Two basketball documentaries air this weekend in advance of the NCAA tournament, with one earning championship honors and the other settling for the old college try. ESPN seldom connects the dots as well in examining sports’ role in society — or the network’s own enormous influence — than in “Requiem for the Big East,” while CBS essentially delivers a somewhat diluted version of “Hoop Dreams” with “Summer Dreams,” following various hopefuls as they go through the NBA Summer League. Both have merit, but if there’s one to watch, it’s Ezra Edelman’s ode to a basketball conference that ESPN helped put on the map, and eventually, through the lure of TV-rights money, dismantle.
Produced under the network’s “30 for 30” banner, “Requiem” will receive a plum platform, airing after ESPN’s NCAA tournament preview, an orgiastic examination of all the minutiae surrounding the games.
The documentary clearly makes a case that while sports have benefited from a huge infusion of TV revenue — with networks increasingly desperate for the big ratings and ad-zapping resistance of live coverage — the bargain has exacted a price. In the case of collegiate sports, that includes reshaping leagues and fraying traditional rivalries.
Or as one sports wag economically puts it, “Ultimately, capitalism killed the Big East.”
Before the requiem, however, comes the birth, detailing how the Big East became a major force in college hoops thanks to the vision of Providence College’s Dave Gavitt, who recognized the importance of television early on. It’s equally telling that the conference — home to such eventual powers as Georgetown, Syracuse and Villanova — was born in 1979, the same year as ESPN, growing up hand in hand with the programming-hungry network.
Much of the focus of the docu deals with Gavitt building of the league in the early 1980s, as well as the storied rivalries that emerged; the colorful coaches who parlayed their new-found exposure into recruiting triumphs (and marketing opportunities); and the conference’s brutally physical style of play.
Yet while Edelman finds time for nostalgia like Villanova’s stunning upset of Georgetown in the NCAA championship or the legendary exploits of Syracuse guard Duane “Pearl” Washington, he also chronicles racism toward Georgetown star Patrick Ewing and, finally, how the scrum for lucrative football deals eventually broke up the league, in live-by-TV-rights, die-by-TV-rights fashion.
Notably, the Big East created its own TV network in the mid-1980s, long before such enterprises became fashionable, but couldn’t compete with the attraction of being aligned with elite football powers when schools began splintering off. Other factors, like one-and-done stars (who left for the pros before their second year of college), also played a part in the conference’s demise.
“It became like Walmart. It became a big corporation,” laments Coach Rick Pitino, himself something of a traveling mercenary.
Given ESPN’s deep-pocketed role in underwriting much of the sporting world, bolstered by the hefty subscriber fees the channel extracts, it’s a smart examination of a system turned upside down — a documentary as tough as the Big East once was.
“Summer Dreams,” meanwhile, is CBS’ ode to the goal of professional matriculation, covered from multiple angles, including several players trying to make an impression (and thus an NBA roster), as well as a coach and a referee going through a similar tryout period.
Spare and serious, it’s a familiar tale, while capturing some of the unforeseen aspects (including one devastating injury) that can upend or at least defer plans for stardom. Shot last summer, the players with happier endings include Philadelphia 76er guard Michael Carter-Williams and the Dallas Mavericks’ Shane Larkin.
For all the hope and heartache on display, this perfectly respectable window into the pro leagues’ winnowing process doesn’t find much new to say about age-old truth that not everyone makes the cut — or maybe it just feels that way juxtaposed with “Requiem for the Big East.”
Put together, the two docs offer a welcome expansion beyond just wins and losses, and represent a note of sobriety, however fleeting, before the latest onslaught of March Madness.