Fans will love ‘Basketball: A Love Story’
Even by the usual how-lucky-are-we? standards, there is an incredible smorgasbord of viewing options for Boston sports fans this week.
A few highlights: The Red Sox and Astros open their American League Championship Series Saturday night on TBS. Sunday, Game 2 gets under way roughly an hour before the anticipated Patriots-Chiefs showdown on NBC. (Can’t wait to see those dueling ratings.) The Celtics begin their season of great expectations Tuesday night against the 76ers on TNT.
But with the saturation of local sports goodness going on, I recommend you find some time to watch ESPN’s “Basketball: A Love Story” epic, even if it means saving it for later.
The five-part, 20-hour film, the brainchild of director Dan Klores, which includes 62 vignettes — or films within the film — began airing on ESPN this past Tuesday (when it ran up against Game 4 of the Red Sox-Yankees series). It runs on the next three Tuesdays as well, taking a hiatus for Election Day before returning Nov. 13.
What’s unique about it — beyond the length of the project and the depth in which basketball, including the ABA, the women’s game, the NCAA, as well as the NBA, is covered, cherished, and celebrated — is that it is not linear.
It ebbs and flows and bounds around the sport’s timeline. Some might compare it to jazz, or to putting together a lovely puzzle. Klores says there are transitions from one vignette to the other — and they run anywhere from six minutes to a half-hour — but sometimes they require some thinking to recognize. This does not for a moment detract from the enjoyment of watching it.
“I knew from the get-go that this was not going to be a history of basketball, a linear thing,’’ said Klores, who first started kicking around the project seriously with ESPN in 2006, and really got rolling on it 4½ years ago, when he interviewed since-deceased coach Jack Ramsay, the first of 162 people interviewed for the film.
“The linear thing has been done to death. I felt that I could have fun by doing short stories and at the same time, as long as I’m making logical transitions, it can work. I made the film I wanted to make.”
Even the familiar stories are presented from a different angle, often involving a deeper look at societal and cultural impact.
“I didn’t want to tell familiar stories the same way,’’ said Klores. “Like Texas Western-Kentucky, how many times can we hear the story of that game [when Western Kentucky started five black players in the national championship game against Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team]? I wanted to do what it meant to the black household in 1966, to the recruitment of black athletes below the Mason-Dixon Line, then to the one-and-done, and then that was my entre into Spencer Hayward and early hardship cases.”
There are so many vignettes that were a pure delight — the David Thompson-Julius Erving showdown in the first ABA dunk contest, the Thompson-George Gervin battle for the scoring title on the final day of the 1978 season, a compelling section featuring Stephen Curry, Bernard King, Dirk Nowitzki, and others technically breaking down their signature moves and skills, and tributes to championship teams that never got their due.
“You Boston guys are so used to winning,’’ said Klores, whose directorial credits include the “30 for 30” documentary “Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks’’ for ESPN. “But I tried to pay attention to championship teams. Houston, back to back in 1994 and ’95. Detroit with Larry Brown in ’04. Dallas [in 2011]. The University of Florida teams that won back to back in college, with [Joakim] Noah and [Al] Horford.” The 1975 Golden State Warriors and 1979 Seattle SuperSonics also got their due.
The story could not be told without significant reflection on Boston’s history with the game, especially concerning the Celtics. The Celtics’ memorable showdown with the underdog Phoenix Suns in the 1976 NBA Finals gets plenty of attention. Tom Heinsohn and Bob Cousy (who were interviewed for Klores by Bob Ryan) are insightful and often hilarious on several subjects, including the All-Star Game drama that led to the start of the players’ union. “And I talked to Bill Russell for 4½ hours,’’ Klores said. “It was like sitting there with Mozart.”
Klores had a couple of small laments. “I had a 20-minute rock ’em sock ’em scene on the melee in Detroit. Oh, man. Oh, man.” But that didn’t quite make the cut. Michael Jordan, who is reportedly working on a major project of his own with ESPN, did not participate.
“The modern guys will give you less time,’’ said Klores. But he got an insightful half-hour with LeBron James. He also talked with Larry Bird. “He was terrific,’’ said Klores, who caught up with Bird in Indiana, with a chuckle, “but he was watching that watch, man.”
All in all, Klores recorded 550 hours of footage. ESPN2 showed the resulting 20 hours of the film — that almost makes it sound concise — over two days in September, and individual segments are available on ESPN digital properties.
It may take viewers who stumble into it or are used to the Ken Burns approach some time to make sense of the format. And it is long — but then, the best love stories are supposed to be, right?
If you’re a passionate basketball fan, you’ll devour “Basketball: A Love Story,” even if it requires smaller bites to fully consume it. If you’re a casual fan, you’ll learn so much and won’t be able to turn it off, either. If you don’t like basketball? Shoot, that’s your loss.
“The real story of why I did this is that it’s inside me,’’ said Klores. “I was a wayward kid. Lots of issues. And basketball, on the court, was the one place that made me feel free. I made real friendships. And saw improvement. And I think there are a lot of people like me all around the world who feel the same way.”