of that nine-figure NBA rainbow waiting in the wings. If this movie were made today, you can almost picture LeBron playing Jesus instead of Ray Allen. That's how close it was. (Well, except for the plot about Denzel Washington accidentally killing his Mom, then getting a week pass from Attica to convince him to attend Big State ... as well as Rick Fox, Jill Kelly and Chasey Lain all graduating from Tech University. Maybe that was a little different.) So, yeah. This movie makes me angry. No big-name director understands basketball better than Spike, as he proved in his book with Ralph Wiley ("Best Seat In the House," a surprisingly good read). He's a superior filmmaker with an eye for sports scenes; you knew he wouldn't make a movie where the characters took turns dunking on 8-foot rims. His name carried enough weight to bring Denzel aboard as Jesus's shattered father, the only crucial character in the script. And it's safe to say that he understands basketball's inexorable hold on the African-American community, especially in the projects and places like Coney Island, where the movie is based. Nobody else could have made this a great movie. Nobody. So what happened? His ego got in the way. Forget the cuts -- if someone ever wrote a book called "How The Wrong Soundtrack Can Submarine a Movie," there's a 99.999999-percent chance that "He Got Game" would be Chapter One. Here's a movie about a black high school star beating the odds in the projects, with an imprisoned father thrown in for kicks ... and Spike goes with a droning Aaron Copland soundtrack. I'm not saying he isn't talented, but Aaron Copland!?!?!?!?!?!? It's a basketball movie set in the projects! What two things are more synonymous than basketball and hip-hop? Wasn't Copland's involvement the exact opposite of Jay-Z scoring a Merchant-Ivory flick? Wait, it gets worse. Public Enemy recorded the title song -- one of their finest efforts, by the way -- and Spike buried it in the middle of the movie. How does this happen? It's almost as unconscionable as Larry Brown's steadfast refusal to let LeBron loose in Athens right now. Of course, I have a theory on this one, too: In his aforementioned book with Wiley, Spike complains about the media's deification of Larry Bird and compares it to the success of the original "Rocky." I'll let Spike explain: "(Apollo) Creed represented every would-be egomaniac, loud-talking, flashy, overpaid black athlete; every n-----, not just in boxing, but all these n----- athletes who are taking over sports. I saw 'Rocky' in a theater where I was one of the few black patrons, and when Rocky started to beat up Creed, there was a strange feeling coming up from the audience. People weren't cheering because an underdog was beating the champion. It was deeper than that. White masses finally had a hero in boxing again, even if it was only a movie, beating an uppity, loudmouthed, flamboyant n-----." Well, then. I'm not saying he's right or wrong; he certainly made me think twice during my 575th viewing of "Rocky" last week. He elaborates later in the book while discussing "Hoosiers," when his reasons for the Copland soundtrack become clearer:
|ACTUAL DVD COVER SYNOPSIS|
|Here's the text on the back of the "He Got Game" DVD! Please trust me, I haven't edited this in any way! You have to believe me! Also, notice how they promote Public Enemy and not Aaron Copland! "Academy Award winner Denzel Washington ("Crimson Tide," "Courage Under Fire") stars in this must-see story about a convict given one more chance to be a father! With promises of a reduced sentence, Jake Shuttlesworth (Washington) is granted temporary release from state prison in order to persuade the nation's top college basketball recruit (Ray Allen of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks) ... to play ball for the Governor's alma mater! But just as Jesus faces intense pressures and irrestible temptations contemplating his big decision, Jake is also forced to consider not only what's best for himself, but what's best for his son! With a groundbreaking soundtrack by the legendary Public Enemy -- plus great cameos from John Turturro and basketball personalities Dick Vitale, John Thompson, Dean Smith and more -- "He Got Game" is a critically acclaimed hit you don't want to miss!"|
That wasn't the only problem in "Game." I have six more for you ...
Production Value: B
Sports Scenes: B-plus
Chill Scenes (1): A-minus
Climactic Game Scene: A
Final Scene: F-minus-minus
DVD Extras: F
Intentional Comedy: F
Unintentional Comedy: C
Defining Unintentional Comedy Scene: Every scene with Rick Fox.
