Whole Lotta Love

ESPN’s 20-hour documentary Basketball: A Love Story left me longing for Ken Burns.

Stephen Curry holding a basketball.
Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. ESPN

Like a raw but intriguing prospect—a bouncy tweener with exceptional length and questionable finishing abilities—the first challenge of ESPN’s Basketball: A Love Story is figuring out exactly what it is. The first four hours of the new 20-hour documentary, directed by Dan Klores, officially premiere on ESPN this Tuesday, then continue over four subsequent Tuesdays. Or, if you’d prefer, you can consume Basketball: A Love Story as a 62-part anthology of “short stories,” narrated by a range of celebrities including Chadwick Boseman, Julianne Moore, Daveed Diggs, and Ashley Judd, all of which were made available in September to watch on the ESPN app in whatever order you’d like. Oh, and it’s also a book, an oral history compiled by Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew, and Klores himself from the more than 500 hours’ worth of interviews with players, coaches, writers, and executives. It’s strange to say that a 400-page-plus doorstop represents the “more approachable” version of anything, but like most love stories told by those in the throes of passion, Basketball doesn’t have much use for concision.

Klores is a veteran of ESPN’s ongoing 30 for 30 documentary franchise, and his 2010 film Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks, was a highlight of that series’ first season. Klores has a light touch and is drawn to punchy color and fast-paced fun, like a freewheeling point guard with a flair for both finding the open man and occasionally launching passes into the seats. The best parts of Basketball: A Love Story find their target with style and real purpose. “The Witch Hunt,” which tells the story of the trumped-up point-shaving scandal that sidetracked the career of New York schoolboy legends Roger Brown and Connie Hawkins, is a crisp and clear-eyed recounting of one of the sport’s great historical injustices. The terrific short “Do or Die,” about the American Basketball Association scoring race between George Gervin and David Thompson that culminated in Thompson scoring 73 points and Gervin scoring 63 on the last day of the season, uses an eye-catching and exhilarating animated format to get around the fact that many of the players’ games weren’t televised. “The W,” on the early years of the WNBA, offers an unvarnished look at some of the early marketing missteps of the women’s pro league, replete with some hilariously salty commentary from the great Diana Taurasi.

Still, there are too many moments when the documentary’s breezy, up-tempo approach misfires, shirking nuance and complexity in favor of maintaining the status quo. A short on Bob Knight is bafflingly set to lighthearted, zany music as Knight hurls invective at his players and chairs at officials, his legendary abusiveness passed off as quirky antics. A film on former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, who didn’t sign a black player until the 1970s, treats the coach’s segregationism as a gotta-hear-both-sides affair, with former player Pat Riley—a white man who starred on Rupp’s all-white teams—protesting that he, personally, never encountered any racism from Rupp. An episode on the 2000s Lakers and the tumultuous relationship between stars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant glaringly ignores the sexual assault allegation against Bryant, one of the most significant off-court episodes in the 21st-centry NBA. After a while, these equivocations and omissions don’t just feel like Pollyannaish whitewashing, but a failure of the documentary form’s most basic obligation: to document.

It seems odd to accuse a 20-hour documentary of being insufficiently thorough, but Basketball: A Love Story’s embrace of short vignettes rather than a more straightforward, linear narrative too often lends the whole enterprise a half-baked and scattershot feel. Many of the topics tackled here have been explored with far greater depth and care by ESPN’s own film division. Watching a modest handful of the best basketball-related 30 for 30 entries—Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies, Requiem for the Big East, Free Spirits, and Fab Five, to name just a few—would likely give you a more informed gloss on basketball history. And while all historical narratives have their selection biases, the film’s patchwork structure allows it to effectively ignore moments that would complicate its sunny-side-up presentation of the sports’ trajectory. There’s precious little about Allen Iverson, for instance, one of the most complicated but significant figures in the modern game, nor is there much about the 2004 “Malice at the Palace” brawl and the league’s notoriously overzealous reaction to it.

One bright side is that the print version of Basketball: A Love Story is a must-read for hoops fans. The book boasts far more narrative rigor and focus than its filmic counterpart, and the authors MacMullan (one of the finest basketball writers in history) and Bartholomew (who wrote the terrific book Pacific Rims, about basketball in the Philippines) have a much better sense of what’s worthy of inclusion. To choose just one example, an anecdote from the great guard Charlie Scott, about the 1968 Olympic team booing Jesse Owens in a fit of misplaced anger over the U.S. Olympic Committee’s treatment of the players, is a powerful and heartbreaking moment on the page that is curiously absent from the film.

The marketing materials around Basketball: A Love Story frequently use the term unprecedented to describe the project, a strange description since there is in fact a very well-known precedent for a project of this nature: Ken Burns’ 1994 nine-part, 18-hour-long documentary, Baseball. I recently rewatched Baseball for the first time since I was a kid, and unsurprisingly, a lot of it hasn’t aged well. It takes several hours for the first woman to appear on screen, the film’s handling of race and racism is clumsy and ham-fisted, and, generally speaking, the film has trouble reconciling its ambitions toward rigor with its desire for myth maintenance, a recurring problem of Burns’ films. Most glaring is the film’s unreflective and hubristic self-importance: There are endless paeans to the purity of the sport, its fundamentally democratic nature, its mystical window into some sort of national character. The year of the documentary’s release would see a catastrophic labor stoppage that would deeply alienate many of the sports’ fans; just a few years later, an entire generation’s accomplishments would be cast under suspicion after a flood of performance-enhancing-drug scandals. (In 2010, Burns made a two-part addendum to his documentary, The Tenth Inning, that addressed these developments.)

And yet, Baseball still holds up fairly well in spite of all this, in large part because Burns understands the discipline and detail required in telling a story of this scope. Burns’ films are often almost comically methodical, hitting their beats with the perky exactitude of a precocious student giving a PowerPoint presentation, but that deliberateness of narrative is essential given the scope of their ambitions. Basketball: A Love Story, by contrast, feels like 62 short films about things someone thought were cool. The whole and the sum of the parts are somehow both less than we’d hope.

The present moment is a great time to be a basketball fan: The NBA has a wealth of charismatic stars; the WNBA is thriving; the international game continues to grow. It’s also a great time to feel great about being a basketball fan: The game has carefully cultivated an image as a more progressive, player-friendly sport. But as Baseball’s cautionary precedent reminds us, it’s best for fans and filmmakers to avoid the trap of self-satisfaction, and the inherent purity of basketball is a fantasy that should be resisted, particularly when it’s being peddled by a power structure designed to line the pockets of billionaires and that still abides cesspools of exploitation at the game’s amateur levels, among other inequities. Basketball: A Love Story is an often enjoyable watch, but anyone who truly loves the game should demand more of the stories we tell about it.