Q&A: Ranking Basketball Movies; Balor Club After Wrestlemania

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Welcome to the first Friday of the academic calendar year with no college football nor basketball to look forward to. Action does not return to the gridiron for nearly five grueling months. This week marks the single longest stretch sans college basketball of the entire trip around the sun.

But all is not lost, readers of The Open Man! Q&A forges on. This week, Your Humble Author ranks basketball movies, delves into wrestling (you have been warned) and dedicates considerable space to patting himself on the back (warned again).

If these topics are not of interest to you, never fear. The Open Man is completely dictated by YOU, the reader. Submit your questions on Twitter via @kensing45, or email kyle@theopenman.com.

Sports make for an interesting film genre. No medium is as fertile ground for excellent documentaries, as I’ll expound on later, and the inherent drama of sports would seemingly be tailor-made for cinema. And yet, execution of sports movies is often botched.

Biopics tend to be dramatized to an unnecessary extent; Glory Road, for example, fudges facts about the 1966 Texas Western national championship. It was completely unnecessary and detracted from a true story that didn’t require embellishment. Fictionalized sports movies, and especially those about basketball, tend to be the worst. Eddy? Like Mike? Rebound? It seems like there’s an endless list of truly awful basketball movies.

Still, there’s enough good to get to five — even while leaving out a few that I like (Blue Chips) and at least one beloved classic (Hoosiers).

5. ABOVE THE RIM

Tupac’s death just two years after this movie’s release robbed music of a transcendent talent at his peak, but I contend were Shakur alive today, he’d be better known as an actor. Tupac would be an Academy Award nominee by now, showing his chops in movies like Juice and Above The Rim. His corrupting influence as Birdie on Duane Martin’s lead role weaves basketball into a story that’s similar to A Bronx’s Tale in certain ways.

4. HE GOT GAME

 

I’ve detailed the horrifying experience I had seeing He Got Game previously. Trauma aside, Ray Allen is surprisingly serviceable in his first, and to date, last starring role. Of course, Denzel’s the real star of He Got Game. He’s been in bad movies, but has never given a bad performance. Teaming up with Spike Lee — a pairing that made for one of the most outstanding most underrated films of the 2000s, Inside Man — Denzel gives this movie a tragic antihero trying to do right.

3. TEEN WOLF

While one might argue Teen Wolf isn’t a basketball movie, it’s no less a basketball movie than Above The Rim and He Got Game. Consider it this way: The latter two both tackle the decisions young men face at pivotal moments in their lives, with negative influences around them. Their fathers play pivotal roles in shaping their journey into manhood, and basketball is just a conduit through which those stories are told.

Likewise, the basketball team serves a critical plot point to the coming-of-age comedy story in Teen Wolf. What makes Teen Wolf more of a basketball school than, say, Fast Times at Ridgmont High or Revenge of the Nerds are football movies is that basketball is central to Teen Wolf‘s climatic resolution.

Fun fact: Teen Wolf is written by Jeph Loeb, who penned “World War Hulks” — which provided loose framework for Thor Ragnarok; and “Batman: The Long Halloween.” In the latter project, Loeb was tasked with following up the smash-hit “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.” Loeb’s take holds up better, because, well…”The Dark Knight Returns” is pretty rife with fascist undertones.

Another fun fact: I never made it past the series debut of “Teen Wolf” on MTV. Replacing basketball with lacrosse?

2. WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP

Speaking of following up a classic, Ron Shelton wrote one of the defining titles of the sports movie genre with Bull Durham. Following up on such a classic was a tall order, but I personally believe he surpassed that effort with this second film, White Men Can’t Jump.

Billy Hoyle and Sidney Deane are a perfect odd couple, but basketball brings their vastly different lives together. The ne’er-do-well Billy’s struggles to kick his gambling addiction long enough to do right by his girlfriend, Gloria, give this otherwise hilarious movie a poignant ending.

Billy ambiguously picking basketball and gambling over Gloria serves as something of a forerunner to another classic sports movie ending, 2008’s The Wrestler. 

Bonus points for UCLA legend Marques Johnson appearing as a hot-headed, bumbling streetball player.

1. HOOP DREAMS

Is including a documentary cheating? Probably, but I wanted to spotlight Hoop Dreams. It’s one of my absolute favorite movies ever made. Everything that went into producing this study of two Chicago basketball hopefuls from Cabrini Green projects, throughout their high school years hit on the perfect storm. Had William Gates gone through St. Joseph’s without tribulation and completely a successful prep career en route to Marquette, the narrative loses some of its edge.

But more so, Arthur Agee failing in his ticket out of Cabrini Green, only to forge a new path for himself at Marshall could not have been more perfect. Marshall’s run to the Illinois State Championships is the most perfect arc of any sports movie.

Balor Club itself feels very nebulous ahead of Wrestlemania 34. The concept seems like an attempt by WWE to leech off the popularity of Bullet Club and the t-shirts that have become ubiquitous at any wrestling show; Balor Club as anything more than merch strikes me as an afterthought.

