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Monday, August 26, 2002
Updated: August 27, 1:40 PM ET
Cooler moments in sports cinema

By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2

Imagine the relief when my guy K.J. called from Bristol -- the nerve center itself -- to tell me: "Murph, The Cooler is under strict orders this Monday: All movies, all the time."

Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, Dwier Brown
Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan and Dwier Brown get ready to turn on the waterworks in "Field of Dreams."
"Movies?" I said. "What about unfunny cheap shots on a weekend of sports? What about ill-informed takes on today's sports world? What about lowest common denominator pandering?"

K.J.'s response was simple.

"Don't worry. The regular Cooler can return next week."

Truth told, I was delighted. After all, another stag party beckoned in Vega$ this weekend, and I would be in no shape -- physical, mental or financial -- to a) afford a plane ticket home; b) write without actually slurring the words on the laptop.

Plus, this gave my boys at Robbie's stag party an excuse to take a few breaks away from our weekend-long game of "Fake or Real?" down at the Hard Rock pool. (For the record, Fake played Lyndon Johnson to Real's Barry Goldwater.)

K.J.'s parameters were wide: "Just make it about sports movies, dude."

I took this as the gospel. For those of you who don't know, KJ is sort of like the Wizard of Oz of Page 2. He sits behind the curtains, pulling the strings, making that pretty Emerald City of a Page 2 appear for your eyes every day -- only he's not as bald or pathetic as the celluloid Wizard. He just tells me to tone down on the use of the word "ass," and sends me monthly checks.

Anyway, the weekend was spent kicking around ideas for the List of Five with the lads -- in between, of course, regular floggings at the sports book, and blackjack dealers who treated my wallet with the same broad disdain with which Muhammad Ali treated Chuck Wepner's face.

Early on we decided the list had to somehow glorify the film "The Longest Yard," because that film needs glorifying on a regular basis. What could we do? Five best sports prison movies? It would be a reach. We'd have to include the act of obliterating human jaws with pillowcases full of soda cans as a sport, just to flesh out the list and get Sean Penn's "Bad Boys" in there.

Later, we decided the list had to somehow highlight "Slap Shot," if only because, well, "Slap Shot" is the best sports movie ever made. But what? Try and uncover two lost Hansons and list the Five Greatest Hanson Brothers?

Or Five Female Sports Stars With Whom Hanrahan's Wife Would Like to Make It? How about something to pimp "The Bad News Bears"? Truly, a forgotten great sports movie. But what? Five Favorite Fried Meals of Engelberg? Five Best Cans of Beer Drunk by Buttermaker?

Me being the sap, my heart eventually drifted to more sentimental ideas. The sports movie, after all, does more than make us laugh, more than make us wonder how Tim Robbins went an entire lifetime without throwing a baseball until Ron Shelton began filming "Bull Durham."

The sports movie, most of all, works our emotions the way Rocky Balboa worked a heavy bag in the "Gonna Fly Now" sequence. It destroys us. The sports movie is packed with tear-jerking moments, with those magical, moving scenes that turn your entire epidermis into bubble wrap. The sports movie -- in a way Steven Spielberg can only dream -- can turn grown men who haven't shaved for days and who reek of Vegas-mixed mai tais into blubbering idiots.

Beauty is, it's not always the climactic scene that does it. Even dead men weep when Costner asks Pop to have a catch. It's those other beautiful scenes in sports movies that add layers to our experience, that are more understated and underrated than the moment Robert Redford knocks down a light tower with a baseball and puts out the power in a 10-mile radius of surely angry homeowners.

This, most of all, is what I love about sports movies: The Underrated and Understated Great Scene, the brick and mortar of our emotional connection to the film.

So a Weekend List of Five, Hollywood-style, dedicated to those moments before the climax, elevating these movies to art:

1. Rocky and Mickey
Burgess Meredith, Sylvester Stallone
Rocky's and Mickey's relationship helped "Rocky" overshadowed all of its sequels.
There is such a gigantic disconnect between the shallow, taste-free, manipulative trash of "Rockys II-V" and the subtle poignancy of "Rocky," it's almost impossible to reconcile the two. In "Rockys II-V," you can almost see the box office dollar signs in Stallone's eyeballs each scene. In "Rocky," we are instead asked to visit a small group of sad, forgotten people in Philly, and experience with them their first chance to feel alive, to believe in something.

In the dark tones of a gritty neighborhood, this is never better expressed than the poignant scene in which Mickey visits Rocky's lousy flat to ask for a chance to manage him.

Rocky is hurt that Mickey only comes because he has a shot at the champ. Meanwhile, Mickey's awkward pride-swallow can only manifest itself in a mumbling, failed plea. Rocky is such a dichotomy of strength and tenderness, he can't even yell at Mickey face-to-face. He goes into a closet and shouts out a lifetime of frustration. Realizing his last stab was futile, Mickey's defeated walk down the stairs while Rocky continues his disembodied rant is perfectly solitary.

And Rocky's huge heart, his affection for the old man, is so impossible to sublimate he eventually chases after Mickey under the streetlights. There, from the view of a distant camera shot past those grim Philly stairways, we see two lonely men unite in a handshake.

Awesome.

