Reggie Miller is an NBA Hall of Famer. I have no doubt about that. He may not have won a title with the Indiana Pacers, but he won an Olympic gold in 1996 and was one of the greatest pure shooters in league history. However, because of the way the NBA Hall of Fame voting works, it's distinct possibility that Reggie Miller isn't a first ballot Hall of Famer, that he may need to wait a few years before induction in Springfield.
Sportswriters with any doubts about Miller's credentials should check out "Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks," which is playing out-of-competition at the Sundance Film Festival and will air as part of ESPN's landmark "30 For 30" series on March 14.
So why did I take a Sundance evening to watch a short documentary that I'll be able to watch on TV in three months? Well, first of all, I've loved the "30 for 30" series so far. Also, once I wasn't going to be able to get into "The Runaways" -- The line was too long and did HitFix really need one more opinion on Joan Jett and company? -- there was nothing that seemed like more fun than watching Reggie Miller and Spike Lee go head-to-head for 70 minutes.
Fortunately, the Dan Klores-directed documentary didn't let me down at all. It's one of the most purely entertaining films I've seen at Sundance this year and one of the best installments of the "30 for 30" series thus far.
[Fuller review after the break...]
When it comes to basketball, I'm more of a college fan than an NBA guy and when I do bother with NBA rooting, it's either for the Celtics or for players I enjoyed watching in college. I'm not a Pacers' fan. I'm definitely not a Knicks' fan. But I remember the 1994 and 1995 playoff showdowns between Indiana and New York, vividly. I remember Miller's Game 5 performance in 1994, with the 25 fourth quarter points in Madison Square Garden. And I remember Game 1 in 1995, with Miller's eight points in the space of 8.9 seconds. For those two moments alone, Miller will deserve his Hall enshrinement. And I'm sure Reggie Miller would agree with that statement.
See, Reggie Miller is one of the producers of "Winning Time"... And normally, that's the kind of thing that would give me pause, but if you know anything about Reggie Miller, either from his days as a player or his frequent radio and TV appearances as an analyst, nobody is quicker to make fun of Reggie Miller than Reggie Miller.
Actually, i take that back. The only person more ready to mock Reggie Miller than Reggie is his sister Cheryl, perhaps the greatest women's basketball player of all-time. In "Winning Time," Klores gives ample exposure to Cheryl Miller and to Reggie's unusual plight of growing up in his sister's shadow, recalling coming home after a huge scoring night in high school and boasting at his performance to Cheryl, before learning that she'd dropped 105 points that same evening. The documentary implies that out of that inferiority complex, after hearing rival fans chant "Cheryl... Cheryl... Cheryl" whenever he stepped on the court, Miller became one of the NBA's most notorious trash talkers and on-court actors, the sort of player you want to see humiliated if he's playing against your team, but who you loved if you happen to be a Pacers' fan.
Klores doesn't have unlimited material to work with, when focusing on the 1994 and 1995 playoff games, but he makes the most out of the available game footage and pre and post-game interviews, cropping game footage, zooming in on game footage, playing and replaying images in slow motion. Then Klores has access to all of the main stars from those great showdowns and many of them seem surprisingly comfortable with the "Crazy Love" filmmaker. Patrick Ewing and John Starks, often considered difficult interviews or personalities, crack jokes and pull no punches.
Miller is funny and self-effacing on his own, but the documentary really comes into its own when Spike Lee shows up to talk about his role in the 1994 Game Five, in which the "Do the Right Thing" director did the wrong thing and, with his sideline jabbering, lit a fire under Miller. There's at least minor disappointment that Klores didn't find a way to get Reggie and Spike together in the same room for a sit-down, but they might as well be together as they go back-and-forth with their different, coy interpretations of that evening.
One of Klores' great gifts here is making the isolated interviews feel as if they're in conversation with each other, especially in the funny moments in which more than one participant uses the exact same sports cliche or description and Klores makes a joke of the cacophony.
"Winning Time" isn't only about Reggie and Spike, though they're the stars. Klores sets up many of the other supporting players in the drama, including coaches Pat Riley and Larry Brown, plus the general differences in perception between Indiana basketball and New York City basketball. A couple montages showing the inside presence and physicality of both the Pacers and Knicks also make for enjoyable viewing.
Ignored in the storytelling is the reality that in those two Michael Jordan-free years, Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets won both NBA titles. The Knicks and Pacers played the memorable games, but perhaps they didn't leave enough in the tank for the Finals.
As far as ESPN "30 for 30" documentaries go, "Winning Time" may not quite equal the human drama of Barry Levinson's "The Band that Wouldn't Die" and Albert Maysles' "Muhammad and Larry," but it probably supplants "The U" as the most beguiling. With most Sundance movies, I can't begin to tell you when you'll get the chance to see them for yourself, but this one is easy. "Winning Time" airs on ESPN on March, 14.