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The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies
Featuring the 100 Greatest Sports Films of All Time
By Ray Didinger
By Glen Macnow
Foreword by Gene Hackman
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Now, two nationally renowned sports media personalities take on the task of ranking the top 100 sports movies of all time, including entertaining and informative lists, special features, and contributions from over 75 top sports figures. From drama to comedy to tragedy to documentary, all the greatest sports films are here, brought to life through detailed summaries, fun facts and trivia, behind-the-scenes revelations, plus images from the greatest moments in sports film history.
Original comments from some of the top personalities in sports and entertainment — including Peyton and Eli Manning, Charles Barkley, Tony Romo, James Gandolfini, Bill Parcells, Dennis Quaid, Arnold Palmer, and many more — provide further insight and marketing punch.
To Maria: My editor, my soul mate and my inspiration. You make all things possible.
To Emily: Welcome to the family. We could always use another good sports fan.
BY GENE HACKMAN
Movies have the ability to make us believe. If only we’d had that one little break, that indefinable moment of clarity where we saw that opening between tackle and guard and ran over the linebacker . . . then we could have scored, big time. If we’d just had that clear shot at the basket then it would have put us into the finals. We coulda been contenders.
Maybe you’ll recognize this scene. On the Waterfront certainly wasn’t a sports movie, but I love the metaphor. The camera focuses on two men arguing in the back seat of a taxi. The older brother had taken the odds to deliver his younger sibling to the bookmakers in the kid’s big fight at the Garden. The younger brother had gone along and taken the dive. Some of the dialog went like this:
“Remember that night in the Garden, Charlie,” Terry, the ex-boxer, tells his older brother. “You came down to the locker room . . . ‘It ain’t your night kid,’ you said, ‘We’re going for the price on Wilson.’ Remember that?” Terry implores. “I coulda taken Wilson apart. You shoulda looked out for me, Charlie. I coulda been somebody.”
How many times have we heard “shoulda, coulda?” Most men, when asked if they played sports, will answer either with an equivocal “Yeah, I coulda, but I had to work after school.” Or better yet, “I was really fast, I woulda scored, but they never threw me the ball.”
In our memories at least, we seem to be just a smidgen away from that dream of glory Irwin Shaw described so well in his short story The 80-Yard Run. Way past his youth, Shaw’s hero goes back to the practice field where he had that one spectacular run. He relives the moment, going through all the moves, once again breaking clear into the end zone. If he coulda just had the opportunity to do as well in a real game, he laments.
It doesn’t seem to matter that a lot of people go on to be successful doctors, lawyers, politicians, writers, salesmen. There is still that lingering moment we have fantasized about, over the course of so many years. We think, surely it must be at least partially true; that “80 yard run,” that clear shot at the basket. We’ve relived it so many times, how could it not be?
The movies solve so beautifully many of those fantasies for us. The quality of many lives, unfortunately, are predicated on how well they adjust to not having been selected to that all-important first team. The movies adjust that for us; we are able to lose ourselves in the pure joy of sport, and forget for the moment that destiny had other things in mind for us.
Film sets up the individual or the team with a conflict—the boxer’s lack of connections, the skier’s stubborn independence, the baseball player’s field of dreams.
As viewers we sit watching, seeing clearly what our team or individual must do, praying that the actors show at least a modicum of athleticism, loving it. “Yeah, that one little break, go man go . . . yesss,” and for the next two hours we get to live with the hero’s manful quest to overcome his problems, learn something about himself, secure the admiration of girlfriends and town folk and watch him bathe in the camaraderie of his fellow competitors.
Maybe best of all we are able to empathize for just a few moments with fallen heroes like the ex-boxer as played by Marlon Brando in the back seat of that taxi with Rod Steiger.
“So what happens?” Brando says. “Wilson gets a shot at the title in the ballpark. What did I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville. You shoulda looked out for me, Charlie. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”
Ahhh . . . the movies, we love them.
Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly calls Gene Hackman “maybe the finest actor alive” and, indeed, his credits include some of the most memorable film performances of the last half century.
He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1971 for his portrayal of detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in The French Connection. He won his second Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his chilling performance as Sheriff Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven . That film also won Best Picture honors in 1992.
