It’s summer, which means sports and movies, which prompts the question: What’s the greatest sports movie ever?
In 2001, Sports Illustrated issued a top twenty list led by Bull Durham. Now, to be sure, Kevin Costner preaches the true gospel of baseball to Tim Robbins, down there along Tobacco Road. But Robbins’ pitiful efforts to look like even a minor league pitcher suggest that Bull Durham is more about sex-as-sport than about baseball. So Bull Durham, good though it is, can’t be Number One.
Six of the films on the SI list are boxing movies: Raging Bull, Rocky, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and so forth. But when we think “sports movies,” we’re usually thinking of team sports. So that eliminates the boxing flicks, as well as The Hustler and Chariots of Fire.
Baseball elicits wonderful prose, but great baseball movies are very hard to make, in part because few actors know how to swing a bat, field a ball, or pitch; baseball’s intricate weave of personal and corporate accomplishment is also hard to capture dramatically (although Major League, for all its vulgarity, comes close). Thus William Bendix as the Bambino in The Babe Ruth Story is a sad business, best forgotten quickly; William Bendix as a Marine who dies happy in Guadalcanal Diary because he’s just heard the Dodgers have won is pure Americana — but not a great sports movie. The Natural might qualify, but it’s so campy at points, and it veers so far from the dark side of Bernard Malamud’s novel, that I can’t put it at the top of the list — although I confess that Robert Redford looks like he swung a bat a few times before filming started. Field of Dreams is too cloyingly sentimental to qualify for the pennant; it ignores the baseball truth once articulated by the late Bart Giamatti, who wrote of the game he loved, “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”
So what’s left? Jerry Maguire? Please. Breaking Away? I’d rather watch paint dry than watch bicycle racing.
The envelope, please:
The greatest sports move ever made is Hoosiers, a sports movie with everything.
It’s got the David-and-Goliath story (true, as it happens) of a small town high school team winning an all-comers state tournament in basketball-obsessed Indiana. It’s got redemption: for the once-disbarred coach; for the often obtuse but essentially decent locals; for the town drunk/basketball genius who gets sober and gets his power-forward son back in the process. It’s a story of the triumph of discipline and teamwork over free-lancing and selfishness. It’s got a credible, middle-age love story — Gene Hackman and Barbara Hershey: how can you miss? It’s got simple, evangelical faith, which the scriptwriter and director don’t mock. It’s got a terrific musical score by Jerry Goldsmith. And it’s got magnificent cinematography: the camera work (far superior to this past year’s Glory Road) captures the fierce ballet of serious hoops and the beauty of the male body — all without the slightest hint of homoeroticism.
Hoosiers is also a great sports movie because it’s a great evocation of male friendship – friendships among teenagers trying to be men, friendships between men trying to be men again, friendships between generations of men. When Coach Norman Dale says, as his team prepares to take the floor to contest the state championship, “I love you guys,” he could be Eisenhower talking to the 101st Airborne on the night before D-Day; or John Paul II talking to priests; or Jim Lovell talking to Fred Haise and Jack Swigert as crippled Apollo 13 begins its fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. All of which has absolutely nothing to do with — and is in fact the polar opposite of — the self-indulgence of Brokeback Mountain.
In November 1999, Gene Hackman was coming out of the Pasadena studio of KPCC-FM as I was coming in; we were both flogging books. I couldn’t resist, and in my best Sheb Wooley-imitation voice, said “Norman Dale.” He smiled, we shook hands, and I told him that he’d made the greatest sports movie ever. I still think that’s the case.