Through an overlapping rise to innovative prominence, ESPN and HBO have collectively re-defined our television viewing experience. They’ve done this by maximizing the intrinsic value of a good story.
ESPN does it simply by adding a human-interest meaning that extends beyond the final score. HBO does it by delving deeply into real human issues and conflicts that traditional TV outlets are forced to shy away from.
Before ESPN, sports were a niche-bound, almost hipster-like side obsession. Now, it’s "SportsCenter"—not "Good Morning America" or the "CBS Evening News"—that wakes us up and puts us to bed every day.
Before HBO, a television series was a harmless, familial vessel for the feel-good propaganda of a free-living society. Now, it’s a vehicle that takes a social situation and forces you to consider it from its realistic human motives and perspectives, no matter how fabricated or over-dramatized the surface concept may appear.
It’s this ability to maximize our collective level of recreational interest that unites these television giants at the forefront of the best new format for telling a compelling sports story: the documentary.
Throughout history, documentaries have been limited to boring History Channel relics that held no appeal to a younger generation uninterested in seeing its classroom social studies textbooks re-created on the screen. Young people didn’t care about Nazi propaganda or the Frost-Nixon interviews through the eyes of the same crotchety historians they were learning it from in class.
Instead, they’d prefer the entertainment value of a big screen re-creation in the form of Brad Pitt bashing Nazis heads in, or Frank Langella doing his throatiest Richard Nixon impression.
This is where the “You couldn’t write a better script” notion puts sports on a different level. There have been hundreds of classic sports movies over the last century or so, but almost none of them have been based directly on a true, mainstream story. This is because the silver screen usually fails to capture a sports story to its full authenticity. This bothers the hardcore sports fans who see the movie after experiencing the real story.
For example, the 2006 historical drama Glory Road portrayed legendary Texas Western coach Don Haskins recruiting his entire 1966 championship nucleus in the summer of 1965, his first offseason at the school in the film. In reality, Haskins was in his fifth season with Texas Western by 1966 and he had assembled the team’s all-Black championship nucleus over the course of three successive recruiting summers from 1962 to ’64.
Any discerning basketball fan could have seen right through the movie’s plot line without even knowing the actual story. John Calipari assembles an all-star ensemble of McDonald’s All-Americans every year at a top-flight program, and he still can’t win a National Championship.
So, the idea of Haskins doing it with overlooked street ballers at a basketball-irrelevant school is just too outlandish to believe. But you still can’t fault Glory Road for attempting to clutter a spacious storyline into limited time frame. Movies have to show us what happened. In doing so, they’re forced to fabricate essential details that define the story.
The beauty of documentaries is they tell us about what happened, which allows them to delve deeper into a story’s emotional core without having to establish characters and setting. The audience already knows the basic characters and setting. Now we’re just relying on the people who were there to tell us why it matters.
That’s the beauty of a sports documentary: You get perspectives from every possible angle and orifice. Think about it, any of us could have been there. Whether you’re the legendary coach dictating the event’s conclusion or the talk radio host who ranted about it the next morning, your perspective matters because it left an indelibly unique impression in your mental complexion.
As much as historians may educate themselves, they weren’t sitting front row at the Battle of Gettysburg, or even watching it on TV.
From the Magic-Bird rivalry to the Broad Street Bullies to Reggie Miller vs. NY, ESPN and HBO have already re-told a number of classic sports stories to the deepest emotional depth and core. Here are 10 more that should be next in line…