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When Sports and Movies Collide

Page 2

With Oscar hype approaching pre-NFL draft Tony Mandarich levels, it's time to set aside a little space to consider a special corner of Hollywood: the sports movie.

Having hosted Reel Classics on ESPN Classic to the tune of about 70 jock epics, I feel sufficiently steeped in the genre to render a pair of bold statements:

  • At their very best, sports movies provide us with the kind of all-access laminate the XFL can only dream of.

  • At their worst, they render us numb beneath an avalanche of formulaic crap, then pummel our kidneys as they build to a faux climax of predictable, Rocky-redux showdowns, all played out against a soundtrack of our weeping and snoring. (If you're wondering if this paragraph was inspired by the Stallone-Pele soccer vehicle, "Victory" . . . well, a gentleman never tells.)

    And if I have to watch one more of the latter, they're going to have to strap me down and subject me to the Eyes-Pried-Wide-Open torture technique made famous in "A Clockwork Orange."

    Let my pain be your gain. I'm going to help you distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly. Ignore these warning signs at your own peril.

    Frankly, the good ones pretty much walk up and introduce themselves to you:

  • Paul Newman is in it ("Slap Shot," "The Hustler").

  • Robert DeNiro is in it ("Raging Bull," "Bang the Drum Slowly").

  • The producers paid some money and cleared real professional team logos and uniforms, and in the preview the sports action looks believable.

    The bad ones also tend to send up some warning flares. Here's nine you can look for:

    (1) The star throws like a girl.

    (2) It's NOT a "Rocky" movie, but Frank Stallone is nonetheless singing the theme song.

    (3) The movie suffers from the dread Night Game Syndrome, where the budget was too small to pay for extras to fill the stands, so the big game is played in an empty and blacked-out arena.

    (4) It boasts a cameo by a middle-of-the-pack sportscaster -- beware of Chris Schenkel, Ferdie Pacheco or Stu Nahan. (Ironically, this rule is actually proved by its most profound exception: The top-drawer broadcast stars Bob Costas and Al Michaels classing up "BASEketball" -- worth renting, if only to hear Costas utter the immortal line, "Feel THESE nipples!")

    (5) Beware stock action footage from real games cut in with no sense of continuity. (Also watch out for Bob Uecker's straight-to-video version of "12 Angry Men.")

    (6) Avoid movies about motor sports ("Bobby Deerfield," "Days of Thunder" -- or, as my wife Robin refers to it, "Top Car").

    (7) Avoid movies about girls trying out for all-boy teams (please, don't make me name names).

    (8) Avoid track & field movies ("Personal Best").

    (9) Especially avoid former Best-Picture Oscar winners that also happen to be about track (or field). Screen the stultifying slo-mo orgy "Chariots of Fire," and tell me it isn't "American Anthem" with dialects, sans a pouty Mitch Gaylord. As far as I can tell, it shagged an Oscar thanks to a pair of time-honored Academy vote-getters -- an historical setting and British accents. Hollywood's self-loathing never shows itself more loudly than with Oscar's anglophilia. How else could "Gandhi" have beaten out "The Verdict" for anything on Oscar night? All "Chariots of Fire" needed to sweep the trifecta of traditional Oscar pandering was a Rain Man retard.

    Of course, some of these warning signs abound in movies I love and foster in the wild-card category of Guilty Pleasures -- sports movies so bad, so strange, so surreal that you cannot stop yourself from watching them. "The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh," a disco nightmare featuring the acting "talents" of Dr. J. Or our inaugural Reel Classic -- "Viva Knievel!" where Evil not only plays himself, but fights crime.

    Folks, what more could you ask from a sports epic?

    But as I've said on more than one occasion, who am I to judge? I've been in a Pauly Shore movie.

    Humorist Nick Bakay, currently a writer for the CBS sitcom "King of Queens," is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and Page 2. He has a Web site at

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