September 27, 2015

Basketball Movies

The 2015-2016 NBA season is almost here. Media Day for the Wizards is tomorrow, training camp opens the next day and the first preseason game is just nine days away. Finally after a couple of months of waiting and waiting for something to happen, something finally IS happening. Here we go again.

With the start of regular season less than five weeks away, there's one other thing I know for certain and that's at some point in the next six months, I'll be hopping in a car, on a train or boarding a plane to watch my beloved Wizards play somewhere in this great country of ours other than D.C. I've already picked out a weekend in New Orleans when the Wizards visit the Big Easy this year and I've circled the Clippers and Lakers road games (on consecutive Sundays in the spring) as a possible second trip. I need to get some Western Conference venues under my belt and hitting L.A. in the spring seems perfect to do that.

As if it wasn't enough for me to shoot for being there for all 41 home games and a couple of road games each year, I need some basketball related entertainment while I'm on my way, particularly sitting in smaller and smaller coach seats on flights every year. So over the last decade or so in addition to watching a whole lot of hoops in person, I've watched a whole lot of hoops movies on my iPad Mini (and my iTouch before that) while heading to Philadelphia or New York or Milwaukee or Vegas or Miami or wherever else my travels have taken me. And there are some really good ones out there.

So to tip off this season right, I thought I'd share the best five basketball movies I've watched over the years with the dozen or so folks who read this blog. As a disclaimer in advance, I should note my bias towards truth over fiction. As much as I love Shaq and Penny Hardaway in Blue Chips, you won't find that flick in my top five. And yes, I've relied heavily on ESPN's 30 For 30 series in the past couple of years. Some of those films are fantastic; it makes me almost appreciate Bill Simmons (almost) for what he started there.

Like any best of list, I'm sure there is room for plenty of discussion and debate. Let me know where you think I've erred. Who knows, maybe I missed a real gem. There are for sure a lot more hours I'm going to be spending traveling to games. Here are my top five so far.

5. Broke
OK, so Broke is not really a basketball movie but for sure the majority of the stories in this film are about pro football and pro basketball stars who have made millions and gone stone cold broke. As a study in what happens to a lot of suddenly highly paid, financially inexperienced young men with all sorts of hangers on, this is essential watching for the NBA fan.

On one level, this film is hilarious. Half of the stories about how these guys parted with more money than most people make in a lifetime seems like complete fantasy: hundreds of thousands of dollars of custom jewelry; investment schemes from the predictable (restaurants) to the bizarre (furniture fitted with inflatable bottoms so you could float your furniture in the event of a flood); to making it rain in strip clubs with hundred dollar bills; to just plain gambling millions of dollars away. I remember Andray Blatche had a custom number seven Wizards jersey necklace that must have cost a fortune hanging around his neck one season. I wonder what that's worth now.

The characters that are real life guys are also classic. Andre Rison in his custom tailored suit and dark sunglasses telling all sorts of tales; Bart Scott talking about cashing his first NFL paycheck at a check cashing joint; Jamal Mashburn owning a Ferrari he can't drive because it's a stick shift; and Leon Searcy in his Sanford and Son "How 'bout 5 'cross your lip?" t-shirt. Rison and Mashburn and Scott look great. I'm sure they still have plenty of cash left. Leon Searcy and Keith McCants and Bernie Kosar…not so much.

But most of the stories are pretty sad. Stupid decisions are one thing and getting involved with women you hardly know and joint bank accounts is probably inadvisable. But the worst sort of predators in this film are the people the players are supposed to trust: parents, advisors and coaches. Hearing Bernie Kosar say he'd rather his dad have some more of his money than feel guilty about disappointing him just isn't right. I remember the Wizards' Cartier Martin trusted a former AAU coach with investing his money only to lose $375,000 when the Ponzi scheme the guy was running collapsed and he killed himself. Not smart but sad at the same time.

If we need proof of how important this film is, I can't remember any other movie release sparking such questions on Twitter of professional athletes, all of which wanted to know (a) had they seen it and (b) what did they think. A lot of guys in the NBA watched this on ESPN when it first ran and a lot of guys paid attention to it. It may not be a movie solely about basketball, but it's all about the NBA.

4. Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks
As a former New York Knicks fan, I feel bad about putting this film in my top five. But it's honestly an awesome movie.

From 1993 to 2000, the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers met in the NBA Playoffs six times. Eight years, six series. In three of those six years, the winner of the Pacers-Knicks series went on to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. These were important battles between two really good teams. And they were vicious. This was the kind of drama that you don't find in the NBA nowadays because the league has just cut out all this sort of conflict.

This film is all about Reggie Miller, the Pacers' now Hall of Fame shooting guard who took center stage in each matchup with the then-bad boy Knicks anchored around Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason with a little dash of Greg Anthony thrown in for good measure. Back in the 1990s I hated Reggie Miller. He whined. He complained. He pushed and claimed innocence. He trash talked. And he shot the lights out and kept the Pacers in it.

Reggie was truly the game's number one irritant back then. This film is worth it just for the scene where Michael Jordan loses it with Miller and tries to choke him. Following that fight, it's easy to see how John Starks, who I love to death, lost his cool and headbutted Miller in the 1993 playoffs. He didn't hit him as hard as Miller pretended in the subsequent flop but he did make contact. Considering the subsequent suspension, I'm sure John wished he'd laid Miller out for real.

Maybe this film hits me the way it does because I remember the Knicks-Pacers rivalry so fondly and those battles produced two Knicks Finals appearances. Eventually of course, Reggie beats the Knicks. But the best line in the movie for Knicks fans is the last one. I won't spoil the surprise.

3. The Other Dream Team
The Other Dream Team begins with the Soviet Union defeating the United States in the gold medal basketball game of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. An hour and a half or so later, it ends with Lithuania claiming their bronze medals for basketball at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona wearing tie-dyed shirts provided by the Grateful Dead. And both are victory scenes. 

In between the two medal ceremonies, the movie tells the story of a country with a proud basketball tradition gaining their basketball and actual freedom from a nation that had occupied their lands for 50 years. Of the five starters on the 1988 Soviet Union gold medal winning team, four (Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis and Valdemaras Chomicius) were Lithuanian. They were labeled by most of the rest of the world that didn't know any better as Soviets or (even worse) Russians. If you watch this film, you'll be pretty convinced that they were never either of those two things.

This movie is a tear-jerker. I'm serious. There are some truly awful things happen here, from deportations to Siberia to tanks crushing peaceful demonstrators. As a college kid in the United States reading the newspapers in the late 1980s and early 1980s, change in the Soviet Union seemed so benign and Mikhail Gorbachev seemed so different from past Soviet leaders. Watching this movie really provides a lot of perspective and re-sets my own version of history from my coddled existence in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Syracuse, New York. The struggle for independence in Lithuania was real and it cost a lot for some people. It's absolutely heartbreaking in spots.

There are some great triumphs in this movie and watching film of Arvydas Sabonis is always amazing no matter his age. But by all rights you'll walk away from this film changed a little and hopefully inspired at the same time. Please watch it. A few years ago, the Wizards played Zalgiris Kaunas in a pre-season game at Verizon Center. I wish I'd known about the history of that club before I attended that game. Missed opportunity. The only thing I can do from here is make up for it.

2. Hoosiers
Look for any sort of top ten sports movies of all time and you will likely find Hoosiers on the list or at least near the top. It's a David and Goliath story of tiny fictional Hickory High taking their shot at glory and the Indiana state basketball title under beleaguered head coach Norman Dale played by Gene Hackman. 

The movie is set in the 1950s and is pure heartland of America folklore in a place that most people associate as the breadbasket of basketball. Sure, Dr. Naismith may have invented the game at the Springfield YMCA but the game grew up in the midwest. Indiana's the perfect place to set this movie.

At number two on my list, Hoosiers is the only fictional work in my countdown. But before you dismiss this too good to be true story as untrue, it is actually based in fact, loosely telling the story of the 1954 Milan High School team that did in fact win the state title despite apparently long odds.

