There's a lot of smiling in the early stages of "Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks." A curious amount, given how much vitriol coursed through the rivalry between the Knicks and Miller's Indiana Pacers back in the mid-1990s. Frankly, it's a bit off-putting.
See, many intense, angry, tough men played on these two basketball teams, and they did not like each other. (These men were joined by New York Knicks forward Charles Smith, who has been called "The Brick Hithouse" and is also known as "The Southern Dandy.") They battled. They cursed and fought. They tirelessly traded hard fouls, back when hard fouls were actually hard fouls. They so, so did not like each other.
And yet there's John Starks, smiling as he talks about his experiences with Miller's ceaseless trash talk. There's Patrick Ewing, smirking while recounting Miller's flair for flopping and complaining to officials.
There's Antonio Davis, beaming as he tells how he couldn't wait "to go and ring this guy's bell, ring that guy's bell," provided This Guy or That Guy dared to drive the lane while wearing orange and blue. There's then-Knicks General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, laughing while recalling Starks' suspension-inducing headbutt of Miller during Game 3 of the first round of the 1993 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Clichés suggest an explanation for all the pearly whites: Yeah, time heals all wounds, and sure, absence makes the heart grow fonder. But watching "Winning Time," the surprising positivity seems to stem from something else -- the purity and force of the competition that marked every Knicks/Pacers contest. Maybe the style was ugly and maybe the games never ended with rings, but it's inarguable that they mattered, that these men participated in something important.
Stuff like that ... well, remembering it tends to bring a grin.
Winning Time," which premieres this Sunday, March 14, at 9 p.m., is the latest installment in ESPN's "30 for 30" series — a collection of 30 documentaries, each made by a different filmmaker, each spotlighting one topic or story from the Worldwide Leader's three decades of broadcasting. It's a sprawling project characterized by strong focus, which is evident in the 68-minute film created by director/producer Dan Klores (who helmed 2008's Peabody Award-winning "Black Magic").
The film's soundtrack showcases that focus while still serving its story. When Klores chooses music to match moments and underscore tone, he mostly uses opera. "Winning Time" opens with "Una Vela" from Verdi's "Otello," and later segments feature pieces from Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" and Puccini's "Turandot." The serious, bombastic selections match the epic language employed by many interviewees — to Reggie, says sister Cheryl Miller, the rivalry "was almost of biblical proportions." (She casts Indiana as "the Holy City" and New York, predictably, as "Sodom and Gomorrah.") Others call the games "blood battles," each playoff series "a morality play," and the overarching narrative "... a passion play that was great, great theater."
In a lesser filmmaker's hands, that kind of move might feel over-the-top and contrived. Klores, though, leavens the larger-than-life, making repeated forays into humor and including multiple shots of the aforementioned smiling faces to lighten the mood. He also stays grounded by emphasizing the basics of the film's central conflict.
Every segment in "Winning Time" — the piece establishing Indiana and New York as dueling basketball homelands with distinct hoops legacies, the chunk detailing the impact of Pat Riley coming to the Knicks and Larry Brown's hire by the Pacers, the discussion of the similarities between the two squads, etc. — serves both the narrative of the rivalry and the development of Miller as its most important character.
Nothing sketches Miller's character more clearly than the bit that introduces his sister, Cheryl, one of the most dominant players in the history of women's basketball. She cast a significant shadow from which young Reggie struggled to emerge, even up to his selection by Indiana in the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft — right after he's picked, an interviewer tells him he'll be fine if he plays with the kind of intensity Cheryl shows on the court. The fact that pretty much everybody in the Hoosier State hated the pick (most wanted then-Pacers General Manager Donnie Walsh to take Indiana University star Steve Alford) also informs Miller's motivation, but not nearly as much as the way he talks about growing up as Cheryl's little brother.
The smirk is still there when Reggie talks about the routine one-on-one beatings he suffered at Cheryl's hands, but it's tighter, more forced. Those interview clips feel less like warm memories of playful sibling rivalry than strained recollections of consistent emasculation. Dude still seems pissed, and that feels instructive. The style that became his trademark -- the nightly marathons around endless screens, always seeking an inch of daylight to rise and fire; the close-quarters dirty boxing and relentless mental warfare with whoever was checking him — starts to make sense when you realize how hard he had to work just to get respect under his own roof.
Klores devotes much of "Winning Time" to four key games: Game 3 of the '93 first round (the headbutt game), Game 5 of the '94 Eastern Conference Finals (the peak of the Reggie vs. Spike Lee feud, which also gets plenty of play), Game 1 of the '95 Eastern semis (Reggie's 8-points-in-9-seconds fourth-quarter explosion) and Game 7 of that same series (Ewing's missed layup at the buzzer, which sent Indy to the Eastern Conference Finals). He digs into those games, allowing the principals to speak about the defining plays, splicing game film with commentary to present viewpoints that are at once granular and comprehensive.
Viewers simultaneously get an on-court feel for the big moments and a removed, considered perspective on why they still resonate. It's evident that Klores is a big fan; his film offers a panoramic examination that refuses to become clinical, preserving at all times the pitched emotion of the games. Knicks and Pacers partisans will find themselves dialed in, even more than a decade later; roundball viewers without rooting interest will likely feel similarly engaged.
Maybe the coolest thing about "Winning Time" is that, by its pitch-perfect final shot (featuring one last twist of the knife from Reggie), all of the main characters have completed a harrowing journey and nobody really comes away clean. For all of his heart, Starks leaves the scene as a guy who, in Mark Jackson's words, "wanted no parts of those foul shots" in the closing seconds of Game 1 in '95. Playing "at age 32, on knees that are 62," Ewing misses that Game 7 bunny — ever the warrior, never the king.
Neither Brown nor Riley gets to the promised land (though both did later win rings elsewhere), and both have stuck around long enough to scuff their legacies a bit (Brown with his single-season debacle in Madison Square Garden, Riley with the alleged dirty pool that drove Stan Van Gundy out of Miami just before the Heat's '06 title run). And as Klores notes in the film's last title card, both the Pacers and the Knicks are still looking for their first crown since 1973.
As for Miller ... well, that's tricky. Yes, he finally slays his dragon by beating New York in '95. But he never becomes a champion; he always seems to be grouped just south of the top-tier players of his era; and while you can argue that he had a Hall-of-Fame-worthy career (he becomes eligible for induction in 2011), if/when he makes it, he'll still have to follow his sister to Springfield — Cheryl was enshrined in 1995. Even in the pantheon, he'll still come second. He'll never truly stand alone.
On its surface, that seems like an especially cruel fate, but viewed through the prism that "Winning Time" provides, it feels kind of appropriate. Maybe even the best of those Knicks and Pacers earned only a flawed greatness, but that's still more than a hell of a lot of players get. Maybe it's even enough to smile about.