30 for 30: Bad Boys (Film Review)

30 for 30: Bad Boys (Film Review)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the 30 for 30 documentary about the Detroit Pistons championship teams of the late 80’s and early 90’s, entitled Bad Boys, is the dynasties that they needed to overcome in order to become champions, and legends, themselves.

The Pistons, a scrappy bunch of players that became renowned for their toughness and nearly brutal play, slowly got better over the years, but where faced with overcoming some of the greatest teams in NBA history. To even make it to the Finals, they had to get through the legendary Boston Celtics teams led by Larry Bird. If they did get past them, they were faced with the other dynasty in the league at the time, the Los Angeles Lakers during the height of Magic Johnson. No easy feat.

badboysEven when they managed to overcome these teams, there were other obstacles. Including a little team from Chicago that was led by the most dominant player in the game, Michael Jordan. The route the Pistons had to take to win their back-to-back titles was not an easy one. It was tough from the beginning, just as they were as a team.

Bad Boys takes us on the journey of Detroit starting as a laughingstock in the league, a place where nobody wanted to play. But it was one draft pick, Isiah Thomas, that changed everything. Slowly, the team built themselves up, through a ton of trades, some free agent signings, and more solid draft picks (like Joe Dumars). Eventually, a monster was created, and the Pistons became perhaps the toughest team in the history of the league. People hated them, thought they were dirty, and goons. Which was completely fine with all of the players on the team.

If you were thinking about them and their rough play before taking the court, then they had already won. The game of the Pistons was at times more psychological than physical. But the physical was there. They abused superstars, forced legends to their breaking points, and made teams pay for every point that was scored against them.

And it made them almost unbeatable for a time, cementing their place in history in an era that had been dominated by Bird and Magic, and was soon to be completely owned by Jordan and the Bulls.

30 for 30: Bad Boys provides the background to the team, and it is interesting to see how their relationships all worked. Their personalities did not always mesh, but they always had a common goal: to win, and to be the best.

Talent-wise, these Pistons were not the greatest. There was definitely skill, but it was their hard work that made them the best.

badboys3Hearing the behind-the-scenes clashes and issues that the team had, their true opinions of themselves and their opponents, is another feather in the cap of the ESPN series. They have managed to get good, and honest, interviews from the players that lived that experience, and they reflect back on their time as the champs with glee. They took pride in being hated, of being the bad boys of the league, and of being able to instill fear into the hearts of others. The segments with Bill Laimbeer were truly great.

Had it not been for these Pistons teams, perhaps Jordan would have never learned what it took to be a champion, to understand the physical abuse that had to be taken in order to be the best.

Regardless of their impact on others, the Pistons deserve their own spot in history/infamy, because they did win the title in back to back years, after falling short in their first trip to the Finals. Their struggle was intense, and endeared them to an entire city that needed someone to embrace at the time.

Yet another winner in the 30 for 30 series.

30 for 30: Big Shot (Film Review)

30 for 30: Big Shot (Film Review)

John Spano was supposed to save the New York Islanders. A team mired in a ton of poor decisions, from the players on the ice to the management choices at the top, they had quickly turned from legendary dynasty at the start of the 80’s to the laughingstock of the NHL. And rightfully so.

They even messed with tradition, trading out the iconic Islanders logo for the new fisherman jersey in the mid-90’s, leaving fans crying out for changes all the way through the organization.

bigshotSpano, a business man from Dallas, stepped up and was going to buy the team, keep them on Long Island, and return them to the form of their glory days.

But there was a problem.

He had no money.

As always, ESPN manages to tell a really interesting story here in their 30 for 30 series. Big Shot lets us know how a man could possibly buy a professional sports franchise without any capital, and in the meantime, lets us behind the scenes into the minds of the long-suffering Islander fans, and their further dashed hopes of organizational stability.

Directed by Entourage alum and Islander die-hard fan Kevin Connolly, they story in Big Shot is solid. He goes back to tell the tales of the making of the team, and their rapid and sad fall from grace. The buffoonery of the 90’s is brought out with candid interviews with key players, like Mad Mike Millbury, and Spano himself. It weaves an interesting story, of how he actually did manage to gain control of the team, based on lies and promised bank loans, lame excuses, and really, only a $17,000 deposit on the team. It tells us the story about how it really is more important to know rich and important people than it is to be a rich and important person yourself.

This series is so consistent in its level of storytelling. A fan of the New York Islanders myself, the subject area is definitely of interest, even if this is not the best 30 for 30 out there. One of the major flaws is Connolly himself. While he proves adept at putting together a documentary, telling the story, and directing it, his major flaw was using himself as a narrator. Not that he was terrible, and his personal connection to the Isles definitely added to the story, but his voice just doesn’t sound…right for the part. Although this is only a superficial complaint, it really did take a little bit away from the story, hearing him jump in with his stories. It was hard not to picture Eric chiding Vince on screwing up another movie role on Entourage.

