The Best Sports Documentaries for Lockdown

Yes: sport is back. Well, some sport. For football fans in Europe that means tinny sounds of piped fake “crowd” noise and watching Bayern Munich sleep walk to another title like a schoolboy bully crowd surfing over cowed spectators.

At least in New Zealand they had full crowds for the rugby. Scant consolation to former Wales coach Warren Gatland who had the full backyard horror of being beaten by his son played out in the full glare of the media. Gatland Senior’s Chiefs were playing the Highlanders in Super Rugby and leading by two points as the clock wound down. However, baby Bryn – who hadn’t originally even been in the squad and was a late injury call up – popped over a drop goal with 90 seconds left to leave Daddy in disarray.

Basketball:

The Last Dance. I wrote about it here last week. The 97 Chicago Bulls; Michael Jordan – a sneaker-selling monster; Scottie Pippen the unsung hero with the best voice since James Earl Jones; Dennis Rodman the lunatic dating Carmen Electra and swanning off to Vegas to die his hair a luminous green patchwork and turning up to practice in a wedding dress. A 10-part tour de force, which teaches us about what it takes to win and how lonely it is at the top. Netflix

In this promotional poster for the 'The Last Dance', Jordan (centre), Pippen (left) and Rodman are seen walking  in their kits with Steve Kerr (far left) and a suited Phil Jackson (far right)
Jordan (centre), Pippen (left) and Rodman lead the charge in Netflix’s The Last Dance

Hoop Dreams – Before the winning comes the work. This 1994 movie follows two African American high school students from Chicago at the same time as the city’s Bulls are tearing up the professional game. This epic movie shows what you have to do to move from an underfunded public school system to the professional game and the institutional barriers put in the way of young people. Moving, inspirational and frustrating all at the same time.

The DVD cover of 'Hoop Dreams' is shown with a basketball player in a yellow top raises his arms aloft in celebration and ecstasy.
Hoop Dreams – a moving documentary examining what it takes to get on in basketball

Rugby:

Living with the Lions 97 – The first rugby documentary: Rugby Union had only been professional for two years. A British and Irish Lions team headed to South Africa, then world champions and at their peak. But the Lions had a returning set of players from Rugby League looking to show what full time rugby looks like, pace and guile in a young Brian O’Driscoll, a leader etched from stone and broken bones in Martin Johnson and a coaching pair in Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer who knew what it took to make a Lions squad gel. Living with the Lions is by turns jaw dropping, hilarious, thought provoking and gloriously uncensored. Amazon Prime

A young Brian O'Driscoll offloads while playing for the British and Irish Lions
A young Brian O’Driscoll offloads while playing for the British and Irish Lions

All or Nothing – The All Blacks – A modern day Living with the Lions, this series got exclusive access to the dressing room of the mighty All Blacks for the first time in their history. The footage and the match play are second to none – every bone snapping tackle is seen and heard in high def – and the characters within the team are fascinating. It’s well worth watching, highly polished series, if a little sanitised and “official” in what is actually shown. Amazon Prime

Football:

An Impossible Job – Fancy watching an England manager screw up qualification for a World Cup, get compared to a root vegetable and upset that nice bloke off Match of the Day by substituting him for a doughy poor imitation called Smudger? Of course you do. Channel 4’s 1994 Cutting Edge documentary saw Graham Taylor’ career go the way of all things and is why so many documentaries now control access so tightly. YouTube

England manager Graham Taylor is seen open mouthed and pointing towards the camera with two fingers alongside an England football "Three Lions" crest.
England manager Graham Taylor who’s reputation was not enhanced by a documentary

All or Nothing – Manchester City – In the same series as the All Blacks documentary, Amazon Prime were welcomed into the whole world of Manchester City’s locker room, their match day experience and behind the scenes of the Pep Guardiola briefings as the team steamroller their way through the Premier League in 2071/18. A bit soulless and corporate, but hugely enlivened by Benjamin Mendy who is a “lively” member of the team, some brilliant match day footage and Guardiola’s chicken dance dressing room motivational speech. Amazon Prime

A poster advertising the Prime Original show 'All or Nothing Manchester City' shows Pep Guardiola looking towards the heavens with the quote from one of his half time team talks "Sit down... Nobody Talk!" is written out in block capitals.
Pep Guardiola who’s every movement is followed in the All or Nothing series from Amazon

Sunderland Till I Die – What does it do to a person to support a club like Sunderland? According to this, some sort of mental disorder. A town based on football where bishops pray for the club and people name their kids after the last time the team weren’t dross. Honestly has to be seen to be believed. Characterful. Netflix

An advert for the second season of 'Sunderland Till I Die' shows a group of Sunderland players celebrating the scoring of a goal as the crowd celebrate in the background
Sunderland players celebrate

Cricket:

The Test – I know cricket makes a lot of people roll their eyes. But Australia were at their lowest ebb – a coach, a captain and a vice-captain (who happened to be tow of their only world class players) are banned for heinous cheating. The Australian Prime Minister weighs in and suddenly, squeaky clean batting legend Justin Langer is thrown into the job needing to create a squad who can win matches and restore civic pride during a year featuring a one-day World Cup and an Ashes series. This is another Amazon behind the scenes, unprecedented access series but here the focus on institutional culture and what it takes to make a team tick transcends sport. Come for the bouncers and the blazing batting, stay for the quiet dignity of captain Tim Payne and the bromance between the coffee boys which would not have been allowed in previous cricketing eras. Amazon Prime

This poster from Amazon Prime Video shows new Australian skipper Tim Payne with a batting helmet on. He must help his side restore their reputation after a cheating scandal decimated the national side.
New skipper Tim Payne must help his side restore their reputation after a cheating scandal

Fire in Babylon – Before The Test, before Black Lives Matters, before the Windrush scandal there was “Grovel”. 2010’s Fire in Babylon is the story of the most successful team in cricket and, arguably, all sport. If you have ever seen the West Indies pace attack of Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft and, later, Malcolm Marshall then you know what a cricket ball can do to a human body when propelled at speed. What many people may be less aware of is the racism and barriers encountered by this team under the leadership of legend Clive Lloyd and gum chewing Black Consciousness figurehead Viv Richards. Fire in Babylon is the real deal. DVD

The poster for 'Fire in Babylon' shows five cricketers in shadows walking together as a golden light shines from behind them

Boxing:

When We Were Kings – Lots of people know the story of the Rumble in the Jungle; or at least think they do. 1996’s Oscar winning When We Were Kings explains the politics behind the sport, the brutality of Zaire’s dictator President Mobutu contrasting with the brutality within the ring. George Foreman is all at sea; Muhammad Ali connecting with the people in a spiritual way. A towering achievement of a documentary which explains the boxing in as captivating a way as the politics behind the sporting spectacle. DVD

The DVD cover of Oscar winning documentary 'When We Were Kings' shows Muhammad Ali drenched in sweat and looking very serious

‘The Last Dance’ Filling Dance Cards

It feels like just me – and the rest of the world –  have been enjoying Netflix and ESPN Films’ 10 part documentary The Last Dance.

It is, of course, difficult to know exactly how many people are watching, courtesy of Netflix’s notoriously secretive metrics for success, but 2,310,000,000 Google results added to less quantitative social media hype, does tend to imply that the series is doing OK. Especially impressive is that, in the UK, Basketball barely gets any coverage.

For those who don’t know, the programme follows the 1998 Chicago Bulls as they aim to win the NBA Championship for the third year in a row, and their sixth in eight years – the notorious and unprecedented “Three-peat”. It follows this journey intercutting with the backgrounds and stories of the disparate cast of characters which made up the playing, coaching and management staff at the Bulls in those days.

There is much to adore about the show: both personally and as a consumer. If, like me, you were playing basketball as a teenager in the 90s, the Bulls reigned supreme and Jordan especially. However, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen were hardly under the radar. I was never a good basketball player: too short, too tubby. But I could scrap like Rodman – even if I couldn’t pull off the hair.

Then there’s the merchandise: my Dad bought me a Jordan-sponsored Chicago Bulls black and red basketball which was constantly getting dribbled on the path outside the house. I only got rid of it when I moved my Mum out of that house a couple of years ago and, if I hadn’t been travelling on a plane, that ball would have made the trip back with me, smooth and ancient though it then was. It had to go in the skip. Now, both my father and the ball are gone and… What can you say: there’s the nostalgia.

However, in some ways, the thing I have enjoyed even more is the rabbit hole it’s sent me down. First, there was a podcast – The Dream Team Tapes with Jack McCallum which tells the story of the US Olympic basketball team from Barcelona 92. McCallum is a basketball Hall of Famer and has been with Sports illustrated for a very long time and his delivery and unravelling of the story behind this remarkable team is first class. Is it a shameless coattail ride on TLD? Yes, and for a book, The Dream Team, released in 2014  but now I have to read the damn thing. Oh, well sure I’ll cope.

Then there was this profile by Wright Thompson on ESPN from 2013 when Jordan turned 50. I got to it from The Ruffian, the newsletter of journalist and author Ian Leslie http://ian-leslie.com/about/ and it’s super. Top notch sports writing: revealing, emotional, inspiring – a little horrifying in places.

I know some people think that TLD is a puff piece but, if this is Jordan censored and touched up, then he may be an actual monster because I think the makers go for balance as much as possible. The scene where Jordan tearfully calls for a time out in an interview when he is asked if winning came at the expense of being a nice guy is heart-breaking and revealing.

I know it doesn’t address Craig Hodges However, Jordan’s hesitancy to speak out over issues of race (“Republicans buy sneakers too”) is addressed by no less an authority on these issues than former President Obama so, that’s not exactly ducking it.

I know it doesn’t address Horace Grant and the stories about Grant being denied food after bad games. But, Grant does appear in the show, so feelings can’t have been hurt that badly.

What this programme does over 10 episodes is look at what it takes to win – what the fire and fuel it takes to dominate in any profession and it does it in a warts and all way. There’s lots of rabbit holes to go down with wider context and that’s a form of nostalgia I can enjoy.