BENAC: Sports films offer something for every movie fan

Normally, I use my columns as a chance to discuss serious matters that have rocked the sports world, but today I feel like a little fun is in order. After all, it’s summer, my favorite season, and if we can’t be a little lighthearted during the summer, when can we be?

So, today I’m going to look at some of the best sports movies ever made. Some of these are highly personal, emotional choices. Others have simply been so highly praised that it is impossible to ignore their quality.

Some would argue that all sports movies have the exact same plot: a ragtag, underdog team overcomes all odds to win the big game and prove its worth to the world.

There’s some truth to that assessment, but the world of sports movies offers a wide range of emotional and dramatic experiences. Some movies are serious and brooding while others are silly and light hearted fun. Some touch on our emotional heart strings while others make us think.

The best of them can pull off all of these emotions without compromising the integrity of the plot, the themes or the characters involved.

I’m going to start with a movie I watched about 100 times growing up, a movie which became an institution for children of my generation: the 1993 coming-of-age comedy “The Sandlot.”

Some of the old school sports movie fans are probably already scoffing, but those who grew up with this movie know how profoundly it affected them growing up.

“The Sandlot” tells the story of a group of young kids in 1962, and their baseball related adventures. Everything is all fun and games (and hilarious) until something impossible to imagine happens: a Babe Ruth-signed baseball is accidentally hit into the yard with The Beast, a “big mean dog” that loves eating baseballs and scaring children. And they gotta get it back.

This movie resonates with so many children because it captures those fun, carefree days of summer and how important those simple games were to our growing minds. Many children could also sympathize with Scotty, the young boy who struggles to be good at baseball.

We cheered when Scotty knocks the Babe Ruth ball out of the park, even though many of us never conquered our struggles with sports. I looked up to Scotty as somebody who overcame having no natural or God given talents.

That’s why I always empathized with “Rocky.” “Rocky” is one of those movies that has existed for so long, and has been so throughly ingrained into the popular consciousness, that it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. Or when writer and star Sylvester Stallone wasn’t a household name.

Stallone was actually nominated for an Oscar as both actor and writer, only the third person in history to that point to be nominated for those awards in the same year, joining such rarefied company as Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.

Though people may joke about Stallone’s talents these days, he really nailed it with this movie. His script is nuanced and realistic, his portrayal of Rocky appropriate and clever. Stallone’s slurred speech (due to suffering from Bell’s Palsy from birth) fits perfectly with a rather dim-witted, but likable character.

Rocky is a compelling everyman who can’t seem to do anything right and who struggles through life with little direction or goal. His once-in-a-lifetime shot at the top is almost too good to be true and he works harder than he’s ever worked in his life to prepare.

And although the sequels turned increasingly silly (was the robot really necessary in the fourth movie?) and unrealistic, the first remains a gritty slice of real world sports drama that focuses on the unglamorous struggles of the average Joe.

Disney’s 2004 movie “Miracle” is a relatively new sports movie about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team that bear the Soviet Union to get the chance to win the gold medal, which the Americans did when they beat Finland in the next round.

Although the events have been dramatized to maximize their dramatic import, the movie still touches on the thrill of the underdog victory, especially in the tense early 80s Cold War atmosphere.

Kurt Russell does a superlative job in the role of the Herb Brooks, the US coach. Russell always seems to nail likeable, down-to-Earth, but determined characters like Brooks.

Although Kevin Costner has been involved with some serious duds in his career, (“Waterworld” anyone? Anyone?!) he has been in some compelling sports films. Although “Field of Dreams” often tops many fans sports movie list, I feel that the relatively lesser known “Bull Durham” from 1988 is the superior sports movie and a whole heck of a lot of fun.

After all, “Field of Dreams” is only tangentially a sports movie: it’s more of a fantasy film with a sports angle. “Bull Durham” is a full blown sports movie, but one that works on a more intimate, personal and humorous level.

Costner plays Crash Davis a veteran catcher who is somewhat past his prime, who is brought in by a minor league team to help pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) make it to the big leagues. Along the way, Davis romances baseball groupie Susan Sarandon (such a thing exists?!), helps Nuke learn the ropes as a player and brings his career to a suitable close by breaking the minor league record for career home runs.

Costner, a somewhat limited actor, is perfectly cast as a has-been who still has some know how. His easy charm and affable sense of humor make him likable, even when he’s fall down drunk or behaving childishly.

This is one of those sports movies that doesn’t focus on winning the big game, but instead narrows on the relationships between Crash, Nuke and Sarandon (I’ve always had a crush on her, sue me).

If movies like “Bull Durham” explore a more light hearted vein, Spike Lee’s “He Got Game” delves into darker, more serious subject matter. The story concerns a young high school basketball player, Jesus Shuttlesworth (played by NBA star Ray Allen in his acting debut) and his attempts to sort through the various colleges attemping to recruit him.

The crux of the story lies with his father, Jake (Denzel Washington). Jake is in prison for accidentally killing Jesus’ mother when Jesus was 12. Jake is released by the governor for a brief time to convince Jesus to sign with the governor’s college. He will be permanently released early if he is successful.

While the story is somewhat simple, it delves into a lot of the questionable ethics involved in college basketball and the difficult interpersonal relationships between father and estranged son.

Casting Allen turned out to be a masterstroke: while no Shakesperian, he turns in a believable performance both on and off the court. Using real basketball players gives the game scenes more believability while the lively, but appropriate Public Enemy soundtrack was one of the best albums they’d produced in years.

Whatever your taste in movies, there is at least one sports movie to cover it. Why not check one out today.

Eric Benac can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5690. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricBenac.