After many years as a sports fan, as well as an athlete of sorts, it’s time for me to “fess up.
Along with my enjoying sports as a fan, athlete, and coach, there is something else that I enjoy and have a passion for – movies.
That”s right, I am a movie buff. There, I said it.
Owning over 300 films on video, my tastes range from documentaries, to comedies, to dramas, and (of course) athletics.
Being so into movies, I thought it would be appropriate to unveil my list of the top ten sports films of all time.
These are flicks that have inspired and influenced me. They’ve made me cheer, cry, think, and have reminded me of why I like sports so.
So without further ado, in chronological order (I just couldn’t choose a number one out of this bunch, they were all so good), here’s my list, starting with the 1976 Academy Award winner for Best Picture…
The original of Sylvester Stallone’s series about the eternal underdog club brawler from Philadelphia, it is also the best. By far.
It was the fact that he was that “bum from the neighborhood” with no chance who went fifteen rounds with the all-powerful champ Apollo Creed – played by Carl Weathers – that was compelling and inspiring. Even though he lost, Rocky still won because he was able to “…go the distance.”
And the audiences absolutely loved it.
That trumpet fanfare and the scene where Rocky ran up those steps to “Gonna Fly Now” was exciting, too. It was just a great accomplishment all around.
By the way, he wins the heavyweight title in the second Rocky, released in 1979. It should have ended there – all of those other Rockys were SO unnecessary.
Especially the one with that big Russian guy.
THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976)
Along with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ appearance in the 1977 World Series, this film about those so-called ballplayers inspired me to get involved with baseball as a kid.
I remember while playing ball in those days pretending to be Kelly Leak, that motorcycle riding delinquent who was an absolutely sweet stud with the bat. I patterned my hitting style after that character, played by Jackie Earle Haley, and it worked quite well through the years.
I felt so gypped when Haley said in recent interviews that he couldn’t hit and they had to throw the ball over the fence for his home runs. How disillusioning!
This movie is also why I’ve always felt that girls were equal to boys, even as a youngster. Watching Tatum O’ Neal blowing her fastballs by those batters will do that to a young boy.
To say that this flick had a big influence on me would be a huge understatement.
SLAP SHOT (1977)
The Mighty Ducks who?
Forget those ice skating Bad News Bears wannabes – Slap Shot is absolutely, positively, and unquestionably the greatest hockey movie ever made.
With the focus being on hockey’s bush leagues, without this film there wouldn’t have been a Bull Durham. And that’s the truth.
One word describes this classic – FUNNY.
Especially those Hanson brothers, the three greatest characters in movie sports history.
With them wanting to use their one phone call in jail to call the pizza man, starting brawls during pre-game warm ups, and going into the stands a la Ron Artest, those three bespectacled guys were an absolute riot.
And Paul Newman as coach Reggie Dunlop wasn’t bad either.
This classic about high school basketball in Indiana – which is king in that state – during the 1950’s is quite possibly the number one hoops movie of all time.
Based on Milan High School’s epic state championship in 1954, not only does it give timeless lessons about perseverance and overcoming the odds, as that Hickory High squad did, redemption is also a significant theme in the form of Gene Hackman’s coach Norman Dale, whom Hickory was his last chance stop.
I particularly remember a pre-game speech Hackman delivered in which he said that if the team put in their best effort, “…I don’t care what it says on the scoreboard at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners!”
Eloquently put. And an essential lesson for coaches to teach their athletes.
My favorite scene was at the end of the championship game, when their their stud star Jimmy Chitwood sunk the winning shot from the top of the key and triggered pandemonium.
If he weren’t a fictional character, Chitwood, played by Maris Valentis, would have been one of the greatest high school basketball players ever.
BULL DURHAM (1988)
Simply put, this is the quintessential baseball movie.
My mother once showed this film to a former player for the San Diego Padres that she dated. He said that it was a dead-on accurate portrayal of life in baseball’s minor leagues.
Considering that the writer and director, Ron Shelton, was an ex-minor league player, this film should be dead-on accurate.
As journeyman catcher and mentor Crash Davis, Kevin Costner gave a performance so poignant that not only did Tim Robbins’ character, the air-headed phenom Nuke LaLoosh, learn much about the majors and what it takes to get there, but we in the audience learned about “The Show” too. I certainly did.
And as longtime groupie Annie Savoy, Susan Sarandon was at her sexiest. Not only did she and Robbins’ character hook up in the film, they hooked up in real life.
