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Sports Movies and the Power of Storytelling

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I noticed a thread on Twitter the other day where people were listing their favorite sports movies.  Challenge accepted, I thought to myself.  First, though, a little background.

My wife hates sports.  Or more correctly, she generally dislikes sports and pretty much anything involving competition and hates sports spectating.  I tend to be a very competitive person and like watching my favorite sports teams and, over the course of the nearly 22 years we’ve been married, this has led to some interesting, um, well, let’s call them discussions.  I don’t recall the topic coming up much prior to our marriage, which was probably a good thing.  To her credit, she did try to develop some interest in sports after we got married for about two months and then gave up.  It just wasn’t in her to become any kind of a fan.  While most of the time she is patient about the topic, occasionally she does inquire about my interest in sports in much same she would inquire if I had an interest in axe murderers or biochemical weapons.  Hence the “discussions.”

The topic has come up often enough that I’ve actually had to think about it and develop a more considered answer, rather than simply saying “Just cuz I do.”  It occurred to me that probably the most effective method that we humans have developed to share information is the story.  This has probably been true since the first time our ancestors were sitting in a cave around a fire and Grog started describing how he and his friends had managed to take down that woolly mammoth they were eating without get skewered by those giant tusks.  Grog, Jr. probably sat around that same campfire and took it all in with rapt attention, but as he got older, he probably thought that old man Grog surely would have done better with the mammoth if he’d thrown the spear there instead of there.  Perhaps it did work better and Grog, Jr. would have his own really good story to tell around the campfire, or perhaps he found out that the old man was smarter than he thought, which would explain Junior’s noticeable limp, but that would also make a really good story, assuming he survived.

Anyway, my point is it’s a part of our DNA to collect information and stories make collecting that information more palatable than just gathering dry facts.  Most of the information we gather, we’ll never use, but that doesn’t make the gathering of it through stories less important.  In fact, stories have become such an integral part of us that we need them, regardless of whether the information is useful.  This explains the value of music and art and a good book.  It explains why Jesus taught in parables and Shakespeare made Julius Caesar much more entertaining than just (spoiler alert!) “Brutus and Cassius stabbed Caesar, the end.”

Sports for me is a story that’s being created as I watch.  Sometimes the story is really boring when the game turns into a blowout and sometimes it’s endlessly fascinating as the game twists and turns to an unexpected conclusion.  Some people don’t have the patience or the understanding of what’s going on to get much out of sports and I get that.  Each of us has types of stories that are more attractive to us than other types and there’s no disgrace in not liking a particular type of story.  I tend to like most forms of storytelling, although opera is a bit of a stretch.  But all of us need stories in our lives and you can tell her I said so.

Sorry for getting sidetracked.  Part of the reason I think this came up is that the power of the story is sort of a recurring theme of this blog and is something I find fascinating.  I suppose if sports makes for good stories, you would think that sports movies would make for good movies, but that’s not always the case, and the fact of the matter is I’d rather watch a mediocre RomCom than a mediocre sports movie, because at least a mediocre RomCom might still make you laugh a little.  But, when a sports movie does hit, then it can really take you to ecstasy.  So on to the movies.

Once again, as with any time I make up a movie list, there are a few ground rules.  First, it has to be a movie I’ve actually seen.  Second, this is my list of my favorite movies and shouldn’t be confused with a list of the best movies in terms of quality.  If this was a “best of” list, it would be quite different, because a couple of the movies on this list are rather terrible.  Third, the movies listed below are in no particular order.  I’d go crazy trying to rank them.  Finally, if the movie is about a sport that I don’t particularly understand or enjoy watching, it is automatically at a disadvantage.  That’s the reason that movies like Victory and Bend it Like Beckham, both of which are very good movies never stood a chance of making the list. So, without further ado:

Hoosiers – My favorite memory of this movie is critic Roger Ebert’s negative reaction to it.  When he saw it, he immediately hated it because there was just no way anything like this could ever actually happen in the real world.  Actually, while a lot of the back story is changed for dramatic effect, the basics of the story are closely based on Milan, Indiana’s state championship in 1954, an event that is celebrated in Indiana to this day.  Jimmy Chitwood’s last second shot in the movie is taken at the exact same location (and in the same gym) that Bobby Plump took his last second shot against Muncie Central in 1954.

Clearly, this is Gene Hackman’s movie and he was born to play this role, but the supporting cast is pretty good, too. Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey are both very good and the kids, almost none of whom had any acting experience, are great.

CaddyshackCaddyshack is more of series of comedy skits, a la Saturday Night Live, all thrown together under a loosely framed story arc, than it is an actual movie.  Some of the skits are really awful.  In particular, I remember one scene where apparently the show’s writers decided that they had to have one skit that included both Bill Murray and Chevy Chase.  It’s terrible and almost painful to watch.  Still, it’s hard to leave a movie off this list that has so many scenes that have become a part of the culture.  Scenes, like this and this and this and this.  To this day, I’ll occasionally catch myself describing some off-beat and unimportant aspect of my life to someone by saying, “So I’ve got that going for me… which is nice.”

The Natural – “The only thing I know about the dark is you can’t see in it.”  The Natural almost has a spiritual aspect to it and I imagine that it’s inspired more sermons than any other sports movie.  Interestingly, this spiritual aspect is completely missing from the Bernard Malamud novel that the movie is based on.  In turn, the book is a fictional retelling of the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  This may be about the only time in my life I’ll ever say this, but if you have a choice between the book and the movie, choose the movie.  I’m not a big Redford fan, but this may be his best acting job.

