Reel Sports Hollywood trends come and go, but sports movies--cliched, corny, sometimes downright comical--are never out of fashion. Just don't call them sports movies

Feb. 05, 2001
Feb. 05, 2001

Table of Contents
Feb. 5, 2001

Super Bowl XXXV

Reel Sports Hollywood trends come and go, but sports movies--cliched, corny, sometimes downright comical--are never out of fashion. Just don't call them sports movies

RUBEN: Ernie, listen. This guy can't fight. You'll knock him out.
How you feel? Can't hardly wait to get in there?

This is an article from the Feb. 5, 2001 issue Original Layout

ERNIE: I'll give it everything I got.

RUBEN: You might have to go the full three, so don't punch
yourself out, don't lose your head.

ERNIE: Pace myself.

RUBEN: Yeah, but don't, you know, don't, uh, hang back. It goes

ERNIE: Give it everything I got.

RUBEN: But still you want to pace yourself.

Do you remember who spoke those lines in Fat City, John Huston's
memorable 1972 film from the Leonard Gardner novel of the same
name? Jeff Bridges portrayed the young boxer Ernie Munger, and
his trainer, Ruben, was played by Nicholas Colasanto, who would
impart similarly addled advice as Coach on Cheers. That's how it
is with sports movies: We meet old friends, look for connections,
make comparisons, argue over a few beers.

Colasanto, remember, was also Tommy Como, the mob heavy in Raging
Bull. However, was he a better heavy than Jackie Gleason was as
the boxing trainer Maish Rennick in Requiem for a Heavyweight?
And was Gleason any heavier (besides corporally) than the
bloodless character (George C. Scott's Bert Gordon) who guided
Paul Newman's pool career in The Hustler? Did you laugh harder at
Slap Shot or Caddyshack? Did you cry harder when James Caan (as
Brian Piccolo) shuffled off his mortal coil in Brian's Song or
when Robert De Niro (as Bruce Pearson) looked dazed and confused
under a climactic pop-up in Bang the Drum Slowly? Did you upchuck
more violently at The Pride of the Yankees or at Knute Rockne,
All American? What? You didn't upchuck at all?

Maybe you didn't, owing, most likely, to the Rudy Imperative,
the axiom of sports cinema that takes its name from the
overwrought tearjerker about the scrappy Notre Dame lapdog who
finally gets a chance to play on Saturday afternoon. The Rudy
Imperative forbids you to dismiss Rudy out of hand on the basis
of its sentimentality, its playing fast and loose with the
facts, or its over-the-top celebration of a common schlub. For
if you do that, you hand down, by extension, a wholesale
indictment of sports films, which are, for the most part,
fractured fairy tales with soft, gooey centers.

Our feelings about sports films, in fact, often defy reason.
Every time a ballplayer materializes out of the damn cornfield in
Field of Dreams, I get a migraine (one Hollywood writer calls the
movie Field of Corn), yet Oliver Stone, no sentimentalist he,
says he loves the film and "the way it evokes The Wizard of Oz."
The next time I crack as much as a smile at Caddyshack will be
the first, yet legions of my peers proclaim it legendarily,
reload-the-bong hilarious. (That's how I feel about Slap Shot.) I
buy lock, stock and theme song into Chariots of Fire, but
director-screenwriter Robert Towne, who sent Mariel Hemingway
over the hurdles in 1982's Personal Best and chronicled the life
of Steve Prefontaine in 1998's Without Limits, dismisses Chariots
as "a bunch of latter-day saints running around in their mission
underwear." If we could explain our individual prejudices about
sports films, maybe we could explain a lot of things in
Hollywood. Like Adam Sandler.

There are, however, two certainties about sports films: They
keep getting made, and the people who make them don't want to
call them sports films. In recent months we've gagged at The
Replacements (which celebrates a bunch of scabs), grimaced at
For Love of the Game (Kevin Costner doesn't have enough stuff to
get out Mario Mendoza, yet he pitches a perfect game) and gone
gaga over Remember the Titans (the box office is at $115 million
and rising). Less-than-satisfying sports films have been made by
well-known directors (Robert Redford's The Legend of Bagger
Vance), and satisfying sports films have been made by
little-known directors (Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love &
Basketball). Before he united the South in Titans, Denzel
Washington upset the U.S. legal system in The Hurricane. We've
had violence from both genders, as in Stone's Any Given Sunday
and Karyn Kusama's Girlfight. Furthermore, so many animals have
done so many incredible things in sports movies in recent years
that some of us feel inadequate if the family basset hound can't
go deep in the hole, make a backhand stop and fire a perfect peg
to get the runner at first.

