I was lucky enough to attend an advance screening last week in the City of Brotherly Love for “The Doctor,” the new documentary on basketball legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving, promoted to death on NBA TV and finally debuting tonight. In fact, so merciless has the promotion been for this documentary that the first thing Erving did in his pre-showing press conference was to apologize for how “shamelessly advertised” the movie had been. Hell, if you’ve been watching the last few rounds of the playoffs at all, you can probably do a pretty good impression of Magic’s unavoidable “When greatness … meets class … that’s what God created in Dr. J” quote by now.
But the promotional blitz makes sense — NBA TV clearly took a step up in terms of prestige for its original films with last summer’s rapturously received “Dream Team” documentary, a fantastically fun, impressively deep look into the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled on one squad. Archival clips of the team playing were a blast, everyone showed up to be interviewed, everyone shared hilarious and revealing anecdotes, and watching some of the rarely-if-ever-before-seen footage felt like getting to listen to bonus tracks from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” for the first time 20 years later. It was a slam dunk of a doc that raised the bar for the channel’s feature-length documentaries, especially considering how rote and by-the-numbers most of their original programming had been to that point.
“The Doctor” can’t possibly live up to “Dream Team” in terms of star power or behind-the-curtain revelation, but it does do a fairly good job of demonstrating the many strengths and few weaknesses of the NBA TV doc format, and what should be a model for the channel’s original docs moving forward. Like its predecessor, “The Doctor” is littered with visual goodies (clips of Dr. J playing at Rucker Park in an old-school adidas shirt, with shots of kids perched on the roof of a nearby school to watch, like something out of “The Birds”), great interviews (Magic gushes about Doc like a 10-year-old who just saw “The Dark Knight” for the first time, Sixers teammate Darryl Dawkins basically steals the show) and awesome footage of the Doc in action (even doing it on the defensive end — seriously, he looked like Serge Ibaka getting up for blocks back in the day). That’s the good stuff, and it makes Doc’s doc a must-watch, or at least a really-should-watch, for NBA fans of all eras.
But “The Doctor” also runs into problems that “Dream Team” was lucky enough not to have to really deal with — because it’s all about one guy and spans an entire career of ups-and-downs, it can occasionally feel whitewashed. Much is made of the many personal tragedies Doc had to endure in his life, which were indeed tremendous, and his family makes several appearances, but no mention is made of either of his children borne out of his extra-marital affairs, including, most famously, tennis star Alexandra Stevenson, who Erving did not publicly acknowledge until the 21st century. And while a deservedly large chunk of time is devoted to his championship season with the ’83 Sixers, I really would have liked to hear more about how the ’84 Sixers ended up imploding and losing to the Nets in the first round, instead of the doc skipping right from ’83 to Dr. J’s retirement tour in ’87.
I imagine that’s sort of the nature of the beast with these NBA TV documentaries, though. Though their access, resources and budget are probably comparable to that of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, they probably won’t ever match that series in terms of legitimate journalistic inquiry, as the station is obviously dependent on the stars being focused on, and too concerned with promoting the NBA product to dare that kind of objectivity or insight. It’s pretty unlikely we’ll ever see an NBA TV doc focused on a more ignominious league topic like the ’80s cocaine epidemic or the Malice at the Palace. Even a subject like the violent Knicks-Heat rivalry of the ’90s or the unfulfilled promise of a star like Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady would probably feel a shade too negative for the format.
With all that mind, though, I can still think of a couple subject matters for which the format would be ideal, where the potential for a combination of compelling storytelling, rarely-seen footage and engaging interview subjects could make for a great doc, even without any attempt at true journalistic balance. I’d watch any of these, certainly.
1. The first ABA Slam Dunk Contest. This obviously gets a good deal of play in “The Doctor,” since it was where Erving debuted his legendary free throw line dunk, but I want to see something deeper, like the chapter on the contest in Terry Pluto’s excellent ABA oral history “Loose Balls.” The contest was pretty much a Who’s Who of ABA stars — including Erving, David Thompson, George Gervis and Artis Gilmore — and had a fascinating story of how it came together, and obviously a tremendous impact on the NBA to follow. Plus, watching “Doctor” gives you a taste for ’70s NBA culture — the clothes, the music, and of course, the hair — that this doc could indulge better than just about anything.
2. Bill Walton. Another “Doctor”-inspired idea here, but how has there never been a movie made about Bill Walton? He had one of the most legendary careers in NCAA history, played key roles on two of the greatest NBA teams ever n the ’77 Blazers and ’86 Celtics, suffered tremendous injury drama (to the point of self-admitted suicidal thoughts) and had an awesome third act as one of the league’s all-time most colorful color announcers. Plus, he’s one of the best-spoken stars the league has seen, he’s got the whole Grateful Dead thing, and he’s even got a son still in the league. He might not have quite the same next-generation recognition as Dr. J, but he arguably had a more interesting career, and one whose story has been told far less frequently.
3. The ’86 Celtics. Of course, if you don’t feel like focusing on just one of their players, I would love to see a movie about the entire’86 Celtics. There’s not much of a narrative arc to their story — they didn’t even play the Lakers in the Finals that year, instead beating the Rockets in six — but it would be worth watching just to see all the great footage of a team often considered to be the best in league history, mixed with interviews with legendary braggarts like Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, talking about how damn awesome they were. It’s more likely that NBA TV would just do a flick on the entire Celtics-Lakers rivalry, but that seems like too big a story to tell without lapsing into cliché or just feeling redundant. Focusing in on this one Celtics season (or the ’87 Lakers, even) would allow time for more fun, smaller-scale stories about the players and personalities involved.
4. Hakeem Olajuwon. The inner-circle Hall of Famer with perhaps the least-told story, I’d appreciate learning a little more about Hakeem: his late-life adjustment from soccer to hoops, his days with Houston’s Phi Slama Jamma in college, his development of the Dream Shake, his dominance in the Rockets’ two mid-’90s title runs, and how he became the go-to retiree for active players to work with in the offseason. There would certainly be no shortage of former teammates and opponents willing to rhapsodize about Hakeem’s on-court greatness, and there might be no former player with more personal ties to current stars (LeBron, Kobe, Dwight) in the league. Plus, with the “The Dream” nickname, you can go in about a million different directions with the movie’s title — “The Dream Lives On,” “Life is But a Dream,” etc.
5. Gregg Popovich. You’d have to wait until he was retired for this, and even then you’d probably get minimal participation from Pop (if any participation at all), but that would just add to the air of mystery around one of the most unique and likeable-despite-himself personalities in modern hoops. You could get great shots of him in his Air Force days from the ’70s, super-obscure footage of Pomona-Pitzer games from the ’80s, and plenty of Pop getting older and grizzlier throughout the ’90s and ’00s. Former players would love to come by to rave about him, traumatized sideline reporters could swap war stories of attempting to interview him, even Shaq could stop by to talk about that one time he started the season by jokingly having him hacked. Or they could just show this TNT compilation of Pop moments on a loop for two hours. That’d be cool too.