Slap Shot – The movie that made the Hanson brothers famous.  Warning:  The movie is profane and violent, so don’t watch it with the kiddies.  Oh, and one other thing.  It’s a comedy.

Raging Bull – I thought about this one a lot, as I’m not sure that boxing movies aren’t their own separate category. By their nature, they tend to be different from other sports movies. If I were ranking boxing movies, I’d go 1. Raging Bull, 2. Cinderella Man, and 3. the first Rocky movie. I’m not a big fan of the other Rocky movies, although I’ve heard great things about the latest Rocky movie from a couple of years ago. It got some Oscar nominations.

About Raging Bull, Robert DeNiro was a big star before this movie, but it seemed that his performance here moved him into a different level among acting elites. People started talking about him in terms of him being the best movie actor ever.

Miracle – I was in college when the 1980 USA hockey team beat the Soviets and it really was one of those moments that you remember where you were when it happened.  I still think it was the biggest upset in my lifetime.  The movie does a good job of putting some flesh on the story.  The ending still leaves you tingling almost as much as the actual event.

Major League – Yeah, three of my top seven are comedies.  So sue me!

I’ve never been in a Major League clubhouse before, but I’ve been told by those that have that Major League actually captures the atmosphere in the clubhouse more faithfully than any other movie about baseball.  It is a funny movie that’s definitely improved by the presence of Bob Uecker, who pretty much steals the show.

Honorable Mention:

Searching for Bobby Fischer – Since it’s about chess, I really couldn’t justify putting it on my list.  Searching for Bobby Fischer is probably better than any movie on my list.

Any Kevin Costner sports movie – I think I’ve mentioned my distaste for Kevin Costner before, but all of his sports movies (I counted five, but I could be missing a few) are a fun way to throw away a couple of hours.  If I had to choose one, I’d go with Bull Durham, but Tin Cup is pretty good too, and Costner is essentially playing the same character in both of them.  I really liked Field of Dreams when it came out, but I seem to like it less every time I watch it now.  And Shoeless Joe really was kind of a crook.

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Tell Me a Story

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     Tell me a story.

     Not long after Brenda and I got married, she started having problems with her back that would lay her up in bed for days or weeks (or, occasionally, months).  When you’re stuck abed for long periods of time, it can be mind-numbing, so we’ve tried a lot of things to ease the brain atrophy.  Thank God for audio books.  When she’s going through difficulties, even holding up a book to read can be agonizing.  The audio books make a huge difference.  But sometimes she needs human interaction along with her stories.  That’s where I come in, or at least, that’s the theory.

     Tell me a story!

     The first time she said this to me was only a few months after we were married.  She’d throw out the line in an exaggerated child voice, trying to make the request sound like something of a joke, but at its heart, the request was serious enough.  Tell me something that can stretch my mind and make the pain diminish for a while.

     Tell me a story!

     You’d think such a request would be right in my wheelhouse.  I’m from a long line of story tellers.  My grandfather on my mother’s side of the family was the best of the bunch.  When he would weave his tales, within seconds you would feel like you were at his side as he was living it anew.  His stories were always from his own life or from somebody that he knew.  He never made up a story, although I suspect many of them were highly embellished for artistic effect.  My grandfather was the best at it of anyone I would meet in my family, but he wasn’t unique.  Family members on both sides of the family could cast these spells.  My grandmother on my father’s side of the family was nearly as good.  I think it had something to do with their circumstances.  Both of my parents grew up in difficult, somewhat isolated surroundings in rural, western Missouri.  Life was hard and finding any kind of entertainment was a challenge.  Telling about the days events in an interesting way or relating happenings from the past were a way to expand the mental horizons.  I suspect that this was, at one time, a whole nation of storytellers, although with each generation and with each technological advancement and new and brilliant distraction that inundates our modern lives, the capacity to tell stories or the interest in listening to them has been lessened.  This is not a criticism of our modern world.  I like the distractions, too.  It’s simply a recognition that each gain has a price and the capacity to tell a good story is a part of that cost.  I don’t tell stories as well as my grandparents or parents and the next generation isn’t quite as good at it as my generation is.

     So, tell me a story!

     Still, I’d picked up a few tricks from my ancestors.  Before we were married, I told her a lot of stories and I suspect that’s one reason that she decided to marry me, much as I’d like to believe that it was because of my good looks and charming disposition.  So, you’d think coming up with a story wouldn’t be all that hard when she’d ask, but I found that I couldn’t do it.  My mind would go blank and I’d struggle to reboot.  Part of the problem lay in repetition.  I’d already told her a lot of my stories.  Once you’ve heard for the tenth time the story about picking up the transvestite hitchhiker in California or about being rescued by an angel in Nepal, it’s just not that interesting in the eleventh telling.  It probably wasn’t that interesting the second time.

     Tell me a story!

     I started this blog because I enjoy writing, even though I’m not particularly good at it, and it’s a way to exercise whatever DNA I got that enjoys storytelling.  Before I’d publish each post, I’d read it to Brenda.  She probably doesn’t have the most discerning palate for literary criticism, but she does seem to enjoy listening and she’d offer advice when needed.  I’m sure she hates the sports stuff, but she tolerates it nicely.  It didn’t take too long for me to realize that this was the answer to my storytelling dilemma.  She doesn’t have to ask nearly as often, now.  So, the next time you read this blog and wonder what the heck I’m trying to accomplish, just remember that all I’m really doing is engaging in a very old family tradition.

     I’m telling a story.

Mitch Teemley

The Power of Story

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