One reason for this: Finn Balor’s a beloved babyface. Stables in American wrestling typically as vehicles for heel wrestlers; and while I wholeheartedly endorse WWE adopting a New Japan scheme of placing everyone in some stable or faction in order to preserve big, one-on-one matchups through multi-man tags, I don’t see it happening.

If Balor Club’s to expand, Finn must turn heel. Two story arcs I can’t envision would have to precipitate this heel turn:

1. He must turn heel on an equally or more well-liked face. On RAW, that’s Braun Strowman and…? One could argue Seth Rollins, but Rollins’ alignment with Roman Reigns, who I’m predicting as a John Cena career without a turn ahead of him, ensures Balor Club vs. Shield would cast the former as heels. The audience won’t go for that.

2. Turning Finn heel requires changing his music. Balor has the most quintessentially babyface intro, outside of maybe Shinsuke Nakamura.

To that end, perhaps Nakamura could join Balor Club. With the end of the single-brand PPVs, the need for two World Championships dissipates, so Nakamura bringing the black belt over to RAW isn’t out of the question. There’s also a logical connection, with the two having wrestled in NJPW together. Balor Club could work as less of a Bullet Club retread, and more as WWE’s answer to CHAOS; Gallows and Anderson are basically Toru Yano as it is.

Y’know, I always advertise The Open Man Q&A as a completely open forum. This audience never fails to deliver a wide range of topics to keep it fresh and fun, either, but this is the first time I am not amply prepared to riff on a given issue. 

There’s some ego that goes into entering the media space; perhaps not if you work strictly as a beat reporter, when your sole responsibility is collecting and reporting facts. But when you write columns, you do so under the pretense people care enough about your opinions to read them. The same is true of feature reporting to a certain extent, which I consider my forte (and even calling a particular form of writing a forte is inherently egotistical). 

But at the same time, I think a fair number of journalists would agree with me that they’re self-conscious about their work, which leads to being overly critical. Self-evaluating can be exceedingly difficult in an industry judged on largely subjective audience taste. Yes, you try to be as meticulous in the mechanical aspects as possible, but what I might deem as good might have whiffed with readers — or awards voters. 

Nothing in my career previously nor since was as long and took as much time to craft as this longform on Northwestern’s first NCAA Tournament. Tracking down some of these interviews wasn’t easy. Transcribing literally hours of interviews took days. And then actually writing the story was a whole other ordeal. 

I once argued with someone that to produce high-quality, magazine style features, publications need to be willing and able to invest considerable resources. Crafting a single, well-done longform is almost its own part-time job. 

I can say without hesitation there have been specific time-frames in my career that I felt my work was better than others. For example, I got what I consider my first really big break covering FCS for NCAA.com in the 2009 season. I wrote a handful of features I was proud of at the time, but the piece that held up the best (which I moved over to this site after some content did not make the data migration when NCAA.com transitioned from CBS property to Turner Broadcasting) was this on Richmond Spiders wide receiver Kevin Grayson

That same year, I wrote on Villanova standout and 2009 FCS National Championship Game MVP Matt Szczur donating bone marrow to a little girl in need.

I recalled that story when writing for the National Football Foundation in 2016, and expounded on the larger, overall mission of Be The Match — spearheaded by former Villanova coach Andy Talley, but including dozens more universities than in 2009. 

You can read that story as a PDF here

Going back to the concept of having strong stretches, I was hired in the fall of 2013 to cover the Pac-12 at Bleacher Report. My work there for that first season sucked, to put it bluntly. I lacked confidence in my voice and got away from my strengths. That changed my second season there, as I would contend the work I did covering UCLA and USC in the 2014 campaign was the most consistently quality of any period. My favorite from that period was on the increase in popularity of two-way players in college football

Ironically, this was one of the last things I wrote for that publication before being laid off. < Don Callis voice >That’s the business, kid.</ Don Callis voice>

The question asked for three, but it’s my Q&A on my site. And speaking of my site! The feature exclusive to The Open Man I am most proud of writing was this on the rising success of the triple option offense in 2015. 

I continue to emphasize particular stretches, which can sometimes be single events. I take pride in the work I did at the 2016 and 2017 Final Fours; sadly, the stories I reported from Houston are gone. Internet publishing is a cruel mistresses. I was able to preserve my work from the 2017 Final Four, including this on the Gonzaga and North Carolina scout teams, in PDF form

Everything currently in PDF will be republished on The Open Man. 

Now that I have dedicated far too many words to putting myself over, a story from early in my career I’d like a mulligan on was, for the longest time, one of my favorite works. I covered my first NCAA Tournament in 2005 as a reporter at the Tucson pod. Niagara trekked across the country with a small contingent of students on spring break after winning the MAAC Championship. Their tiny “student section” piqued my interest at the off-day practices, so I dedicated a great deal of the subsequent few deals to documenting as much as I could about Niagara’s entire NCAA Tournament experience. 

I was a wet-behind-the-ears college journalist at the time, and this was my first stab at a quasi-longform. I feel better equipped to produce a better version of a similar story in 2018.