To show how much I love this movie, I've owned it on VHS, the deluxe two-DVD re-issue (I think for the 20th anniversary of its release) and now as an HD version on iTunes. I love Gene Hackman in general and he's great in this film as the uncompromising my way or the highway believe in fundamentals at all costs head coach clinging to what is surely his last shot. He literally has nowhere else to go. Clips from the film regularly appear at crunch time in NBA arenas all over the country.

Yes, it's confusing when Buddy suddenly appears back on the team. My DVD reissue explains how that happened. I could watch Hoosiers over and over and over again. I need to get to the gym where they filmed the movie one of these days. I see a road trip eventually through central Indiana. Not this year but maybe one day.

1. Once Brothers
The reason Hoosiers is not my number one basketball movie of all time is because Once Brothers is just that good of a movie. It looks like it was made on a shoestring budget (I'm sure it wasn't) but the story here is just so incredible.

The Other Dream Team told the story of a country coming together using the national basketball team as a metaphor for the nation's re-birth. Once Brothers tells the story of a nation coming apart over ethnic lines which destroys the friendship of two of the first European stars to play in the NBA. I can't begin to try to understand what the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia meant or what it did to the relationships between men from Croatia and Serbia who might have known each other. All I can say is this film genuinely breaks my heart.

The story is told from the perspective of Vlade Divac, who is Serbian, about the loss metaphorically and ultimately literally of his friend Drazen Petrovic, who was Croatian. In 1988 the two men started on Yugoslavia's national basketball team and won a silver medal at the 1988 Olympic Games. Two years later they would take home gold medals from the 1990 FIBA World Championship. Yugoslavia started to collapse the very next year with the secession of Solvenia and the dissolution of that country would eventually devolve into ethnic cleansing and horrible war crimes.

Divac was always one of my favorite NBA players (I love big men who can pass) and so I'm naturally interested in his story. But more than that, I think this is a tragic tale of what we let happen to each other and how we fight and kill each other over things that ultimately make little sense like national boundaries and hatred between people who are different from one another. 

It's difficult to understand if Divac's story is biased or untrue (ultimately there is bias in everything, I suppose) but I believe he is genuinely hurt by the divide that existed between him and Petrovic over something that leaders of their countries were fighting over. Petrovic was one of the first players from Europe to find real success in the NBA but his career and life were cut short by a fatal car accident during the 1993 NBA offseason. His death obviously prevents him from telling his side of the story.

There's little joy in this movie but you get a sense at the end of the film that Divac achieves some sort of closure, which I guess is all you can hope for. But the 75 plus minutes you spend watching this movie are powerful and meaningful and I've watched it several times. It's terrible what we do to other people but it's worth it to sit through at least once. Not happy. But better than any other basketball film I've seen.

So that's my list. What am I missing? He Got Game? Hoop Dreams? Other films yet to be released. I'd love a comment or two pointing me towards something I haven't seen yet. Wizards Media Day tomorrow. Can't wait, even though pretty much nothing happens that day.

September 13, 2015

NBA Mascot Rank Update 2015

Who'd have thought two years ago when I initially ranked the 30 NBA teams' mascots (note, not 30 mascots) that I'd have to update it one year later and then again this year. Not me. But such is life in the dynamic, ever-fickle world of NBA mascots. After an update last September to make sense of Hugo the Hornet returning to Charlotte; Pierre the Pelican being born and then switching beaks; not to mention the euthanasia of the BrooklyKnight, I'm back this year with yet another update. 

For sure, not much has changed since last year. In fact, there's only been one new mascot introduced and none have been removed so this should be fairly straightforward. But just for good measure I've shaken things up at the bottom a little and I renew my constant request for change in one NBA city. Let's get right to it. The rankings are, as always, in reverse order.

30. Los Angeles Clippers
Because of the Clippers horrendous 2015 re-brand (and I guess the fact that they signed Paul Pierce away from the Wizards), Los Angeles' second team finishes last in just about everything that I'm ranking that doesn't involve on court play. It's terrible. It's terrible. It's terrible. 

