Surveying This Year's Sports Documentaries
When The Garden Was Eden
Phil Jackson skipped the red carpet and discreetly went to his seat before last week’s Tribeca/ESPN premiere of When The Garden Was Eden, Harvey Araton’s book turned documentary from director Michael Rappaport.
He provided a buzz throughout the auditorium during the screening and then warranted hopeful applause from a largely New York Knick faithful when the final credits mentioned his new job as President of the sputtering franchise. He has come full circle from his curly brown-haired short-short days as a bench player in New York. For a movie generating hype about the past glory years, Jackson’s presence fueled fervor for the future.
The documentary begins subjectively. Rappaport, also a diverse actor, is a lifelong Knicks fan and introduces us to the current climate of Knicks basketball: a disappointing mess. He then quickly begins an oral history of fifty years before, when the Knicks could still have been categorized as such, when players made $20,000 and when the NBA was just a recreational sport. The personal inflection Rappaport provides though soon subsides into a colorful and informational account, like last year’s ESPN gala premiere, Big Shot, Kevin Connelly’s similar directorial journey through his childhood rooting for the New York Islanders.
Unlike Connelly, somewhat confusing his journalistic objectivity with his own narration, Rappaport lets his dynamic cast of ex-basketball stars provide the films playful reminiscence. He converses with the 1969-1970 championship team, built of a resilient Willis Reed, sharp-shooter Dick Barnett, flashy Walt Frazier, North Dakotan Phil Jackson, and Rhodes scholar Bill Bradley, under the team-oriented coaching of Red Holzman. Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Jerry Lucas (the memory whiz) add commentary to the Knicks’ eccentrically patch-worked team, reflecting on their arrival to 1973’s more reserved championship run.
These early Knicks teams revitalized the NBA in New York, a league and city trying to reestablish itself as a basketball town after the college fixing scandals years earlier. Rappaport weaves archival game footage between interviews, which also include current NBA analyst and former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, and NBA broadcasters Mike Breen and Marv Albert. They often set up funny memories and jokes whose punch lines get comical treatment from the group of retired players. “Red told me to hit the open man but as the game went on I was the open man,” says Frazier about playing in the 1970 Finals. It’s a laugh out loud moment partly because Frazier isn’t necessarily joking.
Fundamental stories must be told in a documentary such as this. Like when Willis Reed hobbled back onto the court in Game 7 of the Finals at Madison Square Garden facing Wilt Chamberlain’s Lakers. The crowd erupted. Counter opinions from Jerry West defending his Los Angeles teams provide a comically deeper bicoastal perspective. But Rappaport realizes he has an idiosyncratic bunch jogging their memories. Relaying statistics and highlights is only half the fun and importance in remembering this era.
That’s because these successful years came in the tectonic cultural shift of the early 1970s. That was when Walt Frazier turned into “Clyde” and made New York City a constant observer to his dramatic fashion sense. That was when some Knicks players were given shotguns by the National Guard and were told to point at their own citizens. That was when the New York media began to shift from their coverage of baseball (those 1969 Mets in particular) and begin to take basketball seriously. Appropriately, Rappaport injects soul music into the soundtrack at this point beneath the team’s own noisy hairstyles and jewelry.
When The Garden Was Eden continues a healthy string of ESPN documentaries over the last several years and Rappaport, a gritty New York accented actor, embodies his subject material. I would imagine it helped his childhood idols open up more, too. Years removed, these aging stars are still the torchbearers for a championship in New York. They’re looking to pass it on. Phil Jackson, now much older and grayer, seems at once the nostalgic, progressive, logical choice to take it.
Slaying the Badger
Slaying The Badger, directed and written by John Dower, is about the friendly rivalry and rivalrous friendship between U.S. cyclist Greg Lemond and French cyclist Bernard Hinault. But much more subtly, it’s about the impact of Lance Armstrong’s meteoric fall from grace. To be clear, Armstrong is not this film’s subject, but his doping ghost (and that of Floyd Landis) lingers in-between the cracks because Greg Lemond is now, technically, the only American to have won a Tour de France yellow jacket. Maybe without the recent record book punishment, this story, though intriguing, doesn’t find relevancy. But as Dower, and most documentarians know, timing can be everything.
So it goes without saying that most people, even sports enthusiasts, probably don’t know Greg Lemond’s journey to attainting three Tour de France titles. Dower wouldn’t blame you. He retells this relatively unknown story, adapted from the eponymous novel by Richard Moore, without condescension. Dower interviews Lemond in his middle age on a couch with his wife next to him, corroborating their memories as young kids. Back in the early 1980s he was the rising star of a barren U.S. cycling landscape but needed to train abroad to continue his progression.
The young, newly married couple moved to France after Lemond was invited to join Bernard Hinault’s cycling team, and by 1985 Lemond was a frontrunner to win the Tour. Hinault, the cycling world’s accepted spokesperson and captain, already had the legacy- nicknamed the badger for his tenacious killer instinct- and would later get famous French actor Bernard Tapie to own his team. Together they lured Lemond in with sponsorships even as he blatantly rejected France’s and cycling’s cultural norms.
The drama to this story however comes in retelling the finishes to consecutive Tour de Frances. Dower listens to Lemond and Hinault tell opposite sides and interpretations about the end of the 1985 race, when Lemond, with the ability to win, was told by his coach to sacrifice his standing to let Hinault ride ahead to victory. He reluctantly followed orders and later the victorious Hinault publicly stated he would do the same for Lemond next year. Cut to 1986 and Hinault, explained in cycling jargon, disregards fulfilling his end of the bargain.
Dower enhances the tension with video from the races. But he also cuts between his disparate interviewees as though they are speaking to each other across a table. It’s an effective technical choice. It’s as though Dower has reunited these teammates and coaches for an uncomfortable intervention. Their geographic isolation only underscores the growing distance that emerged between Lemond and Hinault, or as Lemond’s teammate Andrew Hempstead would call it, a relationship of fratricide.
Lemond would eventually capture three Tour victories, two after getting mistakenly shot in the chest on a hunting trip by a family member. He helped put cycling on the map for the United States, and consequently gave Lance Armstrong a platform to ride into the U.S., then world, record books. Now, over twenty years later, Lemond, like those New York Knicks of old, is ironically still waiting for someone to take his place. Fairly that is.