If you’re reading this, pat yourself on the back, because by God you’ve almost made it. We’re so very close to the start of NFL Training Camp, which in turn means we’re close to the NFL Preseason, which would mean we’re just a month away from real football. So basically we’re about to have football back in our lives. Those last few waning days can be tough, especially if you’re not a soccer guy or you don’t really care about Wimbledon or anything like that (I get a little nostalgic thinking about all of the compound fractures and broken backs on the X Games). If you’re trying to scratch that sports itch for a few more days, might I recommend some solid sports or sports-related movies that will save your brain from collapsing in on itself in the absence of football.
This one is actually a pretty timely pick given that the A’s are currently sitting at 55-42. Brad Bitt plays A’s general manager Billy Beane, a washed-up former top prospect turned sabermetrics pioneer who teams up with a lowly Indians assistant (Jonah Hill) to revolutionize the way baseball is understood.
It’s a classic underdog story: the 2002 Oakland A’s are constantly being cannabalized by teams with massive payrolls like the Red Sox and Yankees, so realizing that they can’t out-spend their competitors, they have to out-think them. That means spending money efficiently — trying to find market inefficiencies in the way baseball is scouted and adding players with hidden value, i.e. on-base percentage, slugging percentage (things that are masked by superficial defects like age, appearance, batting average, radar guns, and weird pitching releases). Beane scrapes together a team of cast-offs and rides them all the way to the playoffs, rattling off 20 straight wins at one point in the season.
Moneyball is a lesson in seeing past appearances and finding the things that are hidden below the surface. Also, the book is a quick and enlightening read (I don’t know if there’s a huge overlap between NFL fans and voracious readers, but still).
“When your enemy’s making mistakes, don’t interrupt him.” -Billy Beane
Hoop Dreams (1994)
In terms of sports documentaries, Hoop Dreams is the undisputed champion. It’s the type of doc that ESPN wouldn’t have the patience, ability, or wherewithal to pull off. It’s ambitious as fuck and Steve James knocked it out of the park. Hoop Dreams follows two young, black basketball players as they navigate the world of high school basketball in Chicago, where it’s all but assumed that making it to the NBA is their only real shot at giving themselves and their families a better life.
It’s an epic in the original sense of the word: the story starts with the two kids as they enter high school and follows them all the way into college, with all of the trials and tribulations in between. You get so invested in these characters that the basketball scenes become incredibly tense. You want to see them complete a comeback or nail a game-tying free throw like it’s a matter of life or death. Under the surface, though, it’s as much a sociological look into urban poverty as it is about basketball. We see the effects of addiction, teenage pregnancies, broken families, and crime shape the course of these people’s lives. At two hours and 55 minutes, it’s a big investment, but it’s absolutely worth the time.
“That’s why when somebody say, ‘when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me’, and that stuff. Well, I should’ve said to them, ‘if I don’t make it, don’t you forget about me.'” -William Gates
Bull Durham (1988)
Written and directed by minor-leaguer Ron Shelton, Bull Durham is personal and authentic, exhibiting the different relationships a young ball player encounters on his way to the big leagues. Kevin Costner plays a veteran catcher named Crash Davis who’s tasked with mentoring hotshot pitching prospect Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) as he tries to straighten out his fastball before he reaches the show. Stuck in the middle is Susan Sarandon, a minor-league groupie who wedges herself in between the vet and the young gun.
More than anything, Bull Durham gives you an idea of the inner workings of minor league baseball the same way Jarhead show the dullness and monotony of modern warfare. For each game, there’s a trip to the bar, a meeting with coaches, and a lesson to be learned. The best scene comes in the middle of the movie. Davis calls for a breaking ball while LaLoosh insists on a heater. When LaLoosh won’t give in, Davis tips off the batter, and sure enough it’s hit out of the park. The lesson: listen to your catcher.
“This son of a bitch is throwing a two-hit shutout. He’s shaking me off. You believe that shit? Charlie, here comes the deuce. And when you speak of me, speak well.” -Crash Davis
Shows like Last Chance U and All or Nothing owe plenty of their success to a 2011 documentary called Undefeated. This feature showcasing the Manassas Tigers, a poorly-funded Tennessee high school football team of underdogs, was rejected by major film festivals like Sundance, but rose to the top once it hit screens, eventually winning the award for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. Like the aforementioned Hoop Dreams, this movie focuses as much on the socioeconomic disadvantages of its subject as much as the sport they’re playing.