The coming-attractions list (page 97) is loaded with sports
films, but Hollywood is still reluctant to acknowledge the genre.
Director John Avildsen declares that the original Rocky is not a
sports film. "Rocky is a character study with sports in the
background," says Avildsen, who won the Best Director Oscar in
1976 for his valentine to a South Philly brawler. "I had never
seen a prizefight before the movie, and I still haven't gone to
one. Couldn't care less about them."

Sylvester Stallone, a struggling actor-screenwriter when he wrote
the Rocky script, was (still is) a fight fan but says that Rocky
Balboa's being a boxer was strictly metaphorical. "If Rocky was,
say, a struggling writer instead of a struggling athlete, it
would've been very difficult to convey dramatically what I was
trying to say," Stallone says. "But put a guy in a ring, and you
know him. Everyone's been kicked around. Everyone's been bullied.
Everyone's been beaten up. That's what sports does in a movie. It
provides a way, without being hackneyed, to get at the
character." Stallone says he did something similar in his
screenplay for the upcoming Driven, in which he plays an aging
race car driver. "People understand what it's like to race
against someone or something," he says. "The tax man, time,
competition at the office, whatever."

Stone describes his Any Given Sunday thusly: "It's really a
multilayered, Balzacian approach that studies the whole city, the
whole social ball." While Angelo Pizzo was writing Hoosiers and
Rudy, he hung a sign over his desk that read THIS IS NOT A SPORTS
MOVIE, and his fuel for writing Rudy, he says, was his own
struggle to make it in Hollywood. Hoosiers is "not really about
this underdog team winning the big game," Pizzo says. "It's about
people who are lost, isolated, stuck in their lives, and through
the aid of another person they get unstuck. It's about second

Even Ron Shelton, who directed and/or wrote such films as Bull
Durham, Tin Cup, White Men Can't Jump and Blue Chips, insists
these are not sports films; Tin Cup, for example, was about "the
desire for immortality, self-destruction, our inability to get
rid of who we are." Michael Tollin, the director of the
forthcoming Summer Catch, says that film is not about baseball
but about "believing in yourself, about fear of success, about
people who are their own worst enemies."

What all of them are saying, in effect, is this: To do meaningful
box office, a sports film must attract the nonsports fan. Makes
sense. What these filmmakers also fear is that they won't be
taken seriously as artists. Steve James, who made the
incomparable documentary Hoop Dreams and directed Disney's
Prefontaine, laughs off the fact that he's known mainly as a
sports guy. "A friend told me, 'Hey, you're lucky anyone knows
you at all,'" says James.

But for the last 100 years (and probably for the next 100) sports
films have been made. "Sports movies are today's Westerns," says
the 55-year-old Shelton. "Our contemporary mythology is built
around the athletic field and sports heroes. We have our white
hats and our black hats, just as my generation had its Western

Sports films get made for a variety of reasons. "The big one is,
stars love playing jocks," says Robert Wuhl, who turned in a
memorable performance as the pitching coach in Bull Durham and
also played the sportswriter Al Stump in Shelton's Cobb. "And the
one constant is, they think they're better athletes than they
are." The surprising thing is not that Costner (American Flyers,
Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup, For Love of the Game) has
been in so many; it's that stud muffins like Bruce Willis and Mel
Gibson, who have kicked a lot of butt over the years, haven't
starred in any. Then, too, says Shelton, studio executives are
frequently fans: "If they make a sports movie, they can somehow
be Hall of Famers."

Pizzo expected to be tossed out on his ear when he and his
director buddy David Anspaugh (they had made Hoosiers together
six years earlier) pitched Rudy to Frank Price, then president of
Columbia Pictures. "When we got done, Frank leaned over and said,
'I can't wait to see this movie,'" Pizzo says. "That never--I mean
never--happens. Turned out that Frank graduated from Michigan but
was an unabashed fan of Notre Dame football."

