SLAPSHOT, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, AND HIGH FLYING BIRD
Updated: Feb 10, 2020
Recently, I was excited to watch High Flying Bird on Netflix. It has an amazing pedigree: Steven Soderberg, the iPhone 8 he reportedly shot it on, and a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the crazy talented playwright who also wrote the screenplay for Moonlight. And it’s a sports story to boot.
I sat down to watch … twice. So far, I’ve made it through about 30 minutes. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good. The dialogue is David Mamet good, but I find myself almost completely uninterested. In the characters. I don’t like the characters – or more specifically, I don’t care about the characters.
But I love basketball. A lot. There are NBA playoff years in which I forwent bed to watch games, jumping up to get to work off 3 hours of sleep. Then, trying to do it all over again the next night because … well, the first and second rounds of the NBA playoffs are simply a gift.
I’m no casual fan. I know sports. Specifically, I know basketball and football, in that order. I know a thing or two about baseball, soccer, horse racing, and I suppose boxing.
The first 10,000 hours I put into anything that weren’t legos, matchbox cars, or tinker toys was baseball statistics. It is obscene how much time I invested in the Kansas City Royals from about 1978 to 1986. Every morning, I’d pour over boxscores and erase and recalculate each player’s statistics from the night before. This was before baseball-reference.com and yahoo, before the Internet would do it for me (were I still interested). My take away was that the rise and fall of players statistically was usually incremental and that a major league baseball season is a slog! 162 games!?! That’s just crazy.
I grew up playing basketball and soccer and since I am not an elite athlete, it took a commitment to semi-serious Ultimate frisbee in my 20s to truly understood the spatial dynamics of team sports and how important anticipation is to success (and the reason why Larry Bird is in the GOAT conversation and Keith Van Horn is not). A frisbee moves slow enough that I was able to anticipate not just the next throw in the 7-on-7 sport, but often the one or two throws after that – both on offense and as a defender. In pickup hoops, most of the time I was just scrambling to keep up, to box out, to follow my man and avoid embarrassment.
I write all this before diving into my musings on sports storytelling for no other reason than to offer up my credentials as a “sports” writer. I come at both crafts – team sports and writing via long hours of slogging along, putting in my 10,000 hours, not to become elite, but to become somewhere between competent and good. I have spent an illogical amount of time considering what attributes define greatness in team sports. Why do certain players provide value beyond their stats or obvious contributions? Can that be quantified? Predicted?
My devotion to the San Antonio Spurs for the last 20 years has led me to a place where I value the contributions of a coach way more than I did before Tim Duncan entered the NBA. If I need to create a character that is either coach or mentor, I need look no further than Greg Popovich.
In fact, Tim Duncan’s retirement is the reason why I don’t watch the NBA as obsessively as I once did (and that is an understatement). Manu Ginobili too. And Tony Parker, Danny Green, Bruce Bowen, Stephen Jackson, Brent Barry – heck even Malik Rose. Of those guys, only Danny Green plays on. Go Danny, go. May you never grow old.
So, sports writing. Here goes. There are plenty of great sports movie lists. Rocky, White Men Can’t Jump, and probably CaddyShack are on all of them and deserve to be so. Team sports movies are harder to craft. Probably because you need a protagonist, a foil or antagonist, and a rich assortment of supporting characters. Those are hard to create within the 2hr time frame of a movie. Slapshot, the Paul Newman hockey movie may be one of the best as far as the assortment of rich supporting characters. The Hansen brothers. Come on. Just fantastic. Bull Durham is certainly elite and one of my favorite movies of all time, but it is focused on two minor league players – the hotshot pitcher about to join the major leagues and the journeyman catcher who will help him get there (as well as the woman that stands between them). I may be dating myself, but the 1979 movie Fast Break (basketball) is underappreciated as a fictional sports movie. Hoosiers and Glory Road (both basketball), are really great, but both are biopics. Love & Basketball is up there as well, and perhaps the most original.
So what is it about High Flying Bird that hasn’t held my interest? The success the characters bring to the table at the get-go. They are already elite. It is the same reason I can’t get into Ballers or the Empire. I am sure there are hardships and drama in the lives of elite and rich professional athletes and music moguls. It’s not the quality of the shows/movies. I’m just not that interested, man. Give me season after season of Friday Night Lights and I am all in – even if they do take a false step and spend an episode or two covering up a disappearance/death (yes, that happened – you probably don’t remember. I tried to forget).
Friday Night Lights is about a high school football team figuring out their lives under the mentoring of their coach. Fast Break is a [school of] fish out of water story about a motley collection of basketball players and their coach, all from big cities, playing together at a remote university in Nevada. Slapshot is about a group of minor league hockey players – are you picking up the unifying thread? None of these stories take place in a world where the characters have already succeeded – like the NBA, the NFL, Major League baseball, etc…
Full disclosure – my argument is self-serving – it supports the value of Love Child’s own sport series in our development queue, Midnight to March which takes place in the world of Division I college basketball. What is it about college and minor league sports that I value?
EVERYTHING is at stake every day, every game. Everything. Cop shows work in some respect because every day they go to work they are putting their lives at risk. The life of an elite high school athlete and pretty good to really good college athlete is just like that. It might not be literally life or death, but it feels like it to the student-athlete.
60 or so players get drafted each year into the NBA. Another 300 or so get invited to NBA camps. Of those 60, almost all of the 30 or so first round picks and about 10 of the second round picks make an NBA roster. Another handful make a roster from that pool of 300 camp invites. The rest play in the NBA development league (for $40,000 a year), or they go to Spain, France, Turkey, Israel, China, Italy, Belgium, Japan, Australia, and so on. The overseas jobs pay pretty good coin too – more than a Duke grad’s first year out of school.
And so every day, every week, every game – a college basketball player’s future is ON THE LINE. One false step – like a wrong place wrong time arrest or altercation with another student, failure in the classroom that results in an academic suspension, major injury or failure on the court – all of that factors into whether a kid is going to make $1.5 million a year in the NBA, $50,000 - $400,000 a year overseas, or $40,000 a year at FedEx or the NBA development league. These are real futures on the line. Of course, their abilities matter a great deal too. And therein lies the heartbreak. About 80% of all Division 1 scholarship basketball athletes enter college thinking they might make the NBA; 50% expect they likely will when the actual number is closer to 3%. I know when I was 19 years old, I thought I was god’s gift to something (I can’t remember exactly what, probably women, but not sure how I would have drawn that conclusion with so few data points.)
It takes an exceptionally mature athlete to recognize their own weaknesses (and work on them) and calibrate that with their professional future -- at any age, but it is remarkable in a young player. And from my observation evaluating teams that are greater than the sum of their parts – the characteristic that separates good teams from teams competing for championships is that ability to individually and collectively recognize and seek help covering deficiencies, and to defer to teammates who perform better in certain scenarios. In a nutshell, do what you do best; don’t do the things that you either suck at or are not elite.
The regular college student and fan have a hard time understanding the amount of pressure a scholarship athlete experiences on a daily basis during the season. They take the same exams, turn in the same papers, but additionally there is a 20 hours per week commitment to practice and training (at minimum), travel time away from campus for games, and the games themselves.
A regular college student doesn’t have thousands to tens of thousands of alumni and fans dissecting their term papers in online forums, or radio shows. Their physique and hairstyles aren’t openly discussed and often mocked, and their professional future is not on the line - quite often on national television - as it is for most division 1 college basketball scholarship athletes.
I have mad respect for those kids, and I have yet to see that play out in a good movie or TV show. Key word: YET.