They are still together to this day.
Favorite line? When Costner describes life in “The Show” on the team bus, talking about how “…you hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals…and the women all have long legs and brains.”
Makes the big leagues that much more desirable, eh?
EIGHT MEN OUT (1988)
If you want to learn about the Black Sox Scandal in the 1919 World Series, this is the movie to see.
John Sayles’ film about the eight Chicago White Sox players throwing the World Series for gamblers, based on Eliot Asinof’s book, serves as a master historical lesson.
It describes in detail how those Sox, which included the legendary “Shoeless” Joe Jackson but was led by the first baseman Chick Gandil, took a dive to spite their greedy, miserly, abusive, Scrooge-like cheapskate of an owner Charles Comiskey.
One scene illustrated the reasons behind the fix quite well…
It was early on in the movie. The Sox had just won the pennant and had arrived in their clubhouse to find a case of champagne waiting for them. When asked when Comiskey would pay the bonuses he promised to them, the assistant who brought the champagne said, “This is your bonus.”
And to add insult to injury, the champange was flat.
With that owner pulling stunts like that, no wonder the fix was set up.
If you are not a fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Rudy will make you one. Or go a long way in doing so.
As you watch this film, you find yourself absolutely rooting for the diminutive football player without “…a speck of athletic ability,” who hung in there with the traditional powerhouse from South Bend, IN, for two years.
Sean Astin was perfect in his portrayal of “Rudy” Ruettiger, the steelworker who after much struggle and hardship following his dream to play for the Irish finally got to see action in the last 30 seconds, in the last game, in his last year.
When Astin sacked the opposing quarterback on his only play and was carried off the field – the last Notre Dame player to be awarded that honor – a couple of tears formed in my eyes. And millions of other eyes, to be sure.
It was that underdog mentality and ultimate triumph over adversity that made this a great football movie.
WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1994)
This film about the epic “Rumble In The Jungle”, the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire (now Congo), is one of two documentaries on this list.
Like Eight Men Out, if you want to learn about that Ali-Foreman brawl, see this movie.
Not only was Ali his usual funny, joking, rhyming self, the film also depicted his connection with the people in Zaire, his openness that led to them chanting “Ali, Bombaye! (Ali, Kill Him!)”
By fight night, Foreman didn’t stand a chance, even though he was heavily favored.
The rope-a-dope strategy Ali used to tire Foreman out was genius as well. Plus we even get to see people as diverse as B.B. King, James Brown, Miriam Makeba, and a young Don King, whom this was one of the first fights he promoted, if not the first.
Oh, and the film won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Most deservingly so.
HOOP DREAMS (1994)
The other documentary on this list, this film about two inner city high school basketballers from Chicago trying to get college scholarships, make it into the NBA, and make it out of the “hood” was so compelling, that it quickly became a classic.
William Gates and Arthur Agee, the young men featured, became instant heroes as they struggled to do whatever necessary to make a better life for themselves and their families through basketball.
We see the two guys enroll in a private school with a big time hoops program as ninth graders, and watch their struggles and triumphs over their four year prep careers.
Though neither Gates nor Agee ended up playing in the NBA, both guys turned out fine. By the movie’s end you want to give them a standing ovation, as they both received at the premiere.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2004)
Before this movie came out, I considered Rudy, Any Given Sunday, and Everybody’s All-American the best gridiron flicks.
Friday Night Lights, based on H.G. Bissinger’s book, surpasses them all.
Covering in detail the Panthers of Permian High School in Odessa, TX and their 1988 football season, this film illustrates the culture of Texas high school football in such a realistic and brutally honest way, that you feel like you are right there on the field, in the locker room, in the stands, and even in the players’ and coaches’ homes.
The intensity of those Panthers, and what they went through in ‘88 to try and win the state championship shows during the movie, from their college football-like atmosphere surrounding the games, to the pressure of the head coach, played superbly by Billy Bob Thornton, to win and keep the town happy.
It”s a fairly close call, but this is the best football film I have seen.
Well, there you have it – my list of the ten best sports films.
I know full well that there will be some people who will vehemently disagree with me on my choices here, and will jump my case for leaving out such fare as Raging Bull, Brian’s Song, and Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday. Not to mention those 1940s smashes Knute Rockne, All American with our former President Ronald Reagan or that ode to Lou Gehrig, Pride Of The Yankees
And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Let the debating begin.