Indeed, most sports movies get made because of a personal
passion, whether it's the executive's, the director's, the
writer's or the star's. "Any Given Sunday was Oliver's passion,"
says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, president of worldwide theatrical
production for Warner Brothers Pictures. "He got us to finance a
movie we hesitated to put money behind." That's important because
most sports films are not big box office. (Don't even think about
pointing out the $161 million gross on Sandler's The Waterboy; it
really isn't a sports movie.) The very thing that makes sports
movies attractive at home--that recognizably American something
that compels, say, audiences at an Indiana Pacers playoff game to
go silent when a clip from Hoosiers appears on the scoreboard
screen--reduces a significant contributor to the back end: foreign
business. Icebergs, nude portraits and Kate Winslet shivering on
a life raft are comprehensible in any language; Shooter's
picket-fence play in Hoosiers is inscrutable in Norway. "For the
treat of a lifetime," says Shelton, "you've got to hear the
playground trash-talking in White Men Can't Jump in Japanese."

True, Rocky, filmed in 28 days on a budget of $1.1 million,
grossed about $117 million in domestic box office and many
millions more abroad, and its four sequels raked in money as
well. (For the record, Stallone says he has decided there will be
no Rocky VI. "Part of me wants to do it and says it's credible
because of guys like George Foreman and Larry Holmes," Stallone
says, "but ultimately I think it would be beating a dead horse.")

Bull Durham, which cost only about $7 million to make, grossed
about $50 million and is still a U.S. rental staple. By and
large, though, sports films are not in the same league as Star
Wars and Titanic. Raging Bull, the only sports film regularly
mentioned among the true greats (it was 24th in the American Film
Institute's top 100 a few years ago), did a modest $22 million at
the box office.

That's why the success of Titans surprised everyone. In one
sense the studio had set the stage for it in the '90s with a
string of what might be called "family sports movies,"
cotton-candy versions of The Bad News Bears, which had a
deliciously gritty feel. Emilio Estevez was more interesting as
Otto Maddox in one frame of Repo Man than he was as coach Gordon
Bombay in three Mighty Ducks movies, but the Ducks (which
collectively earned $119 million) made him a household name, at
least among the household's younger members. Though the public
tuned out a football-fetching golden retriever (1998's Air Bud:
Golden Receiver made $10 million), it had opened its arms a year
earlier to Buddy as a basketball player: The first Air Bud, with
a $3 million budget, pulled in $23 million.

Titans is different--an adult sports movie that is doing big
numbers--but its family appeal is similar. "Positive word of mouth
started early," says Hollywood power broker Jerry Bruckheimer,
who, before Titans, had produced blockbusters like Top Gun, The
Rock and Armageddon and whose next release is Pearl Harbor,
budgeted at $135 million. "Parents have a hard time on weekends
deciding what movies they can take their kids to. Everyone can
see Titans."

Therein lies a tale. The original Titans script was rougher, "a
lot more reality-based as far as the language goes," Bruckheimer
says. Walt Disney Studios agreed to make the film only if the
script was, well, Disneyfied. "Take out all the swear words,"
studio chairman Peter Schneider told Bruckheimer and scriptwriter
Gregory Allen Howard, "and we'll make it." Bruckheimer saw no
other way to get the script produced, so out came the s- and
f-words, out came all sexual tension (indeed, the most compelling
female character is a nine-year-old girl who knows more pigskin
jargon than John Madden) and out came a hard-edged portrayal of
race relations.

Watching Titans, you feel as if you're sitting in a Pavlovian
laboratory, a submissive subject in a study of elementary
emoting: O.K., the topic of the moment is, White folks don't want
blacks to integrate the high school. Cue the Chambers Brothers
doing Time Has Come Today, show some angry young whites and some
frightened young blacks. Time for everyone to come together? Cue
the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duet Ain't No Mountain High Enough.
"Is the movie a cliche?" asks Schneider. "Maybe. Is it
predictable? Maybe. But it comes out the way you want it to come
out, and it has enough twists and turns to keep you amused and
entertained. Yes, we were pushing your buttons, but you gave up
after a while and let them be pushed, right?"

Anyway, sports films were never all that original. "Hollywood
comes back to sports films because they present dramatic material
and because there are so many sports nuts out there," says Steve
James. "But it almost always comes down to someone at the studio
deciding the film has to be inspirational. It's hard to present a
script for a sports film that doesn't conform to the big-victory
or big-game blueprint."