Hackman was nominated for Oscars on three other occasions for his work in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), I Never Sang for My Father (1970) and Mississippi Burning (1988). Yet to many movie-goers he is best remembered as Coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers, the sublime 1986 film about Indiana high school basketball.
“Many have said they can’t imagine anyone other than Gene Hackman playing Norman Dale,” wrote film critic James Berardinelli. “His performance is letter-perfect, from the competitive heat he shows during games to the reflective sadness that emerges in quieter moments. The film doesn’t have to give us a detailed backstory for Norman: Hackman’s acting provides us with a full definition of his personality.”
Sports are a familiar backdrop for Hackman’s acting talents. In addition to Hoosiers, he portrayed an Olympic skiing coach driving Robert Redford to glory in Downhill Racer (1969), a former football star turned private detective in Night Moves (1975) and an NFL head coach trying to win with Keanu Reeves at quarterback in The Replacements (2000).
We are honored that he agreed to provide the foreword for our book.
—Ray Didinger and Glen Macnow
Drive past the Philadelphia Museum of Art and you will see them. People of all ages, people from around the corner and around the world, people drawn to the famed gallery not by the works of Goya or Wyeth, but by the spirit of Rocky Balboa, the fictional boxer who has inspired generations of underdogs.
They pose for pictures next to the Rocky statue and they climb the steps, huffing and puffing, maybe even stopping to rest halfway up, but eventually they make it to the top. Once there, they turn toward the city skyline, thrust their fists into the air and allow themselves a Rocky moment.
The image is decades old: Rocky, the lonely figure in Converse sneakers and tattered sweats, running up those steps, preparing for a title fight that no one thought he could win. Yet after all this time, people refuse to let go.
Actor and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone, who created the character of Rocky Balboa and portrayed him in the original film and five sequels, summed up the Italian Stallion’s enduring popularity.
“When people cheer for Rocky,” he said, “they’re really cheering for themselves.”
That is the power of a good sports movie. It doesn’t matter if you are from South Philly or South Dakota, the message still lands with the force of a left hook to the heart. In this book, we examine that impact, why some films have it and others do not, why some sports films connect with audiences and others with bigger budgets and bigger stars miss entirely. We list and review what we consider the top 100 sports movies of all-time, and we also devote a chapter to the all-time stinkers. (Yes, Carrot Top makes an appearance.)
Sports and movies are a perfect artistic marriage. Sports feature big stars and storybook finishes; the same could be said for Hollywood. Sports produce drama on a regular basis: ninth-inning rallies, Hail Mary passes and sudden death overtimes. The movies have all that plus the advantage of a script, which means they can have the hero sink that last-second three-point shot every time.
Critics say that makes sports movies predictable, even trite—and yes, some of them are. Was there ever a doubt that the high school football team coached by Goldie Hawn would win the big game in Wildcats? In a word: no. Was it a surprise when Elvis Presley put down his guitar and punched his way to the top in Kid Galahad? Hardly.
But the best sports movies don’t pander. Like the teams and the athletes we root for, they don’t always give us what we want. Remember, Rocky lost that first title fight. That may be why the original film, which won the Oscar for best picture in 1976, still resonates. It wasn’t just a lot of Hollywood cotton candy. It felt honest. It felt real. The characters had flaws and fears just like the rest of us.
Some sports movies are frothy, silly fun. For example, the Marx Brothers’ zany antics (banana peels on a football field?) in the 1932 film Horse Feathers. Other sports movies are as dark as Kafka. Raging Bull certainly fits that description. Some lift your heart (Rudy) and others break it (Brian’s Song). The great ones such as Million Dollar Baby and Hoop Dreams do both.
Still, the classic sports movie theme is the triumph of the underdog, the scrappy athlete or team that prevails in spite of the odds. It has been a Hollywood staple for years. One of the best examples of the genre is Hoosiers, a 1986 film about a team from a tiny Indiana town that wins the state high school basketball tournament. The title game comes down to one last shot and when the star player looks at the coach and says, “I’ll make it,” he is really speaking for all of us.
Long before Rocky stepped into the ring against Apollo Creed, Charlie Chaplin laced up the gloves in The Champion, a silent film released in 1915. Harold Lloyd made a film entitled The Freshman in which he played a water boy who becomes a football hero. Buster Keaton competed in two sports (crew and track) in College, a United Artists release from 1927.
When silent films gave way to “talkies,” sports themes remained popular. In 1929, Warner Brothers released The Forward Pass, a football movie starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Loretta Young. The advertising campaign promised: “The roar of the stands, the thud of flying feet racing to the most dramatic touchdown ever filmed and every seat is on the 50-yard line.” Theater marquees read: “It’s a real man’s picture that women will love.”
In 1932, Wallace Beery won the Oscar as best actor for his performance in The Champ. Beery played a broken-down prizefighter who makes a comeback to provide for his son played by Jackie Cooper. Beery wins the fight, but he collapses and dies in the dressing room. The film was re-made in 1979 with Jon Voight as the boxer and Ricky Schroder as his son. Same ending, same reaction. Audiences wept, even the men. Sports movies have that effect.
“I cried the first time I saw Field of Dreams,” said Mike Golic, who played eight seasons in the NFL and now is an ESPN football analyst. “I still cry at Brian’s Song. Rocky made me stand up and cheer. Hoosiers made me stand up and cheer. That’s the great thing about a good sports movie: it brings out those emotions.”
Men identify with sports movies in a way they don’t identify with other films. How many men have been undercover cops? How many have been jet pilots or spies? When most men are watching, say, Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, there is a certain distance. But almost every American male once swung a baseball bat and dreamed of hitting the game-winning home run. So, when Robert Redford steps to the plate in The Natural, the men in the audience are right there in his spiked shoes.
It poses a greater challenge for the filmmaker. Because virtually everyone in the audience has either played the sport or watched it on TV, they are quick to spot a phony. Other than doctors, who knows what is really said in an operating room? But over the years, enough coaches and players have worn microphones on the field that even the casual fan knows how real jocks walk, talk, scratch and spit. If the director and writer don’t get that part right, the whole film falls apart.
Bull Durham got it right. It was written and directed by Ron Shelton, who played five seasons in the Baltimore Orioles farm system, and it starred Kevin Costner, who had the swing and the swagger to make us believe Crash Davis really could’ve made it to The Show.
A good sports movie works across the board. Men, women, teenagers, seniors, they all get it. That’s because sports are a metaphor for life. Sports are all about striving, about overcoming disappointment and finding a way to win. They are about heroes and fame and the price that must be paid for success. Those are the themes that have defined classic drama since the beginning of time, and they provide a sturdy framework for whatever story an author may want to tell.
When done well, sports movies do more than entertain—they reflect our culture and, in some cases, become woven into its fabric. We see these films, we discuss them, we benefit from them, and we even quote them in our daily lives. And so as part of our analysis we highlight both the quotes that “made” the movie, as well as those that have made it into our national lexicon. Also, we’ve quoted by transcribing directly from watching the films ourselves. In these times of fast-and-loose information dispersal via the internet, you never know if a film quote referenced in informal discussion is accurate. (Consider the most enduring movie misquote—“Play it again, Sam,”—which was never actually uttered in Casablanca. The real line was, “Play it, Sam, for old times. . . .”)
In picking our top 100 films, we didn’t factor in the box office. We included some films that were commercial duds, such as Fat City and Wind, and others that were in limited release, such as the cricket movie Lagaan and a film about Australian-rules football, The Club. We focused only on what was on the screen and we selected the 100 films we found the most interesting. We don’t expect everyone to agree. Indeed, disagreeing is part of the fun.
We did not include the three highest-grossing sports movies of all-time: The Waterboy ($161 million) and the remake of The Longest Yard ($158 million), both starring Adam Sandler, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, starring Will Ferrell ($148 million). They fall into the category of Frat Boy Comedies and while they obviously were a big hit with the Saturday night mall crowd, they didn’t do much for us. Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore did and that’s why they made the list.
Sports movies—like baseball bonus babies—are a risky investment. Even a “can’t miss” prospect will miss now and then. For example, Ferrell’s 2008 release Semi-Pro, a parody of the American Basketball Association, was an air ball at the box office, grossing just $33 million. But the studios keep cranking them out because they know when a sports movie connects, it’s usually a tape-measure home run.
“It’s tougher now because people see so much [sports] on ESPN, it’s like a continuous loop,” said Mark Ciardi, who produced four successful sports films: The Rookie, Miracle, Invincible and The Game Plan. “What you have to do is give them a really good story that isn’t just about sports. The Game Plan was really a father-daughter story; football was more or less in the background. That’s what appealed to the Disney people [who financed the movie].
“You can’t just make movies for guys anymore. You want the guys, but you also have to appeal to the wife, the girlfriend, the whole family. We’ve tried our best to do that. When we tested the films, we found they scored best with women over 25. I think what happened is The Rookie did so well [earning $75 million] that other studios tried to copy it. As a result, there were too many [sports] movies coming out, and the market was flooded.”
“Movie people are fascinated with athletes,” said Ernie Accorsi, who spent 40 years as a National Football League executive before retiring as general manager of the New York Giants following the 2006 season. “I believe all actors want to be athletes and all athletes want to be actors. Take a guy like George Clooney, I’m sure that is his secret lust. That’s probably why he did Leatherheads.
“He had a thousand scripts on his desk, I’m sure, but he picked that one because it was his chance to be a pro football player. Lawyers, cops, soldiers—he has done all that. But the chance to be a pro football player was something he probably thought about since he was a kid. This was his shot so he took it.”
Accorsi—who worked as a sportswriter prior to becoming a football executive—considers Field of Dreams the finest sports film ever made.
“Dick Stockton called me,” Accorsi said, referring to the veteran TV broadcaster. “He said, ‘You have to see this movie. If you don’t see it tonight, our friendship is over.’ The movie had just opened. I didn’t know the first thing about it. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. Just go.’
“I went that night and I loved it. It made me feel like I was 14 again. I was so moved, I flew to Chicago, rented a car and drove to the field in Iowa where they filmed it. It took me two and a half hours, the last 80 miles were on a two-lane highway, but it was worth it. It was magical, that’s the only way to describe it.
“The field is exactly as you saw it in the movie. I stood there for an hour, just staring. Then I walked through the outfield and into the corn stalks, hoping I’d bump into Shoeless Joe [Jackson] and Dizzy Dean. You tell someone that story and they look at you like you’re goofy.
“But then they see the movie, and they understand.”
In the course of writing this book, we surveyed more than a hundred athletes, coaches and various celebrities and asked them to name their favorite sports movie. You will find their selections in the chapters that follow, but here is a sampling that reflects the diversity of opinion and, in some cases, how far some people stretch the definition of a sports movie.
Joe Buck, Fox broadcaster: “Baseball translates better (to the screen) than other sports because of the mano a mano battles between the pitcher and the batter. I love The Natural for that reason. I still get chills when that ball hits the light tower.”
Phil Simms, former New York Giants quarterback, MVP of Super Bowl XXI: “I’ve probably seen every sports movie ever made, but Field of Dreams has a depth that sets it apart. So many things in that movie are so true about athletes: the relationships with your wife, your children, your father. Any athlete relates to the dynamics you have growing up and how it’s really special. To have a chance when it’s all over to go back and revisit it, oh my gosh, that’s a beautiful thing.”
Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens linebacker, MVP of Super Bowl XXXV: “I watch Gladiator all the time and I’m always inspired. It is about the evil people can do to each other. But it is good over evil and the satisfaction you can get by doing the right thing even when the masses are against you. It’s about overcoming obstacles and taking care of each other. You can relate to the movie as a family man and as a team member.”
Ric Flair, former world wrestling champion: “It’s all about commitment which is why Rudy is a special movie. It focuses on the kid that no one thinks is going to make it, but puts his life on the line and perseveres to be his best. When it came out, I made my own kids see it because it was a special message. I’ve seen it so many times myself that I can’t even count that high.”
Joey Pantoliano, Actor: “I watched Fear Strikes Out as a young kid, and it always stuck with me. It was the first time I ever saw a movie about a famous person—an athlete—with a serious mental health problem. Later, I went to Yankee Stadium and saw Jimmy Piersall play live, and thought, ‘Here’s a guy who has the same issues as everyone else. He’s a sports hero, but he’s a human being with all the weaknesses of other people. That stayed with me.”
Ken Griffey Jr., member of the 600 Home Run Club: “I really don’t watch a lot of sports movies. Does Jaws count? That’s my favorite movie. It’s kind of about the sport of fishing, right? But the people are the bait.”