Overall Implausibility: B-plus
Dated-ness: Does not apply
Gratuitous Sex/Nudity: A-plus
Lead Actor: A-minus
Supporting cast: D
Wet Blanket Girlfriend/Token Hot Chick: A-minus
Token Fat Guy: None
Token Angry Black Guy(s): C-plus (a Jim Brown sighting!)
That Guy Factor: D
Defining Quote: D-minus ("You're just like everyone else.")
Intangibles: F (for the musical score and hooker subplot)
2. Bernard King (simply transcendent in "Fast Break")
3. Penny Hardaway (an emotional performance in "Blue Chips")
4. Ray Allen (as Jesus)
5. Dwayne Schintzius (carried "Eddie" for scenes at a time)
6. Jamaal Wilkes (a devastating death in "Cornbread, Earl and Me")
7. Julius Erving (posting a solid 93 in the Unintentional Comedy Scale in "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh") ... and yet ... Did we need an actual NBA player here? For the game scenes, yes. Then again, the lead actor in a movie shouldn't have me thinking the entire time, "Ray Allen's trying to act. Ray Allen's trying to act. Ray Allen's trying to act. Ray Allen's trying to act. Ray Allen's trying to act." It's a little distracting.
With that said, Allen acquits himself nicely in the two most important scenes, the only reasons that "Game" ended up sneaking into my "Top 72." In the first scene, as Jesus slowly warms up to his father, they walk along the Coney Island Shore as Denzel waxes poetically about the great Earl Monroe. We find out that Monroe was so good, blacks started calling him "Jesus," which the white media changed to "Black Jesus (subtle info that only a director like Spike would have known). That's how Jesus got his name. Spike even throws in some Earl the Pearl footage to hammer the point home. It's a wonderful scene, and I don't mind using the word "wonderful," even if it makes me sound like Rex Reed. It's that good. And then there's the climactic game scene with Denzel and Allen. For two hours, you know it's coming. We see a number of flashback scenes with Denzel coaching a younger Jesus -- bossing him around, pushing him, chirping the whole time -- and you just KNOW it's coming. Some day, little Jesus will turn into Ray Allen. And Ray Allen will have to lay the smack down. Now that's a sports movie set-up. You need to play for something in these things, so they decide to play to 11 for Jesus's letter of intent to Big State (or else he'll go to Tiny College). Supposedly, the script called for Jesus to win the game 11-0, but Spike encouraged them to play for real ... and Denzel ended up scoring the first basket. And then another. And another. (Whaaaaaaaaaat??????) If you know the background behind the scene, it's mesmerizing to watch -- Denzel trash-talking and prancing around, Allen quietly fuming, and then the tide turning, with Allen taking over as the older man wears out. Best of all, Spike keeps the camera back so we can see everything unfold -- an NBA star trying to avoid being embarrassed, a Hollywood star trying to earn respect, tensions mounting with every basket. And everything fits the framework of the actual characters, just a father and son finally able to communicate on some level. What a scene. Even Coach Reeves's first game against Hayward in "The White Shadow" pilot wasn't this good. Still reeling from the defeat, a winded Denzel brings the letter of intent over to Jesus, who drops it in disgust. Denzel shakes his head. This whole scene was in his wheelhouse like a John Wasdin fastball; it's unbelievable. Classic Denzel, even though he's just playing himself again. Whatever. Anyway, he's a beaten man headed back to prison ... but he needs to get one final message across. "You get that hatred out of your heart," he tells Jesus. "Or you're just gonna end up another n-----. (Pause) Like your father." Now that, my friends, is a Chill Scene. And that's the main reason "He Got Game" grabs the No. 40 spot on my list, as well as the potential of what it could have been, and Denzel doing Denzel things, and Ray Allen foreshadowing LeBron, and definitely that Earl Monroe story. There's a good movie in here somewhere; you just have to find it. And we don't have the technology right now. Maybe some day. Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.