Some thoughts on the latest "30 for 30" documentary coming up just as soon as I give you money to buy a fridge...
I didn't really get into football until the '90s, so the first I ever heard of Jimmy the Greek is when his career came to an end after he gave that local TV interview about black athletes being better because of slavery.
So to a viewer like me, who only knows Jimmy from the scandal (and from Phil Hartman's impression of him on "SNL"), "The Legend of Jimmy the Greek" did its job. It told me why Jimmy mattered before he ever opened his mouth to that DC camera crew, and why his life was colorful - and tragic - enough to merit the "30 for 30" treatment.
I didn't know that Jimmy set the line for Super Bowl III, that he was so influential in the public acceptance of gambling, or about all the tensions between Jimmy, Phyllis George and Brent Musberger in that classic "NFL Today" cast, or that CBS was more or less ready to dump Jimmy even before the scandal broke. Nor, of course, did I know any of Jimmy's personal life, including the murder of his mother and the deaths of three of his kids and how much all that tragedy weighed on him.
But even if very little of the documentary had offered new information to me, it still would have worked as a movie. With one exception (the ghost narration, which I'll get to in a second), Fritz Mitchell (who worked as an intern on "NFL Today" during the Jimmy/Brent/Phyllis/Irv Cross era) told the story well and thoroughly. It was one of the more conventional of the "30 for 30" films so far, but he made good use of the archival footage, and I found it a nice touch that so many of the interviews were conducted in a bar, given the story that the film opened on(*). And where Marion Barry's talking head in the Len Bias film felt bizarre, Dan Rather (whose own CBS career ended in controversy and acrimony) seemed a very apt choice to be discussing the pain of Jimmy's divorce from the network. (If Rather had been a chief source of the movie, it would have been bad, but as one of many voices in the chorus, he was fine.)
(*) That, in and of itself, was a smart choice. The easy thing would be to start the film with Jimmy talking about the large thighs of the black athlete, but the point of the movie was that he was about so much more than that scandal. We still opened on a scandal, but it was one from when Jimmy's career was still ascendant, and a moment his colleagues looked back on as an amusing war story, rather than something to shake their heads at.
And while Mitchell and the talking heads don't absolve Jimmy for what he said, I thought Brent did an admirable job of trying to at least place it into context - to suggest that there was some kernel of a point in there, but that Jimmy wasn't articulate enough (and too old-fashioned) to make it properly.
I have to dock Mitchell some points, though, for the silly device of having "Jimmy" narrate the film. As Mitchell explained in the promotional clip before the film, he wanted Jimmy to be as much a character in the film as possible. That's a noble goal, but it didn't work. It's the sort of concept that you see sometimes in non-fiction prose (if I had one of my Best American Sportswriting volumes handy, I imagine I could find an article or twelve that tried it), but when there's an actor playing the part of the film's subject when everyone else is a real person - and when the subject appears frequently in archival footage - it's just awkward.
Finally, a programming note. Billy Corben's "The U," a look at the Miami Hurricanes teams of the '80s, is the next film in the series, and it won't debut until Saturday, December 12 at 9 p.m., a break from the scheduling we've seen so far. After that, the next scheduled film is Dan Klores' "Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks," which isn't set to debut until March 14. I got to see a screening of "Winning Time" last week, and it was tremendous. Most of the "30 for 30" films so far have been tragedies (even the USFL one was ultimately about how disappointed everyone was that the league didn't work), and while "Winning Time" isn't exactly a victorious story (neither the Knicks nor Pacers won a title during the '90s), it's an often hilarious look at how much fun and energizing a great sports rivalry can be.
So, a long wait, but some good stuff is coming.
What did everybody else think?