What Makes a Truly Great Sports Movie?

Dave Schilling@@dave_schillingWriter-at-LargeJuly 3, 2018

Boston Celtics' Kyrie Irving takes questions from reporters, Tuesday, June 12, 2018 during a news conference, in Boston. Irving spoke about the upcoming film
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With this past weekend's release of Kyrie Irving's magnum opus, Uncle Drew, we have so much to reflect on. Irving's star turn as an elderly basketball icon lacing up his Nikes one last time made us laugh. Made us cry. Made us marvel at the magnificent beard work. Made us ponder the nature of existence. And perhaps most importantly, made us ponder the nature of the sports movie.        

This might just be the most beloved genre of them all, so much so that fans will debate the relative quality of each movie as though they're arguing about who the NBA GOAT is.

Ask any sports fan what the best sports movie of all time is, and it's a guarantee you'll get a full list in response—as well as misty-eyed descriptions of favorite scenes. Of how the Mighty Ducks all started quacking on the bench in The Mighty Ducks. Of how Kenan Thompson's knucklepuck twisted and spiraled in another excellent sports movie, D2: The Mighty Ducks. Of the end credits in D3: The Mighty Ducks. Indelible memories and high-water marks in cinema, all of them.

But what makes one sports movie great and another not? Are there elements the best ones share? Do they need to be about hockey? Should the team always be named after a bird? Is hiring Emilio Estevez enough to guarantee success?

Hollywood, take note, as the following formula will guarantee maximum profit on whatever heartwarming sports film you choose to make, even if it isn't called The Mighty Ducks.

   

It has to be an underdog story

Yes, The Mighty Ducks is an underdog story, but so are Major League, The Bad News Bears, Little Giants, Tin Cup, Happy Gilmore and countless others. Meanwhile, there aren't many quality sports movies about great teams, because motion pictures require the hero to face adversity, whether it's internal or external.

Major League is an excellent baseball movie about the ragtag Cleveland Indians making a shocking run to the playoffs, but Major League 2 is about how that same team is a championship contender filled with overpriced superstars. Not as compelling. The Jamie Foxx movie Any Given Sunday suffers from the same issue. The fictional Miami Sharks are just not bad enough at the beginning to root for. In fact, it's pretty hard to root for anyone in that movie, which I believe is the point of the story.

In short: The more pathetic the team/player at the center of the film, the better. Uncle Drew works because the people playing basketball are elderly. Old people are not able to play basketball at a high level, except for Vince Carter.

   

The actors have to look like they could actually play sports

Kevin Costner can believably perform the tasks of throwing a baseball and swinging a golf club in Bull Durham and Tin Cup. I believe Thompson can shoot a knucklepuck. This is necessary to suspend disbelief in the sports movie genre.

Sorry, but I just don't buy that Bugs Bunny has an effective mid-range jumper in Space Jam. Michael J. Fox can't actually dunk in Teen Wolf. Prove to me that a dog can play basketball! You can't. Air Bud is an absolute lie.

This is why some of the great sports films star pro athletes playing their sports of choice. In He Got Game, Ray Allen didn't have to work with a shot doctor to look like a hooping prodigy, because he was one. Shaquille O'Neal is basically playing himself in Blue Chips. LeBron James actually does play himself in Trainwreck (which is only half a sports movie).

Irving might not actually be a senior citizen in Uncle Drew, but he can ball. Good enough.

   

There needs to be a quality bad guy

Every pro sport has its villains: the Yankees, the Patriots, the Warriors, the guy at the ballpark who cuts off beer sales after the seventh inning. It isn't necessarily about something as purely simplistic as good versus evil, but it is about pitting opposing forces against each other. It's about conflict. And so is moviemaking.

The Mighty Ducks had to beat the Hawks, who naturally wore all black and were rich kids. The Indians in Major League had to beat the big-market Yankees in a one-game playoff to get to the American League playoffs. In Moneyball, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill have to...also beat the Yankees.

So lesson learned: In your sports movie, consider using the Yankees as the bad guys.

Perhaps in Uncle Drew 2, he can play Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in a game of pick-up.

   

Don't forget the 'We Are No Longer Terrible' montage

This is an obvious one, but it needs to be said anyway: Your underdog has to get good at some point in order to make the third act compelling.

Unless we're talking about Moneyball—the writer was stuck with a downer ending because the Oakland Athletics could never get past the Yankees—then your sports movie needs a happy ending. That means the team or player at the center of the film needs to improve drastically.

Perhaps the team signs a new player or the coach finds a hidden gem who's already on the squad. Maybe the golfer/bowler/race car driver realizes the talent was inside them all along thanks to the love of a good woman/man? Maybe the ghost of your dead brother haunts you and teaches you how to dunk, like in the Marlon Wayans movie The Sixth Man?

Whatever you've got to do to get that W, folks.

   

Use copious amounts of slow motion

Most sports move rapidly. Even in baseball, in which the action is infrequent, it's swift when it happens. Great moments in soccer, hockey, football, basketball, etc., etc., occur in the blink of an eye.

Sports broadcasters use slow-motion replay in order to allow us meager humans the chance to soak up all the athletic feats of strength and stamina in greater detail, over and over again. Sports movies need it for that, too—but also to increase the tension and to make the audience wonder whether their hero is going to win the big one.

Major League's climactic scene involves catcher Jake Taylor struggling to beat out a bunt that could help break a tie and give the game to Cleveland. He's got bad knees and can barely run. But, as with most underdog sports movie characters, he has heart. The sequence of him running to first base takes place in agonizing slow motion, not ramping back up to regular speed until after he hits first base and the umpire calls him safe. Just thinking about it makes me choke up.

Point being: Slow motion is crucial. The Rocky movies have so many slow-motion shots, you think you might be hallucinating. I'm sure The Mighty Ducks has slow motion somewhere.

   

We need a happy ending

Real sports stories usually don't have happy endings. Ask anyone who lives in Detroit. But sports movies need to!

Are you going to watch The Mighty Ducks 100 times if they lose to the Hawks at the end? No. You're going to throw your Game Boy at your 15-inch tube TV and cry into your Muppet Babies blanket. OK, maybe that's just what I would have done.

Yeah, 70-year-old Uncle Drew is probably going to get the job done and win the big tournament (no spoilers here, folks) even though there's no way his back wouldn't give out or his arthritis wouldn't start acting up and prevent him from dribbling a basketball. Even in the movie Eddie, starring Whoopi Goldberg as the first female NBA head coach, the Knicks go to the playoffs.

THE. KNICKS. GO. TO. THE. PLAYOFFS. Everyone loves a happy ending. Doesn't even have to be believable.

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