Of the classic sports films (page 100), precious few, such as The
Hustler and Raging Bull, are truly dark ruminations on American
society. North Dallas Forty and The Longest Yard were renegades
in their time but now seem tame. Yes, some complain that the film
version of The Natural (written, incidentally, by Roger Towne,
Robert's brother) takes Bernard Malamud's sober novel and turns
it into a schlocky hero-of-the-heartland vehicle for Redford. But
at some point almost everyone (critics notwithstanding) gave in
to the movie, to the bravura performance of Robert Duvall as
sportswriter Max Mercy, to the rambling dugout conversations
between manager and coach (Wilford Brimley and Richard
Farnsworth), to the athletic grace of the ol' lefty, Redford. (I
wish, though, that somebody would bean the Glenn Close character
with a Cracker Jack box when she stands up, bathed in celestial
light, to get Roy Hobbs's attention.) "I can't remember now,"
says Stone. "What did happen at the end of the novel?" Malamud's
last words: "He lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter
tears." Does that tell you that the original Hobbs didn't go

Sports films in the first half of the 20th century were for the
most part slapstick comedies, fluffy things with far-fetched
plots or, in the case of 1940's Knute Rockne, All American and
1942's The Pride of the Yankees, so stilted and serious as to be
comical. ("The most dangerous thing in American life today is,
we're getting soft," says Pat O'Brien, as Rockne.) Still, some
brilliant moments came out of those films, especially the
comedies. Who can't enjoy watching Chico Marx, as Baravelli, call
signals for Huxley College in Horse Feathers? "Hi diddle, diddle,
cat's in the fiddle. This time I think we go through the middle."
Or watching Chico, in A Day at the Races, sell railbird Groucho
(Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush) first a tip book, then a code book that
interprets the tip book, then a master code book that interprets
the code book, then a bunch of breeders' guides that interpret
the master code book?

In those days athletes often appeared in movies, providing
Hollywood with recognizable names to market. Babe Ruth, Red
Grange and Jack Dempsey, icons of the Golden Age of Sports, were
all over the silver screen. Ty Cobb appeared in a 1916 silent
film called Somewhere in Georgia in which he was kidnapped and
had to ride to the big game on a mule. Sorry you missed that one,
eh? Even early boxing movies were lighthearted. Did you ever see
the one in which Curly of the Three Stooges turns into a fighting
demon every time he hears Pop Goes the Weasel--but one night, see,
the violinist at ringside breaks a string, and then....

Body and Soul (1947), directed by Robert Rossen (who later wrote
and directed The Hustler) and written by Abraham Polonsky, opens
with a shot of a heavy bag swinging forebodingly in a deserted
yard and unfolds from there in a series of flashbacks. Body and
Soul turned sports movies in a new direction and is still
phenomenal. For years after it opened, boxing films continued to
be the most memorable of sports movies for many reasons: The
action is inherently taut and dramatic, with the ring an ideal
symbolic stage; boxing is relatively easy and cheap to film; the
public has always accepted boxers as antiheroes--something it just
wouldn't do for players of football or our national pastime--which
provides a never-ending source of colorful supporting characters.

Quick! What lines do you remember from films about sports other
than boxing? The mound conference in Bull Durham, which includes
Wuhl's memorable "Candlesticks always make a nice gift" (a line
improvised by the actor, incidentally, at three o'clock in the
morning after hours on the set)? There's Tom Hanks wailing to one
of his players in A League of Their Own, "There's no crying in
baseball!" Perhaps you recall the young Paul Newman, brimming
with doomed confidence, going off on Gleason's Minnesota Fats in
The Hustler: "You know, I got a hunch, fat man. I got a hunch
that it's me from here on in. One ball, corner pocket. I mean,
that ever happen to you? You know, all of a sudden you feel like
you just can't miss? 'Cause I dreamed about this game, fat man. I
dreamed about this game every night on the road. Five ball. You
know, this is my table, man. I own it." There's Costner, as Ray
Kinsella in Field of Dreams, haltingly asking his father (or the
ghost of his father--damned if I know), "Do you want to have a
catch?" And Jerry Maguire gave us the sports-film line that seems
most destined to live on: "Show me the money!"