Now, there is a report that the Clips are bringing a mascot into the mix. Please don't rush this one, Steve Ballmer. Do it right. I don't have high hopes for this effort based on recent history but at least do enough to get above all the teams without a mascot. For now, you are last in everything.

29. New York Knicks
For the last couple of years, I have generally placed teams without mascots at the bottom of my ranking due to just lack of effort. This year I'm doing the same, but ranking those teams not on emotional concepts like "I used to be a Knicks fan" but instead based on order of finish in the prior NBA season. 

Last year the Knicks were a franchise history worst 17-65. The Knickerbockers had never finished with wins starting with a "1" in a season before. Last year they bested, or worsted if you prefer, the poorest Wizards showing since I've been a fan. Bravo, Knicks. Be thankful the Clippers re-branded.

28. Los Angeles Lakers
Speaking of historical worsts…

Just like the Knicks in New York, the Lakers also set a franchise mark for futility in a season in their current city. The Lakers' mark: 21-61. Ouch! It's so bad for their franchise that the list of season by season records on the Lakers' website doesn't even show last season. Their only saving graces? They had one season worse than last year while they were in Minneapolis, the Knicks were worse last year and the Clippers re-brand still sucks. 

I expect the link to Lakers' records to be fixed at some point. Just in case the like I provided doesn't work or is corrected…

27. Brooklyn Nets
Last year the Nets got a lot of credit for killing off their awful mascot. This year, they finish where they should based on lack of mascot effort and their on court performance. Think of a new mascot, Brooklyn.

26. Golden State Warriors
The dubs are the highest ranked team without a mascot this year in my mascot rank since they, um, just won the NBA title. Think the Warriors care they don't have a mascot? They shouldn't. Nor should they care about this blog post.

25. Boston Celtics
Still a dude obviously dressed in clothes. I cannot suspend imagination that it's anything but a human. Still last of the teams that actually bother to field a mascot.

24. Miami Heat
I still have no idea how to explain what Burnie is. I still love the name. I'm just at a loss. Not close to being passed by the C's but still last of the actual mascots.

Spots 23-17 are my non-sequitur spots. Mostly. These are mascots who when I look at them I have no idea what the team name would be. So just to prove a point, the teams are listed with their team names based on their mascots.

23. Houston Bears
The Houston franchise's mascot is named Clutch. Clutch is a bear. Should be a rocket I think. I'd settle for an astronaut.

22. Indiana Cats
Indiana's mascot is named Boomer. He's a cat. I'd take a horse or a racecar here. See my first discussion of Indiana's mascot for an explanation why.

21. Portland Cats
I guess it would be really confusing if two teams had the same nickname but that's the way it is. Blaze, like Boomer before him, is a pussy cat. I get that the Portland franchise has it tough mascot wise but nobody forced them to be called the Trail Blazers.

20. Toronto Raptors
OK, so Toronto's mascot is perfect for their name. Their name is just terrible. Huskies, please, Toronto.

Come on, Phoenix. You KNOW you want this guy as your mascot, right?
19. Phoenix Gorillas
I still can't fathom why the Phoenix team has an ape for a mascot and I still don't like it. Moreover, I still can't believe this mascot is revered by NBA fans. I've already pointed out a couple of times that scrapping Go the Gorilla would involve a small under the table payment to a certain breakfast sausage maker. You could even hire the same guy who plays the sun on the Jimmy Dean commercials, I'm sure. And yes, I know that it's obviously a dude dressed up as a sun and therefore should get the same scrutiny as the Celtics' obviously human mascot but I promise I'll rank you higher. Promise!

18. Memphis Pig-Bears
Squint and you could believe that Grizz the Bear is actually a bear. Or you could just as easily get a furry pig. Again, see my first discussion for the whole story. At least change the fur color to grizzly bear color, Memphis.

17. Utah Bears
What's the deal with bears and cats as mascots for teams not named the bears or cats? Utah's got the best looking one of the bunch so they finish highest. In a fight, I'm taking the Jazz Bear over Clutch any day.

16. Philadelphia Dogs
The Philadelphia franchise has the only new mascot this off-season and it's I guess good enough to finish at the top of the non sequitur group. Barely.

