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30 For 30: Big Shot

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This Is What They Want

This Is What They Want follows an ideal structure for a 30 For 30 entry. It doesn’t try to bite off more than it can chew by covering Jimmy Connor’s entire career in detail, or by placing him in the larger context of tennis history, or by bemoaning the lack of comparable American male tennis stars in the modern game. The film rightly focuses on the best story in Connor’s career: his run to the semifinals in men’s singles at the 1991 U.S. Open. But it sprinkles in smart bits of context throughout, jumping back to fill in history Connors had with opponents, with rivals, or with antics on the court. And most subtly, it critiques the racist and classist history of the sport without devolving into an issues documentary at the expense of a compelling story. One commentator mentions after Connors’ third round victory that tennis was “a sport that existed in a cultural milieu that was despicable and hard to defend”—that even the slightest step outside strict decorum would incite outrage. Jimmy Connors was one of the loudest, most rebellious voices against that bullshit. Love the competitive streak, or hate the insolence—his inability to conform was electrifying to watch, like Mario Balotelli is in soccer today.


The opening minutes set the stage for Connors as the antithesis of the tennis establishment. In contrast to a genteel, elite, country club sport, Jimmy Connors was a blue collar St. Louis kid whose mother taught her son to play (and didn’t lose to him until he was 16). That kid emerged on the professional circuit treating tennis like “boxing from 90 feet away,” a one-on-one showdown that not only involved your physical skill, but mental toughness and the ability to mess with an opponent or appeal to the crowd for support. It’s a decidedly unorthodox way of looking at the game, and certainly the traditionalists wouldn’t like the comparisons between something so brutal with a “nice” game like tennis. But Connors played with wild passion, and perhaps the reasons anyone watching today remembers John McEnroe more readily is for two reasons: McEnroe was a better tennis player, and he marketed that temper better than Connors wanted to. (David Foster Wallace wrote: “For me, watching McEnroe don a blue polyester blazer and do stiff altruistic color commentary is like watching Faulkner do a Gap ad.”)

That contrast with McEnroe makes the first match of Connors’ 1991 run thrilling, since his opponent for the longest match of the tournament was John’s younger brother Patrick. The match lasted until 1:30 in the morning, and hinged on a few key points just as McEnroe really had Connors beat. But that’s the key detail throughout the documentary: Connors got to a point where his back was against the wall, and his fierce competitiveness mentally shook his opponents. He could make people blink, either with his showmanship or downright buffoonery—yelling at linesmen, taking too long to stall every point and every game. Connors is an asshole. He at one point literally recites the reality-star mantra, that he was “not out there to make friends,”—but at least he’s transparent enough to admit it, and to have the conviction to exude that extreme competitive streak even when being interviewed for this film.

But the centerpiece always will be Connors’ fourth-round match against his friend and protégé Aaron Krickstein, a simply revelatory sequence where commentators, former players, and the players pick apart every detail of the match. The crowd is absolutely thrilling to hear even over two decades later. Krickstein still looks like a deer in the headlights recalling the match, going over the mind games Connors worked on him, the obscene outburst to the judge, bringing the crowd into it. We know Connors wins, but seeing him exact a comeback victory—and take a part of Krickstein in the process—is excruciating. The two most incredible revelations in the aftermath of that: Mike Lupica’s wife saying that every spectator left that stadium believing they helped Connors win. That right there is live sports in a nutshell. That’s the collective influential experience that fans want when they attend sporting events, to feel a part of something they don’t have much of an effect on. Secondly, the final revelation that Krickstein and Connors never really talked about the match, and it’s still a broken friendship, simply because of how devastating it was to Krickstein’s career. His coach dropped him soon after, and picked up with a little-known player named Pete Sampras.

This Is What They Want has a bunch of other engaging moments littered throughout Connors’ improbably run. Chuck Klosterman stands in admirably as the talking head that surely would have gone to David Foster Wallace had tragedy been avoided. His description of rooting against Connors expresses precisely why I do not understand hating gifted players who simply outwork their opponents. Connors was a relentless workhorse like Pete Rose, and there’s “no social downside to being so maniacally competitive.” That attitude makes the person who dislikes them the villain, it’s their problem to deal with that competitive nature that sports demands. And it’s hard to argue that the portrait outlined by the story of Connors’ 1991 run is an entirely repulsive one. He was a uniquely gifted player who got to have his run at being The Natural, one final hurrah before marching off into the sunset. Very few athletes ever get to go out on top. The only one I liked who ever did that was John Elway, who didn’t switch teams like Joe Montana or Jerry Rice, or make a string of ill-advised comebacks like Michael Jordan. Connors continued competition puts him in the latter category, but his run at the 1991 U.S. Open remains an impressive individual triumph of sheer will.


Bernie And Ernie

Not many close friends end up playing the same sport, on the same level, for a sustained period of time necessary to achieve professional success. That distinction makes the story of two New York transplants at the University Of Tennessee, Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld, so special and inspiring. Bernie And Ernie is thankfully the second 30 For 30 entry in a row to pare down the focus of a documentary to the right amount of material to cover in an hour. There’s a clear line—from very different childhoods, to meeting at UT, to paths diverging in the NBA, to reconnecting on the Knicks—and that’s the thread the documentary follows, alternating focus between the two players as their careers shine.


King grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with strictly religious parents. His mother beat him when he refused to attend church in favor of basketball. He is a stoic, quiet man with a host of terrible memories. But get him talking about basketball, and he breathes easily. He repeats a quote about the feeling of making his first basket multiple times, a mantra for sports as escapism. It took him from the projects to the NBA, and it’s how he ended up knowing a guy like Ernie Grunfeld.

Grunfeld was born in Romania to Jewish parents, who moved the family to Forest Hills in Queens in search of the standard expanded opportunities. But Grunfeld picked up sports, and stood out in basketball, ending up in Knoxville at Tennessee. The school, as with most universities in the SEC, was devoted to football, but the exciting chemistry between King and Grunfeld attracted a crowd. That growing attention, and the winning, led to the teammates appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Grunfeld enjoyed big man on campus status, doing whatever he wanted. There’s a great little interview with the Tennessee quarterback at the time, who sounds more than a bit miffed that his thunder was being stolen by a Jewish kid from Queens on the basketball team.


But King’s experience of Knoxville was extremely different. His family life growing up made him a fiercely insular person incapable of reaching out for help from his teammates or coaches. Racism in the south in the 1970s was still violent and rampant. Police officers targeted King instead of celebrating his athletic achievements. And King discovered his proclivity for consuming large quantities of alcohol, which understandably landed him in big trouble a few times. Those demons lingered with King during the beginning of his NBA career, when, separated from his seemingly neurally linked teammate Grunfeld, he became a freakishly athletic superstar in the league—though one with absolutely no friends and increasingly unmanageable addictions. Rehab tempered that to the point where King could rebound into a better career, but it wasn’t until a chance trade to the New York Knicks reunited him with Grunfeld on their hometown team that things took off again.

Though the two aren’t ever interviewed in the same location during the film, the palpable sense of camaraderie is a joy to watch. There are very few athletes who talk about a teammate who is also a longtime friend which as much candid love, respect, and devotion as King and Grunfeld speak about each other. It’s refreshing in professional sports, an honest and frank expression of genuine emotion that too often gets bogged down in platitudes.


The laser-focus on Ernie and Bernie does detract from some of the context around them. Though statistically they both had record-setting careers at Tennessee, the team didn’t fare as well in the postseason—considering success in football is going to a bowl game, it’s difficult to categorize success in this case. (In fact, Marquette, a school Grunfeld turned down in favor of UT, won the NCAA tournament his senior season.) And while Ernie and Bernie were lighting up the court and attracting fans away from football, Pat Summit had just taken over the women’s basketball program to begin her 38-season tenure as arguably the most influential coach (next to John Wooden) in the history of the sport.

The film doesn’t linger on King’s troubles, or his time in rehab, or any sort-of friendships, or either man’s family lives outside of the game. Instead, it’s just on the playing chemistry and the potentially lifesaving friendship that grew out of a serendipitous bit of recruiting that landed both players in Knoxville. And related to King’s statements about his difficult family life, the film never mentions King’s younger brother Albert, who was at one point a top-rated high school prospect over Magic Johnson, had a successful career at Maryland, and played nine NBA seasons.


Perhaps the biggest piece of information the documentary leaves out is that a few months after King’s devastating knee injury, the Knicks selected Patrick Ewing number one overall in the first NBA Draft with the lottery. (A draft which many conspiracy theorists believed to be rigged in order to place Ewing in a big market like New York.) Such a highly touted player destined to change the way the Knicks played offense, even when King makes his dramatic and unprecedented recovery from his injury, it’s fairly obvious that the Knicks couldn’t keep him going forward. But again, the film is about how his friendship with Grunfeld—perhaps the only significant male friend in his life—sustained through years of basketball, and enriched Grunfeld's life while perhaps saving King's.

How many moments do you get to share with a close friend from college? Most of the time people separate as they get older, pursuing different hobbies, going to different schools, beginning different careers, while staying in touch, reconnecting once in a while. King and Grunfeld got something special—and something enormously beneficial—and that is inspiring to see.


This Is What They Want: B+

Bernie And Ernie: B+

Stray observations:

  • My favorite footnote from DFW’s insanely wonderful Esquire piece “The String Theory,” when mentioning Connors: “His game was all the more strange because the racket he generated all his firepower from the baseline with was a Wilson T2000, a weird steel thing that’s one of the shittiest tennis rackets ever made and is regarded by most serious players as useful only for home defense of prying large rocks out of your backyard or something. Connors was addicted to this racket and kept using it long after Wilson stopped even making it, and he forfeited millions in potential endorsement money by doing so.” Imagine if, given all the money poured into technology for running shoes, Usain Bolt decided to run in Vans. Not that racket technology was as insane now as it was 20 years ago, but it was far more advanced than when Connors had begun playing. Highlighting this stylistic quirk is yet another oddity that made Connors a compelling athlete to have an opinion about.
  • Connors’ quarterfinal match against Paul Haarhuis: How does a professional tennis player not hit one winner off of four straight lob shots? It’s astounding.
  • There is one more entry in 30 For 30 schedules for 2013, the Maurice Clarett/Jim Tressel documentary Youngstown Boys. ESPN is presumably holding Tonya And Nancy for sometime around the Olympics in 2014.
  • I remember seeing Ernie Grunfeld watching his son Dan play basketball games at Stanford about a decade ago.
  • Spike Lee gets in a few endorsement comments about his favorite borough of New York, but it is nice to hear him talk about somebody who isn’t Reggie Miller, Carmelo Anthony, or Patrick Ewing. A player from a very brief period of Knicks history who actually represented a Brooklyn neighborhood as a role model for other kids was a fantastic event.

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