But what we remember most from sports films are snippets of
scenes: the Hansons belting the bejesus out of everyone in Slap
Shot; Bill Murray's flower bed flailing in Caddyshack; the
stadium lights shattering when struck by Hobbs's thunderous home
run in The Natural; the underhand foul shot by Hickory High bench
warmer Ollie bouncing up and through the net in Hoosiers; the
coarse, climactic cry of "A-DREE-IN!" in Rocky.

Classic boxing films, however, are elevated by memorable
dialogue. Upon watching Toro Moreno, the boxer based loosely on
Primo Carnera in The Harder They Fall, the sportswriter (Humphrey
Bogart) says to the slimy promoter (Rod Steiger), "Powder-puff
punch and a glass jaw. That's a great combination." In Body and
Soul the fight promoter, played by William Conrad, delivers this
take on young boxers: "One out of a hundred [ever] fights
professionally, one out of a thousand's worth watching, and one
out of a million's worth coffee and doughnuts." In Requiem for a
Heavyweight, Gleason has this timeless comment about the sweet
science: "Sport? Are you kidding? If there was headroom, they'd
hold these things in sewers." Rod Serling wrote those lines,
Gardner wrote Fat City, and Budd Schulberg wrote The Harder They
Fall from his novel of the same name. The best writers have
always been drawn to boxing.

So, too, have a multitude of actors of varying degrees of talent,
and most of them have pulled off the role. Robert Ryan's aging
lunger in The Set-Up looks perfectly believable, as does John
Garfield, a former Golden Gloves boxer, in Body and Soul. So, for
that matter, does Stallone as the unschooled southpaw in the
first two Rocky films, even allowing for the fact that his duels
with Apollo Creed are more plasma orgies than boxing matches. "I
said I wanted Apollo to come out and hit me with four right hands
in a row, and everybody told me that wouldn't happen in a real
fight," says Stallone. "Well, I had seen Tex Cobb never land a
punch against Larry Holmes in 15 rounds, but he was still there
at the end." One of the most believable screen fighters is Errol
Flynn in the overlooked Gentleman Jim. In fact, Robert Towne
considers Flynn's performance one of the five greatest in
American film.

Other sports have not done so well keeping it real. William
Bendix should've been arrested for fraud when he swung the bat in
The Babe Ruth Story. Anthony Perkins did a good job of climbing
the backstop in Fear Strikes Out (an incident that never happened
to the real Jimmy Piersall), but he looks like a bush leaguer in
the outfield. "Anytime you have a guy throwing a ball like that,"
says screenwriter Pizzo, "you lose half your audience." And, in
One on One, were we supposed to believe that Robby Benson was the
top basketball recruit in the country?

If you're not going to be authentic, you'd better be resourceful.
Stone still marvels at the camera tricks that allowed North
Dallas Forty director Ted Kotcheff to disguise the fact that he
had no budget for thousands of extras. When you look at the
football sequences, which are realistic, you sense there's a
crowd at the game but never see one, because there isn't one.
Filming the football scenes in Any Given Sunday was, Stone says,
one of the hardest things he's ever done, and he won the Bronze
Star for valor in Vietnam. "Filming sports is harder than war
because you have to create the illusion of a game being watched,"
says Stone. "In war there are no onlookers, but in football you
have the problem of how to include the crowd in every shot." In
addition to hiring 10,000 extras, Stone ordered 2,500 cardboard
fans and spread them around the stadium.

The director also gave what one Any Given Sunday cast member
called a "fresh-meat-in-the-air" atmosphere to the football
scenes. "Oliver got all us super-testosterone types together and
just let us loose," says Andrew Bryniarski, a former bodybuilder
who played Madman Kelly in the movie. "I mean, the football
scenes were very realistic and adrenaline-charged. The tougher it
was, the more Oliver loved it. It put him in a frenzy."

Do details matter? Of course they do. One of the failures of
Redford's Bagger Vance is the golfing of the Matt Damon
character, a onetime phenom who is seeking to recover his
"authentic swing." Damon's swing never looks authentic even after
he supposedly recovers it (though apparently it wasn't for lack
of trying; the actor practiced until his hands bled). Still, by
and large, sports movies get it right today much more often than
they did years ago. "There's no point in doing a sports film if
the sports sequences don't look right," says Towne, who cast two
national-class track athletes, Patrice Donnelly and Jodi
Anderson, alongside Hemingway in Personal Best.

