4. BRIAN’S SONG (1971)
For cruel fun, go up to any crowd of tailgaters outside Soldier Field before a Chicago Bears’ game, say “Brian’s Song,” and watch tough-looking men suddenly collapse and weep into their beef sandwiches and kielbasa.
“Pride of the Yankees,” “Bang the Drum Slowly,” “Million Dollar Baby” – there’s a long line of movies that have detailed the painful deaths of athletes to the sounds of a sobbing audience. But “Brian’s Song,” the story of Brian Piccolo’s ascent from training-camp nobody to Chicago Bears running back, and his descent to death at the hands of cancer in 1969 at age 26, is the King of the Sports Weepers. In part, that’s due to the notable friendship between Piccolo and Bears star Gale Sayers, the NFL’s first interracial roommates.
“I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him,” Sayers said in 1970 as he accepted the NFL’s Most Courageous Player Award, a speech delivered by a pre-Colt 45 loverman Billy Dee Williams, who played Sayers in the movie. “When you hit your knees to pray tonight, please ask God to love him, too.”
Caution: Do not view “Brian’s Song” and “Something for Joey” in the same night, unless you have plenty of tissue paper and Gatorade (for fluid replenishment) available.
3. BULL DURHAM (1988)
Among the few baseball movies I enjoy are “The Bad News Bears” and “Bull Durham,” because each doesn’t treat baseball like God handed it down in a box wrapped with the American flag. “Bull Durham” doesn’t Make Men Cry, but it’s got the other four factors in huge quantities. In particular, the movie gave athletes a name for their usual postgame “I’m-just-trying-to-do-my-best-for-the-team” dreck: “Bull Durham” quotes, as in the boring answers to reporters’ questions Crash Davis taught Nuke LaLoosh to deliver. In one scene, “Bull Durham” pulls the trick of Providing Memorable Quotes in the form of unmemorable quotes, and Inspires Real Athletes to give a name to what they’re not saying. Genius.
And who didn’t learn from this movie how to “respect the streak?” I coach my son’s fourth-grade basketball team, and I’ve even figured that out. For example, before my team’s first three games, I got coffee from Starbucks. But because my team lost its third game, I switched to getting coffee after the game. We followed with another two-game winning streak, but then lost our third game again. So now I have to go back to getting coffee before the game. Does that make sense? It does to me. The lesson from “Bull Durham” is, if we’re winning because I got, or did not get, coffee, than that indeed is the reason we’re winning.
2. ROCKY (1976)
My 9-year-old son surprised me when he said he wanted to see “Rocky Balboa.” So I recommended maybe we rent a few of the earlier “Rocky” movies to catch up on the story. Thanks to his being struck with the flu, and thanks to my local cable provider’ s movie service, my son took it upon himself to watch every all five “Rocky” movies, like he was Peyton Manning preparing for New England.
I joined my son in watching the first “Rocky.” I hadn’t seen it in quite some time, and my view of Stallone and “Rocky” had been jaundiced by the lousy sequels and by Stallone’s lousy movies outside the franchise. So I was shocked at how good “Rocky” really was, and how empathetic Stallone was as the character. A bum on the end of his rope looking for one last chance sounds like a cliché, but “Rocky” comes across as anything but contrived. Imitating Stallone saying “Yo, Adrian” has long been pulverized into submission, but seeing him at the end of “Rocky” yelling for his mousy yet misunderstood girlfriend after the Apollo Creed fight was incredibly touching — and tear-inducing. It made me remember why, on a visit to Philadelphia in 1995, my wife and I got so giddy over seeing the Rocky statue outside the Spectrum. (The statue has since been moved to the art museum steps.)
Stallone and “Rocky” were never-weres. Stallone and “Rocky Balboa” are has-beens. That means for the first time since the original “Rocky,” both Stallone and the character have a true sense of desperation. I’m getting a good feeling about this new movie.
1. HOOSIERS (1986)
What can I say? I grew up in Indiana. I’ve even shot baskets on the Hickory home floor (in Knightstown, Ind. — the “Hoosiers” gym is available for rental.) Still, you don’t have to be a Hoosier to see that
“Hoosiers” bats five-for-five in the factors that make up a great sports movie. You’ve got your Underdog (the coach with the bad reputation, the farm boy players) Sticking It to the Man (his checkered past, big schools). The film has so much emotion, Men can’t even predict when they might Cry. It’s chock full of Memorable Quotes—for years afterward, as I played pickup ball, invariably someone would say something about running the picket fence. As for Inspired Real Athletes, it’s still common for coaches of presumably overmatched teams to show the movie to their players soon before a big game.
But makes this movie great is the sense of melancholy behind Hickory’s run to the state title. Many people, including many in Indiana, interpret “Hoosiers” as a tale of inspiration. But I see behind it a sense of dread and melancholy. The 1951 Huskers championship run is special not only because a small school will never be able to do it again, but it also special because the outside world is getting ready to come crashing down on a small community that hasn’t had much need for it. For evidence, listen to Ollie’s oral report in history class on the definition of progress – it’s the antithesis to everything Hickory. Or view who is coaching South Bend Central in the final game. It’s Ray Crowe, whose Oscar Robertson-led Indianapolis Crispus Attucks teams won the next two titles after Milan’s 1954 run (the inspiration for “Hoosiers”), serving notice that Indiana’s rural basketball tradition would soon exist in spirit only.
Unfortunately, some of the greatest melancholy comes from knowing the real-life fate of one of the Hickory players: Kent Poole, who hanged himself in his Crawfordsville, Ind., driveway in 2003, as the world was crashing down on him. (His farming business and his marriage were in trouble.) Poole, as Merle, delivered the movie’s signature line about winning the title for all the small schools. It’s hard to reconcile that message of hope with Poole’s suicide.
Makes you want to run out and rent “Hoosiers,” huh? But all of this killjoying is to illustrate that if “Hoosiers” were merely a rah-rah tale, it wouldn’t endure as it has. You can’t Feature an Underdog or Underdogs, Stick it to the Man, Make Men Cry, Provide Memorable Quotes and Inspire Real Athletes just by writing a script that gets the team, or a player, to the big game.
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The Week in Sports Pictures
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