Philadelphia's new entry into the world of mascots is not a 76er as their actual franchise name would suggest. Nor is it a rabbit like their last mascot, Hip Hop (thank God!). Nope, it's some sort of blue cartoon-y dog named Franklin who vaguely resembles the dog Blue from the Blue's Clues kids book.

On the relevance scale, I'd say Franklin has none. He's passable on the appearance scale; I mean he's not ugly, is clearly not a cross species hybrid like Memphis' mascot and he has home and away jerseys which I love but also don't get (since mascots don't go to road games). The name is perfect for Philadelphia especially considering their introduction of a dribbling Ben Franklin as one of their alternate logos.

Franklin's an improvement over nothing, I guess, but he's only this high because NBA teams cannot for the life of them produce good mascots. We'll see how long the good people of Philadelphia let him stay around. On the other hand, that might be a while. Does anyone even go to Sixers' games anymore?

15. Cleveland Cavaliers
I still love Moondog. I still don't like C.C. I also still don't like the Cavaliers. Stuck in 15th again.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Wolves have a wolf for their mascot. Awesome. It's still the worst looking relevant mascot of teams that have acceptable team names (see Toronto above for unacceptable team names).

13. Dallas Mavericks
Dallas' mascot is named champ. Might want to re-think that name soon. Maybe Former Champ?

12. Sacramento Kings
I still love Slamson's name and the fact that he's a lion. But man, this thing is not attractive at all.

11. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons are still getting more out of nothing than any other franchise with their mascot, Hooper. It's just not as good as the ten ahead of it.

10. New Orleans Pelicans
Pierre stays strong as the number ten entry in the Big Easy. I'll be down December 11 for the Wizards' annual game. Save me a seat. We can discuss how you can move up over a bowl of gumbo after the game.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder
What the Thunder can't do with their name and logo (that is...come up with a good one), they knock it out of the park and more with Rumble the Bison. How more perfect a mascot for a team in Oklahoma is there? I can't think of one. Consider a re-brand but don't get rid of Rumble.

8. Atlanta Hawks
Harry the Hawk drops a spot this year to eighth strictly on my kind imaginings of what this mascot is going to look like in that awful new Mr. Yuk green that the Hawks decided to use for one of their uni colors this year. I'll wait and see what happens but it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for Harry to be much lower next year.

7. San Antonio Spurs
The first classic mascot that is not a gorilla in my opinion. Moves up a notch because the Hawks can't leave well enough alone. Probably belonged ahead of the Hawks anyway.

6. Denver Nuggets
Unlike Harry the Hawk, Rocky the Mountain Lion is good in any color. Holding strong at number six for the second year in a row.

5. Milwaukee Bucks
I love the Milwaukee Bucks' new colors and logos. Bango won't miss a beat in his new duds. Still have a soft spot for Milwaukee based on my trip there a couple of years ago but it's not affecting my ranking of Bango. Solid all around.

4. Chicago Bulls
You can't be the best in everything, Chicago. You won my logo rank earlier this summer. Benny stays (legitimately) at number four. And I really don't see any way you can move up unless the three ahead of you mess something up.

3. Orlando Magic
I still think Stuff is a crazy good mascot. Perfect look, perfect name and totally relevant. Nowhere else but Orlando…

2. Charlotte Hornets
Of all the classic mascots, Hugo is for sure the best. Pretty much perfect in every way. Just to clarify, my classic mascots sit at numbers seven, six, five, four and two in this ranking. And OK, if you want to include Go the Gorilla here, that's fine too. Those six are the Mount Rushmore plus two of NBA mascots. However, he's still not number one.

1. Washington Wizards
That's right, G Wiz is number one in my mascot rank for the third year in a row. How can you get any more awesome than this mascot? I don't see this ranking changing any time soon. Don't screw this one up Wizards.

Two disclaimers as usual here. (1) This is not a homer pick. G Wiz looks awesome, the name is relevant and he represents the nickname of the Washington franchise. (2) I'm pretending G Man doesn't exist.

45 Days to the season opener. I cannot wait!!!!