Earlier this evening, NPR critic Linda Holmes (@nprmonkeysee) tweeted thusly: “I would sit here and watch five more hours of Winning Time, ESPN's 30 For 30 airing tonight. At least five more hours.”
That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Dan Klores’ documentary about the heated mid-‘90s rivalry between the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers—made possible by Michael Jordan’s brief, ignominious sojourn into minor league baseball—has been the most hotly anticipated in the 30 For 30 lineup so far, and it more than lived up to the hype. Much of that is owed to Klores’ diamond-cut editing of interviews and archival footage, from the way he layers sound-bites into a booming, ecstatic chorus to playful little touches like the Puccini opera that opens the film, as Reggie Miller turns in an Academy Award-caliber performance after John Starks’ infamous headbutt. But, of course, Klores’ real job was just to recapture the excitement that basketball fans—not to mention the players and coaches involved, of course—felt as the drama was unfolding. If you were an NBA fan at the time, it was something you’d never forget, but to see it recalled this energetically, with such vivid testimony from the people involved, was like being transported to that period once again.
If there’s any major criticism at all to be directed at Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks—and even some who have liked the film enormously, like Daniel Fienberg of HitFix.com, have taken issue—it’s that the film, which Miller also produced, is a self-serving monument to his own greatness. (Fienberg called it his “Hall Of Fame reel.”) There are contrarian arguments to be made that it isn’t and the documentary actually supports those arguments, because the intermittent greatness Miller displayed in those epic Madison Square Garden duels did not lead to the Indiana Pacers winning any championships. (Ditto Patrick Ewing, who made the Hall Of Fame, but most would say left a disappointing legacy.) But let’s face it: Winning Time makes Reggie Miller look pretty damned awesome, right down to its title, which not only reflects on his majesty as a big game player, but alternately reflects poorly on Ewing’s. Yet in a film about trash-talking and one-upmanship, it’s completely apropos that Miller’s vanity should suffuse the whole enterprise, including the credits.
And my goodness, what a pleasure it is to see these outsized personalities go at it. Because as interesting as this match-up was regionally—“Sodom and Gomorrah,” “Hicks versus Knicks,” et al.—Klores wisely place the action and drama on the court itself at center stage. What’s most infectious about Winning Time is how animated everyone still gets when talking about this rivalry; even Patrick freakin’ Ewing, one of the dullest superstars of the modern era, can hardly contain himself. (My favorite line from him: The simple, perfectly timed “I hated Reggie.”) Miller, of course, cannot stop smiling as he recounts his exploits, especially the ownership he had over John Starks’ brittle psyche. Then there’s Spike Lee, Knicks superfan and the unlikely focal point of the first Knicks-Pacers series—which, fortunately for Spike’s safety, his team ultimately won, despite his ill-advised baiting of Miller.
Though Winning Time doesn’t hit the point too hard, Miller’s relationship to his sister Cheryl—arguably the more famous and inarguably the most accomplished of the siblings—was its own kind of head game. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to see how Miller’s habit of getting motivated by being slighted—with Marc Jackson feeding him disparaging Mike Lupica columns, and the like—is rooted in feelings of inferiority to his sister. (The “Cher-yl! Cher-yl!” chants seemed to get to him as much as his schoolyard taunts got to Starks.) Much as Miller laugh good-naturedly about Cheryl’s achievements in relationship to his own—the 105-point game, the backyard whuppings—playing second fiddle to your sister has to be humbling for him still.
Klores gets the most out of a great highlight reel. He’s only covering two series, and of those series, only two or three of the games were the all-time classics everyone remembers, particularly that first big Pacers win in the Garden (with Miller sticking it to Spike) and Miller’s legendary “eight-points-in-nine seconds.” (Kudos to John Starks for being a good enough sport to talk about coming up on the losing end against his arch-nemesis.) Klores’ best touch is to marry old footage of the games to the interviews, so whenever Miller recalls saying something like “John, look at the scoreboard,” we can read his lips. All we knew at the time was they (Miller, Starks, and Spike mostly) were jawing at each other; now we know exactly what they were saying. (And what a wonderful moment when Miller finds out about Starks’ mother standing up for him, and retroactively regrets not being able to use that to needle him.)
A couple of weeks ago, I headed up an Inventory about my favorite type of sports movie, perfected by Ron Shelton with Bull Durham and Tin Cup, where the losers come out winners. The funny thing about those two epic playoff battles between the Knicks and the Pacers in ’94 and ’95 is that neither team went on to win the NBA Finals. And yet, as fans, what do we remember? We remember this.
• Great comment from Antonio Davis on Miller’s headbutt theatrics: “I’m surprised he didn’t have a packet of ketchup.”
• Much as those bruising, take-no-prisoners contests between the Knicks and the Pacers made for great drama, they also typified a league that was hampered by slow, ugly, defensive-minded basketball. The NBA is considerably more wide-open and entertaining today, but it could use some rivalries of the same caliber.
• Indianapolis: “Nap City.”
• Interesting ironic footnote that’s too off-topic for Klores to note: Donnie Walsh, the mastermind who transformed the Pacers into a contender (and heretically didn’t draft Steve Alford), is currently trying to work the same magic in New York. In that sense, Winning Time might be a better commercial for Walsh than for Miller.
• “No fraternizing with the enemy.” I like that idea. The connections pro players have to their cities and their teams can seem awfully weak in a sport where the free agent and trade pieces are constantly moving around. A little antagonism would be nice.
• “He hit a big shot. He took a couple of big, giant steps to get there, too.”
• Spike Lee, understating the Knicks’ inexplicable meltdown: “Our basketball IQ was not the highest.”