30Besides that, you get what you expect here: another great behind-the-scenes look at a strange moment in sports history. The Islanders still have not fully recovered from their disastrous 90’s, and only with their impending move to Brooklyn next year is there a glimmer of hope for the franchise to truly begin turning things around.

For fans of hockey, this one should definitely be high on the list of great stories from the series, if only because there aren’t that many stories about hockey.

30 for 30: Youngstown Boys (Film Review)

30 for 30: Youngstown Boys (Film Review)

I despise the Ohio State University football team. Always have, always will.

Mostly because of their improbable victory over the Miami Hurricanes to win the 2002 season BCS National Championship, on what I still believe to be a bogus pass interference call in the endzone during the second overtime period.

I always thought that Maurice Clarett was a joke, someone who had a bit of the Icarus syndrome. He was too good, too soon, and he bit off more than he could chew. And he got bit in the end for it.

But I never knew the whole story.

In another brilliant documentary, ESPN’s 30 for 30 chronicles the rise and fall of Maurice Clarett and his coach, Jim Tressel, in Youngstown Boys.

young2To watch the kid make it out of the slums of Youngstown, to become an incredible running back at a major university during his true freshman year, is impressive. To see him obliterate opposing defenses, it makes us wonder how good he could have been had his body held up, different choices been made, and different circumstances which would have got him to the NFL.

But things did not fall into place for Clarett. Facing NCAA violations, and speaking out against his team for not letting him leave for a day or two to attend the funeral of a friend, Clarett was eventually suspended by the team, leaving him with nowhere to play ball. Eventually, he took his plight to court, where he tried to enter the NFL draft early, having only been one year removed from high school. When that didn’t work, he did what most people would do when they are famous at a young age: he partied. Eventually, he would enter the draft, and was picked up with a compensatory pick by the Denver Broncos, despite a poor showing at the NFL combine. By this point, Clarett was an alcoholic, to the point where he would be sneaking drinks all throughout the day, including before practice. He never played a snap in the NFL, and never got another chance.

For this part of the downfall, there are many things that could be blamed. The NCAA, for having overly-stringent rules on innocent things (like borrowing a car when his broke down). Jim Tressel for not standing up for his player as much as he could have, OSU, for throwing their player under the bus and treating him like a pariah, when he had done so much for the program. And Clarett himself, for making poor choices along the way, making his situation worse.

But his downfall did not end there. Out of football, Clarett turned back to his roots, which were the streets of Youngstown. His drinking got out of control, he began popping pills, and he began committing crimes because he needed to support his girlfriend and child that was on the way. He made terrible choices, and it landed him in jail.

young3At one point, a car chase with police revealed an armoury of weapons in his car, which led him to prison for over three years.

And this is where Clarett was able to change his life.

This documentary is so powerful, because it allows us to see past the news stories of what we had heard about Clarett. He had become a punchline, due to his frequent visits to the news, all for negative of criminal activities. What we never got to see was the kid with the big smile, the love for football, the amazing natural talent, the incredible work ethic, and the dire circumstances around him.

And we never got to hear of his vindication.

As always, 30 for 30 provides the in-depth look of what happens beyond the headlines.

Even though Clarett played for my nemesis Buckeyes, I gained a new respect for him watching this show. Much of that respect came from an understanding of what had actually happened to him, and the series of events that led to his downfall.

Youngstown Boys is another definite winner in the ESPN series. For fans of college football, regardless of who your team is, seeing the story of Maurice Clarett is interesting, dramatic, and often times heartbreaking. A must-see.

30 for 30: Elway to Marino (Film Review)

30 for 30: Elway to Marino (Film Review)

One thing that has been consistent with sports television over the past while is that ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series is always good. Almost regardless of the topic, they have come up with interesting stories, and turned them into full documentary films, all of which have proven to be interesting, and at times, incredibly well done.

30Another entry into the lexicon of the series is Elway to Marino, the story of the fabled 1983 NFL draft, that produced a crazily high number of legendary players, and featured six quarterbacks being taken. Three of those six would end up as legends, and in the Hall of Fame in Canton.

The story here really shows us as viewers the behind-the-scenes dealings during the draft. Elway had made it no secret that he didn’t want to play for the terrible Baltimore Colts, and their dodgy owner. Regardless, the Colts drafted Elway with the first overall pick, and the intrigue began.

It was really interesting to hear about all of the deals that had been proposed, and failed, during the first round picks. There were several teams that were interested in Elway, and several of them made some very serious offers. The intrigue comes from how many times he was almost traded, but different things got in the way: the owner nixed the deal, the league interfered, a star quarterback caved to pressure and resigned, the offers were confused, the offers were never quite enough. If Elway had ended up on any of the teams that had tried to get him, it would have reshaped the league for quite some time. Elway as a Raider? Or Charger? Or Bear? Or would Elway, the California golden boy, just pout his way out of the league and end up playing baseball for the New York Yankees? The backroom dealings provide some of the most interesting parts of the documentary.