Hollywood didn't use to believe that. "The old films didn't have
to get it right because, for the most part, nobody had ever been
to a game or watched one on TV," says Shelton. "Television made
film directors get better. You now have a very sophisticated
audience watching sports films. They're used to seeing action
sequences from nine camera angles. Making a sports film these
days is like taking a string quartet to Vienna."

Sanaa Lathan, a striking young actress, practiced her basketball
skills for two months, without promise of getting the lead,
before Prince-Bythewood cast her as Monica in Love & Basketball.
She looks believable, too. Prince-Bythewood says it took 22 takes
of one scene before Omar Epps (the male lead) made a three-point
shot. "The funny thing is," she says, "I eventually cut the
three-pointer because it just didn't look right."

Shelton says sometimes it has to be better than right. "There are
lot of imperfect golf swings out on the Tour, but Kevin Costner
[in Tin Cup] couldn't swing like Lee Trevino or Jim Furyk because
the audience would say, 'Hey, he doesn't look right.'" Whenever
Shelton shot a golf sequence, he flew in his technical advisers,
Senior tour pro Gary McCord and swing coach Peter Kostis, to
review it before he moved on to the next. Say what you want about
the increasingly insufferable Costner, the man has done a better
job portraying athletes in various sports (cycling, baseball,
golf) than any other actor in history.

De Niro's portrayal of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull is generally
regarded as the ultimate transformation of actor into athlete,
but, as spectacular as the performance was, Billy Crudup in
Without Limits did De Niro one better. Crudup seemed to channel
Prefontaine, nailing his look (with the help of a blond wig), his
all-out running style, his barrel-chested, cocky essence. It is
puzzling yet gratifying to hear Towne, who wrote such classics as
Chinatown and Shampoo, go on and on about Without Limits, a small
movie that's often confused with the earlier Prefontaine and was
a box-office disappointment. On a recent night at his Brentwood
home, Towne cued up his DVD player and pointed out how he'd
spliced footage of the actual 5,000-meter race at the 1972
Olympics in with his own choreographed re-creation. At times it's
hard to tell which race is which, and it's almost always
impossible to pick out the true Prefontaine. "Stride for stride,
gesture for gesture," says Towne, "the race we got on film is the
race in Munich."

This compulsion for verisimilitude is the reason that several pet
sports projects might never get made. Stallone dreams about doing
a film about what he calls "the leatherheads," the early football
barnstormers, "but only if it could be done right." Towne would
love to do an Arthur Ashe biopic but despairs of finding an
elegant yet powerful actor-athlete to replicate Ashe's strokes.
The Tommie Smith-John Carlos saga from the 1968 Games interests
Towne, too, but he'll probably never film it. "It's hard to get
an actor to look good over distance, as Billy did," says Towne,
"but almost impossible to turn an actor into a believable

Shelton would love to tackle the subject of Lou Gehrig ("a Greek
tragedy that got lost in that awful Pride of the Yankees," he
says) but knows it's a period piece that would demand
extraordinary attention to detail. Scripts for Friday Night
Lights, H.G. Bissinger's acclaimed book about Texas high school
football, have been circulating for a while, but according to
Shelton, "No one can figure out how to make it real." Disney's
Schneider sees precious few modern sports figures who could stand
up to a cinematic treatment because they are covered so
endlessly. Tiger Woods might be the one, muses Schneider, because
"he's charismatic and full of joy" yet not fully revealed to the
American public.

What lies ahead for sports movies is hard to predict. Even with
the success of Titans, Hollywood execs are cautious about sports
films because of their unpredictable box-office appeal. Steven
Spielberg has gone to war and into the far reaches of the
universe but seems disinclined to take to the playing field.
Julia Roberts has shown no interest in sweating on camera. Sure,
Tom Cruise (who was good in a minor high school football film,
All the Right Moves) could get another sports flick made--Cruise
could announce that he wants to do an epic about potato chips,
and 13 studio heads would run out for dip--but at 38 he's a little
old to play a superstar jock and a little boyish to play a
grizzled vet. In fact, Cruise, who produced Without Limits, was
going to play Prefontaine but backed out because audiences knew
him too well to accept him as a 22-year-old Olympian.

With deepest humility, I'd like to present something that would
be perfect for Cruise. Or maybe Costner. Or perhaps Willis. Maybe
Will Smith could look at it when he's finished being Ali. The
working title is Scoreboard. In brief, here it is.

