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Friday, August 20, 2004
Updated: May 31, 2:24 PM ET
Sports Guy's Top Sports Movies: No. 40

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

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:

  • No. 30 -- Varsity Blues
  • No. 55 -- Remember the Titans
  • No sports movie needs a futuristic editing machine more than "He Got Game." I have a theory about this movie. In the spring of '98, Spike Lee delivered a 136-minute cut of "Game" to four Touchstone studio executives. All of them liked the movie. All of them thought it was about 35-40 minutes too long and needed to be chopped down. They also asked him to re-shoot the ending, since the original made them want to inhale a garage full of carbon monoxide. And they wanted him to stop kidding around and put the real soundtrack on the movie.

    Spike agrees to everything. Begrudgingly. The Touchstone execs promise to stay in touch, then fly back to Los Angeles ... only their plane gets hit by a meteor. They're never seen again. Meanwhile, Spike still has a movie to release. Someone else from Touchstone calls to check in, leading to this exchange:

    Exec: "How's the movie coming?"

    Spike: "Good, good. Just finished the final cut."

    Exec: "Great! You incorporated the notes from the guys whose plane got hit by a meteor, right?"

    Spike (smiling): "Ummmmm ... yeah. Fixed everything."

    Exec: "Fantastic! Can't wait to see it!"

    And that's how we ended up with 136 minutes of rambling nonsense. Potential can be a dangerous thing.


    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!"

    "In some ways, "Hoosiers" is similar to "Rocky," although better made, containing much better performances. At the time, the NBA was becoming rife with black players, while Georgetown had been establishing a dominating presence in the fabric of the college game, so what do you do? You fill a nostalgic need with a fantasy, turn back the clock to a much simpler time, a time . . . when 'nigras' knew their place. ... They are usually warmly embraced, these pictures about how wonderful and fine it was when, basically, n------s weren't around. It helps if the story is good."

    Again, a decent argument. Would I love those movies as much if I were black ... or would I examine them a little more closely like Spike did? Probably the latter. And just for the record, he's wrong about "Hoosiers" -- that's based on a true story about an all-white team that defeated a team with black players on it, which just happened to be the facts, so they presented them accordingly. But we're getting away from the point.

    For eight pages in his book, Spike reviews his favorite basketball movies -- clearly, this was a guy who knew he was making his own hoop movie some day. And when it finally happened, Spike was sufficiently ticked off by "Hoosiers" and "Rocky," as well as everyone's inevitable (and stereotypical) expectations of a Spike Lee Basketball Movie -- hip-hop soundtrack, black heroes, etc. -- that this was his way of waving his middle finger at everyone.

    In other words ...

    Watch this. I'm making a movie about a high school star from the ghetto, but I'm using a classical soundtrack like "Hoosiers" did. This is a movie about basketball and about people; the black-white thing is irrelevant. This soundtrack will get that message across. And if you don't like it, you can kiss my ass.

    Well, the soundtrack harms the movie. When you're making a movie about basketball in the projects, rap and hip-hop are your friends, like putting ketchup and cheese on a juicy burger. It's the same reason why NBA teams don't use Copland as the background music when they're introducing the starting lineups before every game. Can you even imagine what a car wreck that would be? People would be glancing around, utterly confused, as if a UFO had landed at center court.

    So yes, Spike made his point. It just wasn't worth compromising the movie, that's all.


    That wasn't the only problem in "Game." I have six more for you ...

  • As mentioned above, it's 35-40 minutes too long (and easily trimmable). I'd go into details, but the only people who would possibly care are me, Jim Brown and Milla Jovavich (since I'd be knocking out almost all of their scenes). Which reminds me, the hooker subplot was needless, incomprehensible and uncomfortable ... and I'm being kind. Thank God for the "FF 2X" button on DVD remotes.
  • For the most part, the supporting cast is brutal -- in particular, every scene with the sleazy agent or Jesus's sister (she's a Four-Cringer) -- as Spike continues his storied tradition of casting either fantastic actors or crummy ones (with no in-between). Even John Turturro's inevitable drive-by feels forced. The casting of genuine NBA players as Jesus's sidekicks (Travis Best, John Wallace and Walter McCarty) works a little better, as does the inevitable Rick Fox cameo (as a cocky college kid trying to lure Jesus to his school). Out of everyone, Rosario Dawson (as Jesus's conniving girlfriend) comes off the best. Mainly because she gets naked.
  • As for the gratuitous celebrity cameos from John Thompson, MJ and everyone else, add that montage to the "I'm Never Getting Those Minutes of My Life Back" Hall of Fame. And besides, coaches aren't allowed to discuss potential recruits until after the signing period. Come on, Spike.
  • (And while we're at it, players aren't allowed to visit a college one week before the signing deadline; Jesus couldn't live alone with his sister without both of them being thrown in a foster home; and there's NO WAY IN HELL that Jesus wouldn't have just turned pro if he was that good and that broke. Other than that, pretty realistic movie.)

  • Just about every character is unredeemable -- slimy coaches; lying wardens; greasy agents; mean-spirited undercover officers; cheating girlfriends; molesting uncles -- and by the time it's over, you just want to take a shower. Not the most uplifting movie. And while we're on the subject, when a hooker represents the only redeemable white character in a movie, that's, um, a definite message.
  • REPORT CARD
    Plot: B

    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.

    Unpredictability: C-plus

    Re-watchability: C-minus

    Overall Implausibility: B-plus

    Dated-ness: Does not apply

    Gratuitous Sex/Nudity: A-plus

    Lead Actor: A-minus

    Sidekick(s): B

    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)

  • Poor Spike never could write dialogue. For all his talents as a filmmaker -- and they're all on display here, especially the cinematography and the editing -- this is one of those movies where drug dealers speak thoughfully about the pressures of high school ball, and hookers discuss the meaning of life. Where was the loan shark/bookie who could argue about Tolstoy?
  • The ending ... why? I don't even have the strength to add a question mark. Just ... why. Would it have killed Spike to end things with a paroled Denzel sitting in the stands, cheering on Jesus at Big State? Was there any reason that they screwed him over on his parole deal? Any? For a movie with just one Chill Scene, that would have been the easiest one possible. Then again, maybe Spike is too cool for happy endings. He's an artist, you know.
  • As for Ray Allen as Jesus ...

    I'm torn on this one. Honestly, I can't imagine any NBA player doing a better job. In the "NBA Player All-Time Acting Pantheon," Allen even forged his way into the top seven ...

    1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Oscar-caliber performance in "Airplane")
    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.