'Winning Time' revives the epic trash-talking war between Reggie Miller and Spike Lee
Now that he's a successful documentary filmmaker, whose latest film, "Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks," makes its TV debut this Sunday on ESPN, Dan Klores can admit the horrible truth. For years, he was one of the highest-paid PR guys in New York, representing people as diverse as Jay Leno, Paul Simon, Donald Trump and Brad Grey. But he loathed his job.
"I hated every minute of it," he told me Thursday. "I always felt humiliated. I only began doing PR because I was broke and needed a job. I'd started out as a journalist, a good one, and I always felt, 'I'm smarter than that.' The whole reason that I was good as a publicist was because I was a good editor. I knew how to create a news story. But it got to the point where I knew I had to do something else."
Klores has made a number of award-winning documentaries, none of them better than "Winning Time," which captures the intense, often viciously competitive rivalry between Reggie Miller, the longtime Indiana Pacers star, and the Knicks, whose titanic 1990s-era playoff clashes with the Pacers were the stuff of legend. The film's basketball theatrics, thanks to Miller, are amazing, with Miller once scoring 25 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Knicks, then scoring eight points in the last nine seconds of a game to put another dagger in Knicks fans' hearts.
But what makes the film work even for nonbasketball fans is the way Klores captures the turbulent emotions of his characters. Miller is an impossibly skinny, often wildly obnoxious 6-foot-7 bundle of trash-talking energy who did such a good job of taunting his rivals that Knicks guard John Starks once became so enraged that he head-butted Miller in the middle of a game.
But as it turns out, Miller had his own insecurities and demons. Even though he was a gifted basketball player, he grew up always playing second fiddle to his older sister, Cheryl, who was an even better athlete, leading every team she played on to some sort of championship, along with an Olympic gold medal. One night, after Reggie had a big game, he asked Cheryl how she did. Not bad, she told him. I scored 105 points.
"Imagine what it must've been like for Reggie, coming of age in the emotional shadow of his sister, who beat him every day until he was 16," Klores explains. "So how's he gonna act out against his sister? He can't duke it out with her. He can't beat her on the court. He's not gonna cry. So he talks and talks and talks. It was clearly his way to make an impression. That's why he was the way he was with the Knicks. He says it in the film; it was like going up against Cheryl all over again."
Miller's biggest rival as a trash talker was Spike Lee, who had court-side seats for the great Knicks-Pacers battles and wasn't the least bit afraid of getting into it with Miller. Matters came to a head in the game at which Miller buried the Knicks with his fourth-quarter outburst, then pointed to Lee and gave him the choke sign. The photo of the gesture made the front pages the next day in all the New York tabloids, briefly turning Lee into the most hated man in New York, the nut who'd egged Miller on to his greatest Knicks-beating performance.
Klores was full of trepidation when he called Lee for an interview, becoming even more worried when Lee didn't call him back. "But then I bumped into him at the Garden at a Knicks game and he went, 'Dan, I'm doing it.'" They got together at Lee's office, which it turns out was decorated with framed copies of the tabloid headlines. The interview went great, but Klores was still worried about Lee's reaction to the finished film.
"He came to an early ESPN media screening and I was a nervous wreck, so the whole time I was watching him watching the movie, worried about what he thought," Klores recalls. "But he loved it. In fact, when we had our big premiere, Spike came back with 75 people."
The great irony of the film is that Miller was considered a villain in New York when in reality he embodied all the qualities New Yorkers love. "He's brash, bold, wildly opinionated, he doesn't shut up -- I mean, he's the stereotypical New Yorker, but they still hated him," Klores says. In many ways, the Reggie Miller we see in "Winning Time" is a lot like a great movie villain, the arrogant evil genius who puts the film's hero to the ultimate test.
"To me, Reggie was more than a basketball player," Klores says. "He's like a performance artist, with the Garden being his Carnegie Hall. In a lot of ways, he's on the same level as a Bruce Springsteen or a Frank Sinatra. He's so captivating that your eyes are always on him, wondering what he'll do next, in the same way that you're compelled to watch Springsteen in concert or seeing a great actress taking the stage on Broadway."
It's not as much as a stretch as you'd imagine. When you watch a great athlete in action, whether it's Miller, Michael Jordan or the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, they have something that you see in showbiz, when you're around an especially intense actor or ambitious filmmaker. Klores calls it an "internal ruthlessness," a phrase he uses to describe Miller that could apply just as well to an actor like Sean Penn or a filmmaker like Michael Mann. Seeing a basketball star bury a key jump shot with five seconds left on the clock isn't so different from seeing a great actor make us hold our breath when he nails a scene.
Whether it's on the court or on the stage, it's called grace under pressure. Not many people can deliver the goods, which is why you shouldn't miss "Winning Time," because it shows a performer at the top of his game.
Here's Reggie's great moment, giving the choke sign to Spike Lee as he buries the Knicks:
Photo: Reggie Miller. Credit: Tom Mihalek / AFP