Nighttime at a minor league ballpark. Game is over, and stadium
is lit dimly. Cruise-Costner-Willis-Smith, deep in debt to
gamblers and needing money to pay for his young daughter's kidney
transplant, emerges from dugout. Scoreboard lights go on, and
score appears, 7-2--but it's not the score from that night's game.
Nobody sees the score except Cruise-Costner-Willis-Smith. Sure
enough, next day's game ends 7-2. Same thing happens next night.
Protagonist gets message and bets the game. Wins big money.
Continues betting. Pays off debts and accumulates enough cash to
pay for operation, but everything starts going to pot in his
baseball career. There's a mysterious ex-wife (can we get Julia?)
who may or may not know why scoreboard is tipping him off. If he
stops betting, will he get back on track on the field?

I don't want to give the whole thing away, but it's kind of Damn
Yankees! meets Bull Durham meets Field of Dreams.

Without the damn cornfield.

For more, including the original trailers and SI's reviews of
the top sports movies, and a photo gallery of great moments in
sports movies, go to



The Ripkenesque string of sports films will be extended in 2001.
Here are some of the new entries, in order of anticipated

The Match FEBRUARY In this straight-to-video film, two Scottish
pubs square off in a soccer game to determine which one of them
will stay in business.

Driven APRIL Sly Stallone attempts to bring his Rocky magic
to the world of CART racing.

O APRIL Billed as Othello brought to the basketball court--as
if sports doesn't have enough jealousy, rage and treachery among

The Long Run MAY An aging coach of marathoners finds hope again
with a brilliant young runner; alas, the hot prospect is not
an American.

Made JULY Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn portray boxers; the
Swingers guys take their swings.

Summer Catch AUGUST The Cape Cod Baseball League is the backdrop
for a story about a pitcher and his local lady friend.

Rollerball SUMMER This "reinterpretation" of the 1975 classic
is set in 2005, so it can hardly be called futuristic.

Juwanna Mann OCTOBER Banned from the NBA, a hoopster in drag
makes a WNBA roster. Surprisingly, this is not a Dennis Rodman

Ali DECEMBER Will (Bagger Vance) Smith puts down the clubs and
picks up the gloves in this eagerly awaited film about the

Hardball NO DATE Keanu Reeves has to coach a Little League
team in the Chicago ghetto. Think Bad News Bears meets Boyz N
the Hood.


What makes a sports movie? Not just Marlon Brando saying "I
coulda been a contender." Sports movies revolve around athletes
or sports. What makes a great sports movie? That's much harder
to define. Let the arguments begin.

1. BULL DURHAM (1988): The action and little details are
perfect. And there's Susan Sarandon.

2. RAGING BULL (1980): It's so widely (and deservedly) praised
that no one points out that the stylized boxing scenes are

3. ROCKY (1976): Director John Avildsen says Rocky's and Adrian's
skating scene resonates for him; we like Sly brutalizing a side
of beef.

4. HOOSIERS (1986): Hackman, Hopper, Hershey and hoops. It
doesn't get more heavenly than that.

5. BODY AND SOUL (1947): Few movie lines are colder than the one
by the gangster (Lloyd Gough) as he studies an unconscious boxer
with a blood clot: "Everybody dies."

6. THE HUSTLER (1961): The foreboding Twilight Zone ambience of
this pool film, with Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman, is riveting.

7. CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981): Who can forget Ian Holm, as coach
Sam Mussabini, punching his hand through his hat after his
student wins gold at the '24 Games?

8. REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT (1962): As the washed-up fighter
trying to avoid selling out as a pro wrestler, Anthony Quinn
gives an immortal performance.

9. SLAP SHOT (1977): The tableau of the Hanson Brothers--dried
blood, broken glasses, blank expressions--standing at rapt
attention in a minor league rink for the national anthem is

10. JERRY MAGUIRE (1996): Can a movie about an agent be a sports
movie? Hey, check out the sports pages. What' s more, Cameron
Crowe's script is brilliant--moving and real.

11. BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY (1973): The film is so powerful that
we barely care that Robert De Niro doesn't swing the bat like a
major leaguer, even a dying one.

