For years, my favorite sports documentary was “Hoop Dreams,” a 1994 film that chronicles the basketball aspirations of two inner-city kids in Chicago during their four years of high school.
It is a beautiful piece of journalism. It touches not just on the dream of being Michael Jordan, but on dad leaving the family, the blown knee and the deep hurt that is not physical. It shows the basketball players on the receiving end of countless lectures from adults with their own agendas.
I don’t care for the overly sentimental. Bring in the strings and the sad melodramatic touch and you lose me. A good documentary doesn’t need that. It can just show you what happened, straight up, all that Hollywood junk stripped out.
And Hoop Dreams is a human drama we rarely see, an insider look at the home life of aspiring athletes over an entire high school career. If you’ve never watched this, you should.
Another great sports documentary was done recently on Marcus Dupree, the phenomenal tailback at Oklahoma, who never panned out in the NFL. Dupree was a contemporary of Herschel Walker and was every bit the dynamic back that Walker was, full of both power and speed. He matched Walker’s size and ran a 4.4 in the 40. Dupree burst on the college scene in 1982, the year Walker won the Heisman. The 30-for-30 documentary on Dupree, called “The Best that Never Was,” is my second favorite of the ESPN series. You have to watch the footage of this guy to really appreciate how spectacular he was. Walker had that superhuman element in certain highlights. But I think Dupree eclipsed Walker’s “Wow” factor. You watch this young back blaze by everyone and wonder how he wasn’t the most famous football player ever. The 30-for-30 documentary details Dupree’s decline, his poor decisions and the people who tried to influence him for their own benefit. The film shows Dupree’s comeback attempt. In sports, we always focus on those who “made it,” but as a narrative, the story of the amazing athlete who didn’t “make it,” is often more compelling.
While “Hoop Dreams” and “The Best that Never Was” are my respective two and three on my personal “best sports documentary” list, I have a new number one: “The Two Escobars.”
The film goes far beyond sports, documenting the strife in Columbia during the criminal reign of global drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was an obsessive soccer fan and a multi-billionaire, murderous philanthropist, who both gave to the poor and killed without conscience. Escobar grew up dirt poor and when he turned his drug trafficking into insane stacks of cash, he used some of the money to establish soccer fields and facilities for the poor in Medellin. Some of those poor soccer players who played on Escobar’s fields became great, earning their way onto the Columbian national soccer team that faced the U.S. in the World Cup in 1994.
One player on that team was Andres Escobar, who wasn’t related to Pablo. The soccer-playing Escobar was a humble man, a great defender, a guy who wanted no part of the drug world that led his nation to tremendous bloodshed and horror. When Pablo Escobar’s power was threatened, he unleashed a wave of terrorist attacks in his homeland, becoming a bin Laden like figure.
It was against this backdrop that Andres Escobar and the Columbian national team entered the U.S., hoping to make the world temporarily overlook their homeland’s reputation as a drug-ruled nation. The pressure was intense. And after Columbia dropped its opening match, it faced a live-or-die match in the World Cup versus the U.S.
Andres Escobar’s fateful play in that match ultimately cost him his life.
The story of Columbian “narco-soccer” shows a political and sports culture held hostage by one man, a criminal like few other the world has seen who meets his own violent, familiar end.
It is riveting television. And it’s all true. You take the sports movie. Give me the documentary any day.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.