With the other quarterbacks, there was also some cool stories. We always think of Jim Kelly being a hero in Buffalo, the place where he spent his entire career and led the Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances. But hearing him discuss how crushed he was to be drafted by them created another layer to his story.

303As for Marino, one of the all-time great quarterbacks, who left behind him a list of league records upon his retirement, he experienced a tremendous fall during his senior year at Pitt. Having a poor season, he fell all the way to the Miami Dolphins, who were able to grab him near the end of the first round. Stories of potential (and never proven) drug use, as well as his poor season, scuttled Marino’s reputation, and left him as the last QB standing in the draft. Of course, mistakes were made, such as the NY Jets taking Ken O’Brien (out of a Division II school!) ahead of Marino. But it is such stories in which legends are made.

The documentary succeeds in revealing the stories that took place over the phone, and behind closed doors, drawing us into the amazing draft, and the fallout that followed it. Interviews with the people involved, some GMs, some owners, and the players themselves, does what 30 for 30 always does: lets us, the casual sports fan, behind-the-scenes of something amazing, just to see just how much more amazing it really was.

Elway to Marino is another winning documentary from ESPN, and for those who are fans of the series, it definitely is one not to miss.

At the Ballpark: Miller Park (Milwaukee Brewers)

At the Ballpark: Miller Park (Milwaukee Brewers)

The Milwaukee Brewers are one of those major league teams that people tend to forget exists. They are rarely brutally bad, but not often really good, and they are just kind of…forgettable. Their most frequent headlines tend to be about trading away a really good, too-expensive player, or lately, too many things about the cheater MVP Ryan Braun and his failed drug tests.

But the Brewers have a great home park, and one that is so close to Chicago that it should not be overlooked if you are traveling in the area.

Milwaukee itself is a pretty quiet, but nice place to visit. It doesn’t have the bells, whistles, and culture of a place like Chicago, but has a lot more of that down home feel, a place where you can be really comfortable for a couple of days while exploring what the city has to offer.

Miller Park is another of the new-ish stadiums across the league, this one opening its doors in 2001. And it is a very fun place to see a ballgame.

miller park2First off, Miller Park looks really cool from the outside. It has a spaceship appearance to it, mainly due to the interesting look of the retractable roof. The rest of the facade is brick arches, and it is a very attractive stadium from the outside.

On the inside, nothing changes. They did it up right when they built this place for the Brewers. Throughout the ballpark, everything is nice, clean, and modern. They didn’t seem to spare any money or cut any corners when they put the park together. The field is beautiful, the cool slide in the outfield adds an interesting feature, once where the mascot slides down after a home run.

For a park named for a beer company (and a beer-named team, as well), I thought Miller Park was going to be a glorious haven of millions of beers, flowing freely and cheaply. Not entirely the case. There are some decent drink options, but the prices remain the same as any other park in the league. There is some good, greasy food there as well, and our focus was on the cheesy fries that came in a miniature Brewers helmet. Good. Waffle fries are pretty much the best thing ever.

The prices were reasonable, as we sat directly behind home plate in Row 3, for about $100 per ticket. Definitely pricey for a ball game, but those seats in any other stadium would cost double that price. Plus, we had the bonus of being on ESPN for the majority of the highlights that evening.

During the May game, the weather was not being terribly polite, and it ended up being a pretty spectacular thunderstorm during the game. Thankfully, they thought of that retractable roof. Having it closed took away a little bit from the outdoor ball experience (where, as I stated in a previous post, doesn’t really happen as much in Seattle’s home park), but it didn’t dampen the atmosphere inside enough to be truly problematic (I can picture a place like the Rogers Center, home of the Blue Jays, where having the roof closed would completely change the feeling of the game).

miller parkThe best part about seeing the Brewers was for their fans. Fun, friendly, outgoing people. The group of people in our section were all great, loved baseball, loved the Brewers, and loved chirping the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates (who ended up losing, as they always did in those days). It was easy to strike up conversations with the people around us, to discuss matters of the game, and the season to that point. It was fun and laid back. People were all drinking beers and enjoying the food, but it was a well-controlled crowd, and nothing out of control happened, as it sometimes does at games. For the fans only, I would go to Miller Park again. It speaks to the blue collar people of Milwaukee, and how great they are.

One of the most memorable moments of the game was seeing then-Brewer Prince Fielder chugging around the bases and getting a triple, one of the more rare events of his strong hitting career. A man of that size does not usually travel so well, but he got it done, and the crowd went wild. They absolutely loved his hustle. It was a fun moment to experience. That, along with the traditional sausage race that takes place between innings during the game. I got pretty fired up over that.

I have never had an affinity for the Brewers one way or the other, and even though I won’t outwardly cheer for them now, they definitely have a soft spot because of my chance to see them live. Miller Park is a great place, one that is probably underrated in the league. Definitely worth the visit, in a cool little town.