2. The at-bat
Something happened during the filming of "Field of Dreams" to make it the biggest freaking cryfest of all time -- although I continue to maintain it must just be my allergies. Did Kleenex's stockholders oversee the script, or what? As stated earlier, rigor mortis cannot prevent the concept of catch with your deceased father to cause a gullywasher of tears; but I maintain there is more to this movie than just that epic final scene.

I instead offer two words to you: Burt Lancaster.

Moonlight Graham thieves many emotional moments in the movie, two leaping to mind immediately: One, his glove hitting the dirt as he steps over the baseline to save Costner's little girl; and two, his look of awe, appreciation and regret when Ray Liotta's Joe Jackson tells him, as Lancaster walks away: "You were good."

But let's instead nominate another scene.

Let's instead remember his at-bat.

All Graham ever wanted was an AB.

That Lancaster stirs something inside of us by poetically talking about his fantasy of a triple -- wrapping his arms around the bag and staring into a sky so blue it hurts your eyes to look at it -- only endears him further.

So when Costner leaps through his hoops, and when the young Graham, played by Frank Whaley, arrives at the moment, we all feel the sense of anticipation.

There is humor when the salty big-league pitcher brushes him back. There is tension as Costner sits in the stands, knowing the import of the moment. And there is total, complete satisfaction when Graham does it, coming through with that most underrated at-bat -- the sacrifice fly.

A sac fly with the big boys. Not even an AB in the box score, but no matter.

A perfect AB.

When Graham gets back to the dugout and exchanges a knowing nod with Costner in the stands, we've all had our breath momentarily taken away.

A dream come true.

3. Ten feet high
Gene Hackman
Movie fans would love to have a coach like Gene Hackman's Norman Dale.
Like "Rocky" and "Field of Dreams," there is so much to the movie "Hoosiers" besides the final scene.

Come on. We all lock up when Jimmy buries the bucket to win it all. That's easy.

(Digression: As a prep scribe, I once called a high school basketball coach before his team played a big playoff game. He told me the team was at his house for a pregame meal, watching their traditional big-game movie, "Hoosiers." I asked how it went. Said the coach: "Old Jimmy. He makes it every time.")

But the movie is Gene Hackman's tour de force, and when Hickory High arrives at big, bad Butler Fieldhouse, Hackman has never been more perfectly inspirational or confident than when he commands two players to measure the height of the hoop at big, bad Butler Fieldhouse.

Ten feet high, they find.

Says Hackman: "Same as our gym back at Hickory."

Who doesn't want to grab a pair of Chuck Taylors right there and suit up in those satiny unis? Who wouldn't follow Hackman's Norman Dale anywhere? Confident and fatherly, the Patton of the hardwood, only with a softer touch, Hackman lets our small town heroes know that the big city can't stop them -- and from that moment on, we have no doubt that Jimmy will rain home the game-winner.

After all, he makes it ... every time.

4. In training
Am I wrong, or does "Breaking Away" get forgotten too much as a great sports flick? Solid stuff, and may mean that we have to re-evaluate the magic touch of Jackie Earle Haley, who has turns in both this film and, of course, as Kelly the Smoking Superstar in "The Bad News Bears."

(Then again, a cursory review of the film "Making It" shows the ill-fated path Haley's career took. Hey, man, Hollywood happens.)

Anyway, Dave Stohler is one of the more lovable underdogs of sports films. Hopelessly romantic, yet fiercely competitive, there is a precious little scene in the movie that doesn't necessarily make you well up, but definitely gives you a sweet sense of serendipity and teamwork, and makes you root hard for our favorite Cutter.

Stohler is out working the roadways of Indiana, always chasing his cycling dream, when a trucker rolls past him. Stohler pedals harder. The trucker notices. The trucker accelerates. Stohler keeps up. The trucker, impressed by Stohler's fortitude, begins to flash fingers out his window, notching miles per hour in tens for his new friend, who is drafting off of his new friend.

The two of them go, the trucker and the dreamer, never speaking, only bonding over the trucker's respect for our gutty cyclist.

And sure enough, the trucker gets pulled over for a speeding ticket.

Dave the Cutter has gotten his hard work because a stranger admires his guts, and is willing to fall on the Speeding Ticket Sword for him. And we get the satisfying sense that Dave is worthy of our affection. He's not just a leg-shaving nutjob, he's a guy who busts ass, and who doesn't respect that?

5. Caddie Day at the Bushwood pool
Bill Murray
Some films are great for their poignancy, while others like Caddyshack stand up with poopy humor.
What, the whole List of Five is supposed to be awash in bathos?

No, dweller. We round out our list of forgotten great scenes with 15 beautiful minutes at Bushwood Country Club, from 1 to 1:15 p.m., when the members allow our unwashed heroes from the caddyhack to run roughshod in the chlorine.

This scene is not only an excuse for toilet humor (the Baby Ruth doody), for Esther Williams parody (the caddie synchronized swim dance) or for caddies to offer hygiene suggestions/accusations to/at the lifeguards ("You shave your ass!" one offers up).

No, people, this is the masses uniting as one! This is the meek, inheriting the Earth! This is the downtrodden streaking through their moment in the sun, thumbing their noses at class levels and socioeconomic disparity!

Then again, it could just be an excuse for a good Baby Ruth doody joke.

Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes the "Weekend Water Cooler" every Monday for Page 2.