Hollywood sports movies: Do fans love losers as much as winners?
My pals who are big sports nuts love to heap scorn on Hollywood sports movies, especially when the discussion is unfolding in a bar. Their biggest complaint? The films are squishy, full of more easy sentiment than soul, with the victories being achieved with too little cost. Movies want all of us to feel good when, in real sports, the only ones feeling good are those who were rooting for the winner.
If you divided up the best-known Hollywood sports films, the vast majority could be cataloged as stories about triumph over adversity (“The Blind Side,” “Miracle,” “Rocky” and “Rudy”), spiritual uplift (“Field of Dreams” and “The Natural”), raunchy high jinks (“Major League,” “The Bad News Bears,” “The Longest Yard” and “Caddyshack”) and underdog empowerment (“Remember the Titans” and “A League of Their Own”).
But I have a hunch we’ve recently embarked on a new era of sports films whose stories are just as compelling as the ones you’d find in any other dramatic genre, in part because they aren’t obsessed with happy endings.
No one would accuse Jonathan Hock of being a feel-good filmmaker. Hock, who has carved out a career as one of the best sports documentarians, premieres his new film Tuesday night on ESPN. Called “Unguarded,” it chronicles the career of Chris Herren, a schoolboy basketball star from Fall River, Mass., whose promising career is derailed by a harrowing descent into drug addiction.
A hoops legend at an early age — he was a McDonald’s All-American who once scored 63 points in a game — Herren had an NBA-ready resume after stints as a star guard at Boston College and Fresno State. But as the film makes clear, he also had a full-blown cocaine problem. Because of his much-publicized stints in rehab, he fell into the second round of the 1999 NBA draft. After his rookie season, he became addicted to a new drug — OxyContin. That was followed by heroin. After being cut by the Boston Celtics, he played for teams in Italy, Turkey, China and Germany.
His career ended in 2004 when, playing for a team in the CBA, he was found by police unconscious at a Dunkin Donuts drive-in with 18 packets of heroin. Herren didn’t get sober until after another heroin arrest in 2008. Hock met Herren when he had two years of sobriety under his belt; they were introduced by a mutual friend, Liz Mullin, whose husband, Chris, an NBA hall of famer, had battled alcohol dependency during his playing career.
As a filmmaker, Hock is attracted to lost souls. In “The Best That Never Was,” he examined Marcus Dupree, a high school football legend whose career was derailed by injuries and over-inflated expectations, and his “The Lost Son of Havana” centered on fabled Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant’s melancholy return to Cuba after four decades in exile.
Before he began making his own movies, Hock worked at NFL Films, the cultural propaganda machine that promotes football as an irreplaceable component in our American way of life. “When I left to do my own projects, I guess I came to believe that sports stories, as they’re traditionally told, are really misleading and off the mark,” Hock told me. “‘Hoosiers’ is a great story about a wonderful game, but I’m interested in what happens when the game is over and the athlete has to go off and live the rest of their life. That’s when the story really gets interesting.”
Hock spent countless hours with Herren, watching him give motivational speeches about his troubled past. Finally, it clicked: Hock could tell Herren’s story through these informal talks at prison treatment centers, high school all-star tournaments and West Point student gatherings.
“It just never felt right to mike him and light him and do a formal interview,” Hock explained. “After hearing him tell his story in front of young players and tattooed inmates, I realized that we could do the film almost like a one-man show, with the man in the show baring his soul.”
With its intimate portrait of Herren’s raw, working-class origins, “Unguarded” often looks a lot more like an episode of “The Wire” than an ESPN sports film. “Chris was always told that his destiny was to be a basketball player,” said Hock. “But it turns out that he had a higher calling — his destiny was to help other people. He was never allowed to be who he was because he was always on track to be a star.”
“The Wire” was never a big hit, but thanks to the stewardship of HBO, it lasted for 60 episodes, each one as brutally frank and openly pessimistic about the state of mankind as the last. Can sports films aim as high? If you put Hock’s “Unguarded” together with “Moneyball,” last year’s Oscar-nominated “The Fighter” and five marvelous seasons of the Emmy Award-winning “Friday Night Lights,” you’d have a collection of dramas and documentaries that have as much scope and ambition as any of the great novels or stories — think “The Silent Season of a Hero,” Gay Talese’s 1966 Esquire profile of Joe DiMaggio — that have become required reading for sports fans.
From Red Smith and Ring Lardner through David Halberstam and Buzz Bissinger, writers have always been drawn to sports’ endless gallery of battered but beautiful losers. “The losers are always more interesting than the winners,” said John Schulian, a veteran sports columnist and TV writer whose latest collection of stories is titled “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand.” “Winners tend to be more self-protective — they don’t want to spoil their image. Losers are more open. They’ll talk about why they blew the game or why they robbed the jewelry store when they were 17. You just find out a lot more about yourself when you’re on the losing end.”
This sense of introspection is at work in the hot novel of the moment, Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding,” which offers an apt illustration of why sports is such fertile territory for storytellers. Ostensibly a novel about a shortstop who aspires to perfection, the book ends up probing a host of deeper issues, its characters enmeshed in struggles with fallibility and the curse of self-consciousness.
Hock’s portrait of Herren in “Unguarded” is also about fallibility, human frailty being the curse of so many sports icons. (As a troubled soul from a blue-collar Massachusetts town, Herren's character is a first cousin to Dicky Eklund, the lovable but drug-addicted boxer played by Christian Bale in “The Fighter.”)
In days past, writers would plumb dark corners and Hollywood would scrub them clean. It’s worth remembering that in Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural” Roy Hobbs strikes out. It’s only in the movie that he hits a majestic home run. You can guess what ending Hock would choose. Like a lot of filmmakers of his generation, when it comes to sports, he’s a realist, not a mythmaker.
“I guess my films turn that whole redemption thing upside down,” he says. “Sports provides the illusion that athletes can achieve perfection. But sometimes if you’re searching for redemption, you can only find it away from the game, like Chris Herren did.”
Photo: Fresno State's Chris Herren, left, in action in 1996 against Massachusetts' Carmelo Travieso at the Mullens Center in Amherst, Mass. Credit: Elise Amendola/Associated Press