12. THE NATURAL (1984): The movie has a timeless aspect that,
sentimentality aside, makes it watchable again and again.

13. THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976): The lovable underdogs
sponsored by Chico's Bail Bonds.

14. NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979): A teammate tells a receiver (Nick
Nolte) that he has too much respect for his body to take drugs.
The receiver answers, "You'll get past that."

15. BREAKING AWAY (1979): The Bloomington, Indiana, homeboys
(Dennis Christopher, Jackie Earle Haley, Dennis Quaid and Daniel
Stern) make this biking movie click.


You may not know some of these films, but give them a look and
they might make it onto your own list of classics.

GENTLEMAN JIM (1942): Errol Flynn was never better--or better
looking, both in and out of the ring.

DOWNHILL RACER (1969): Gene Hackman's coach to Robert Redford's
cocky ski god: "All you ever had was skis. And that's not

HEART LIKE A WHEEL (1983): It helps to have a thang for Bonnie
Bedelia, who portrays trailblazing drag racer Shirley Muldowney.

VISION QUEST (1985): Matthew Modine, as a high school wrestler,
applies some skillful holds, a few of them on Linda Fiorentino.

THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986): If its father film, The Hustler,
weren't immortal, this Scorsese-directed Newman-and-Cruise flick
might get more respect.

EIGHT MEN OUT (1988): John Sayles's attention to detail in this
period piece about the 1919 Black Sox is phenomenal, as is John
Cusack as Buck Weaver.

EVERYBODY'S ALL-AMERICAN (1988): Near 40, Jessica Lange looks old
for a campus queen, but Dennis Quaid is terrific as a BMOC turned
museum piece.

SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER (1993): What ever happened to Max
Pomeranc, the sad-eyed miniprotagonist of this outstanding chess

THE PROGRAM (1993): Director David S. Ward got more things right
in this football story than he did in his better-known movie,
Major League.

WITHOUT LIMITS (1998): This minor classic will keep the memory of
Steve Prefontaine alive.

HE GOT GAME (1998): No Oscar nomination for Ray Allen, but when
you're playing alongside Denzel Washington, you don't need much

LOVE & BASKETBALL (2000): A PG-13 game of strip one-on-one is
about as raw as it gets in this sweet, well-acted film.


Unlike the many works of cinematic fiction that center on
athletes or the games they play, these are the real deal: sports

OLYMPIA (1938): Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's famed film
propagandist, used 40 photographers to shoot the '36 Berlin
Summer Games for a documentary that was decades ahead of its

THE ENDLESS SUMMER (1966): Dude, 35 years after this surfing
flick came out, it still makes you want to wax your board and
hang ten.

THE OLYMPIAD (1976): Who cared about hammer throwers and
pentathletes before Bud Greenspan's somberly narrated 22-part

PUMPING IRON (1977): Catch the pre-Hollywood Arnold
Schwarzenegger, at 29, when the future action star was the
swaggering, winsome Babe Ruth of bodybuilding.

HOOP DREAMS (1994): No fictional account of urban basketball has
ever come close to this wrenching account of two Chicago

WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996): Who would want to watch a movie about
a 27-year-old prizefight? Everybody. It's Muhammad Ali-George
Foreman in Zaire. Pull up a chair.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG (1998): This film says as
much about America in the 1930s and '40s as it does about the
Jewish slugger, and that's the point.


Here are the sports films with the top domestic grosses.

MOVIE (through 1/25/01) YEAR SPORT

Jerry Maguire $153,952,592 1996 Football
Rocky IV 127,873,414 1985 Boxing
Rocky III 122,823,192 1982 Boxing
Rocky 117,235,147 1976 Boxing
The Karate Kid, Part II 115,103,976 1986 Martial Arts
Remember the Titans 115,032,488 2000 Football
A League of Their Own 107,533,928 1992 Baseball
The Karate Kid 94,300,000 1984 Martial Arts
Days of Thunder 82,670,733 1990 Auto Racing
Rocky II 79,209,753 1979 Boxing
Any Given Sunday 75,530,832 1999 Football
White Men Can't Jump 71,969,454 1992 Basketball
Cool Runnings 68,856,263 1993 Bobsledding
Field of Dreams 64,431,625 1989 Baseball
Tin Cup 53,888,896 1996 Golf


"Put a guy in a ring, and you know him," Stallone says.
"Everyone's been kicked around."
"Sports movies are today's Westerns," Shelton says.