Sports Films Rock

As the Australian Open, the first major tennis tournament of the year, heads into its fourth day, I am thinking about my favorite five sports films.   A lifelong sports fan – tennis is my favorite, but I will watch just about anything except animal racing —  I have long loved sports films.  I’ve narrowed down my five favorite sports films, but in truth, this list could have featured 15 feature films and at least 10 documentaries, which I elected not to include at all.  My apologies to The Pride of the Yankees (Love this film despite my dislike of the Yankees), Slap Shot, Raging Bull, A League of Their Own and many more for not including them.

What I have found is that I love sports films set in Indiana.  Two of my top five take place in the Hoosier State.

5) Brian’s Song (1971) – This TV movie based on the real-life relationship between Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) is an absolute tearjerker that won me over the first time I watched it when I was seven.  For some unexplained reason, my grade school showed the film to us when were in second grade.  I’m not sure that a film about a terminally ill running back (Piccolo) and the up-and-coming running running back he befriends (Sayers) is appropriate material for second graders, but the film’s message about integrity, friendship and dedication rings true nearly 40 years later.

4) Hoosiers (1986) —  A small-town Indiana basketball team overachieves and reaches the state finals in 1954 with the help of a down-and-out coach and a basketball-loving drunk.  Gene Hackman gives a measured performance as the coach while Dennis Hopper, winner of the LA Film Critics Best Supporting Actor Award, is pitch perfect as the town drunk.  The moment Hackman walks into the large basketball arena where the state championship will be played is a highlight.  He asks for the length and width of the court as well as the height between the basket and the floor to be measured.  His team members think it’s an odd request at first, but soon realize his brilliance.  In a Zen-like moment, he proves that though the stage of the game is bigger, the court is the same size wherever you go.  How inspirational.

3) Bend It Like Beckham (2002) – The ESPY Award winner for Best Sports Film, Bend It Like Beckham is the underdog that everyone roots for.  Jesminder (Parminder Nagra), the teenaged daughter of traditional Sikhs and a David Beckham fan, is torn between her desire to be a professional soccer player and to honor her parents’ goals for her life.  When she joins a local team behind her parents’ back and falls in love with her coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), she finds herself at odds with her do-gooder older sister Pinky and her parents.  This feel-good comedy proved that women and sports film are a good match.

2) Bull Durham (1988)Ron Shelton’s baseball masterpiece is as much a love triangle as a look at our national pastime’s minor leagues.  This film is a grand slam with its all-star cast (Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins as the leads), whip-smart dialogue and the lived-in feel that only someone who played for the Baltimore Orioles’ farm teams, as Shelton did, could create.  Annie Savoy (Sarandon) is one of my favorite all-time (all-team?) females on the celluloid screen, not just because her name rhymes with mine (Lanie Zipoy), but because she had the audacity to read William Blake to minor league baseball players.  And, she made it look sexy.

1) Breaking Away (1979) – An Oscar nominee for Best Screenplay, Peter Yates’ 1979 film is full of the one thing all sports films should have – heart.  Centered around Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), a Bloomington, IN young man obsessed with the Italian cycling team, Breaking Away is one of the rare sports films that captures the often insane dedication of sports fans as well as the rigor of sports training.  And the film deals with class issues to boot.  Dave does everything to emulate the Italian cycling team – shaves his legs, learns to speak Italian and rides his bicycle for long stretches – much to the chagrin of his working class father.  As he vies for the affections of an Indiana University co-ed, he gets entangled with the university’s privileged cycling team. With the help of his three local buddies (played by Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley) he takes the team on in a crowd-pleasing finale.  Sadly, screenwriter Steve Tesich and Peter Yates are no longer with us.

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