“Hoop Dreams” can pretty much go without saying, but what other gems are out there for your basketball addiction this March?
Full disclosure: I grew up on Tobacco Road. I’m a Durham townie and a lifelong Duke fan. This list may be stacked with ACC influence, but notice I don’t start with a dissection of “The Shot” or the story of Duke’s improbable back-to-back championship runs in the early ‘90s. Nope, instead, we start with the Cardiac Pack.
1. ‘Survive and Advance’
The basketball documentary you absolutely must watch as a prelude to the tournament is the story of the 1983 N.C. State Wolfpack. Legendary coach Jim Valvano, a New Yorker adjusting to his new home and a new job in the South, led one of the game’s most famous underdog teams through nine must-win games in a row to one of the most memorable finishes in NCAA history.
I don’t want to spoil it too much for you. It is so quintessentially March in its beautiful madness that even having lived through it in a state where the run is legend, I still have trouble believing it all happened.
The story is made all the more poignant as it’s told by the team’s seasoned alumni, gathered together, in the memory and conspicuous absence of their coach.
2. ‘Without Bias’
The story of Maryland’s Len Bias is one of lost potential, not inspiration. The All-American forward was drafted second by the Celtics in 1984, and on his way to a pro career and all the endorsement deals that come with it. But before he got there, he died of a heart attack after a night of cocaine use at an off-campus party.
The loss of this promising young athlete shone a light on the most dire consequences of drug use and the academic culture, or lack thereof, of high-profile athletics programs. The athlete’s death so colored the discussion of sports and drugs that it can feel like a time capsule for the mid-’80s. It spurred anti-drug legislation in Congress and reinforced the D.A.R.E program as hallmarks of the nation’s drug war policy for decades to come.
3. ‘The Guru of Go’
How did a down-on-his-luck former NBA coach take a little-known L.A. college with no notable basketball program to the Elite Eight? Lots and lots of shooting. Loyola Marymount’s run-and-gun offense led by Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble led to some of the highest combined game scores in NCAA history before, as happens in many of these stories, tragedy struck.
4. ‘Playing for the Mob’
You ever hear the one about how Henry Hill, the guy immortalized by “Goodfellas,” rigged a bunch of Boston College basketball games in the late ’70s in a point-shaving scandal? Well, now you have. Narrated by none other than Ray Liotta, “Playing for the Mob” interviews the players and Hill himself to bring to life this story of the underbelly of college sports.
5 and 6. ‘The Fab Five’ / ‘I Hate Christian Laettner’
As a Duke partisan, I can’t just pick one of the documentaries from this era, so we have two dueling “30 for 30s.” The first is the Jalen Rose-directed film about the genuinely impressive freshman Michigan class of 1991, led by Detroit sons Chris Webber and Rose. Rose’s characterization of black Duke players of the era as “Uncle Toms” started a public spat between former Duke player Grant Hill and the members of the Fab Five. Rose explores the impact of the team (including its famously baggy shorts) on basketball, culture, and yes, race relations.
“I Hate Christian Laettner” is a film about the same era, but a totally different animal. Starting from the premise, recently proven by an Internet tournament, that Duke’s Christian Laettner is the most hated college basketball player of the last 30 years, the doc chronicles the center’s unique tourney success— four Final Fours in four years and two national championships. With unexpected heart and humor, the director deconstructs the film’s villain, his Tiger Beat looks, famous flagrant fouls, clutch jumpers, and all the hate, hate, hate, while Laettner takes it all in stride.
For most, it will be an exercise in exploring their own hatred. For me, it’s an exercise in reliving all the best moments of my childhood.
7. ‘Once Brothers’
I was trying to stick to college basketball, but this story is so moving, I can’t leave it off the list. Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac were best friends who lifted the Yugoslavian national team to success before becoming some of the NBA’s first well-known foreign players. But as ethnic conflict tore the former Yugoslavia apart in the early ’90s, the two men found themselves on opposite sides of the battle as they faced off on the court. Basketball is just the backdrop for this gut-wrenching tale of friendship, war, and tragedy.