SPORT: BOXING | STARS: SYLVESTER STALLONE, TALIA SHIRE, BURGESS MEREDITH DIRECTOR: JOHN AVILDSEN
How do you choose the best sports movie ever made?
A difficult task. It’s a question of judgment and taste, to be sure. But to be the champion among dozens of contenders, the top sports movie must meet five tough standards:
1. It needs to have a powerful story. The script is everything, as they say in Hollywood. There must be challenges and surprises, triumphs and setbacks.
2. It needs to have characters—three-dimensional heroes and bums, interesting folks who make you care about their lives.
3. It needs to have topflight sports action. A compelling story about an athlete who just stands there quickly stops being compelling. A great sports movie needs sweat and blood and speed and power. And the actors in the movie have to be better athletes than those middle-aged guys in your YMCA hoops league.
4. It needs to create goose bumps. There must be at least one scene in the film that sends shivers down your back or raises a lump in your throat.
5. It needs to be realistic—but not too much so. Because a powerful sports movie lets us stretch our imagination, allows us to dream. This is cinema’s great advantage over real life.
“Apollo Creed vs. the Italian Stallion. Now that sounds like a damn monster movie.”—Apollo Creed
More than any movie ever made, Rocky meets all five criteria. The script, written by Sylvester Stallone, is the touching story of a hardscrabble club fighter who takes his best shot. Stallone may not have invented the lovable-underdog saga, but he sure perfected it. Rudy is a spin-off of Rocky. So is Miracle, even if it is based on a true story. So is Hoosiers. Truth be told, dozens of movies listed in this book owe Stallone a nod.
Rocky is chock full of colorful characters. Paulie (Burt Young), the row-home loser who keeps nipping from a flask and trying to earn a buck off his best friend. Mick (Burgess Meredith), the rheumy-eyed octogenarian trainer seeking one last pass at the brass ring. Apollo Creed (former NFL linebacker Carl Weathers) the brash, angry Ali clone. Even the bit parts—like Gazzo the mobster (“What, you think I don’t hear things?”) and Buddy, Gazzo’s wise-cracking driver (“Take her to the zoo. I hear retards like the zoo.”)—add layers of grit to the story.
You want Grade A sports action? The brawl between Balboa and Creed that culminates the film is as good as it gets. From the moment late in the first round when the “badly outclassed challenger” shockingly floors the champ with a left, up through final bell, as the Italian Stallion buries one last hook in Creed’s ribcage (“Ain’t gonna be no rematch.” “Don’t want one.”), Rocky will have you feinting and cheering for 25 minutes.
Need goose bumps? Watch Rocky in the training sequence performing those one-armed pushups as “Gonna Fly Now” kicks into high gear. Cut to him dashing through the streets of Philadelphia, a quick flash of the fighter punching the sides of beef, and then the iconic shot of Rocky in the gray sweat suit, arms aloft at the top of the Art Museum steps. If that doesn’t create tingles, you must be unconscious.
Finally, Rocky is plausible—to a point. As most folks know, Stallone based his screenplay on the 1975 fight between Muhammad Ali and little-known Jersey brawler Chuck Wepner (aka “The Bayonne Bleeder”). Wepner never actually knocked down Ali (the champ tripped) and he was called out on a TKO with 19 seconds remaining in the 15th round. So Sly took the real life story and made it better.
Recalling the Ali-Wepner fight to Playboy, Stallone said, “The crowd is going nuts. Guys’ eyes are turning up white. And here comes the last round, and Wepner finally loses on a TKO. I said to myself, ‘That’s drama. Now the only thing I’ve got to do is get a character to that point and I’ve got my story.’ ”
For all of those reasons, we deem Rocky the best of all time. Whenever we’re flipping around the channels and discover it on one of the cable stations, we’re hooked for the rest of the night.
“Women weaken legs!”—Mick
You may disagree with our ranking, which is certainly your right. But just don’t hold against Rocky the five sequels that followed it—and which we find entertaining to various degrees (see the following chapter). The follow-ups diluted the franchise, often making people forget how intelligent and nuanced the original is, full of the tender little moments and layered dialog that make it worthy of its Best Picture Oscar.
- On Sale
- Sep 22, 2009
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Running Press