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Savran: Screening worst, best sports movies

Saturday, June 23, 2001

You might think the Los Angeles Lakers' systematic demolition of the NBA was about winning two titles in succession. But if you think it was all about the Lakers' team, you'd be wrong.

What it was about, even more than expanding the limitlessness of Phil Jackson's opinion of himself, is the furthering of Shaquille O'Neal's acting career. If the Lakers had lost to the human hieroglyphic Allen Iverson and the 76ers, maybe the Hollywood slicks don't come waving movie and rap video contracts at Shaq like those plastic tubes fans wave to distract free-throw shooters.

Although in the grand scheme of things Shaq isn't a bad thespian, he does follow a long line of great athletes turned bad actors. As well as good actors who portray athletes badly. Everyone will remember Anthony Perkins in his portrayal of Jimmy Piersall in "Fear Strikes Out." Perkins threw a baseball like your Aunt Bernice, the one with arthritis. In Perkins' defense, he was left-handed, so naturally he looked awkward throwing with his right/wrong arm. Why cast him in the first place? I guess because Piersall and Norman Bates had much in common.

Tim Robbins played Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh in "Bull Durham." His windup and delivery reminded me of the same motion used to operate the garden weasel, although it wasn't all that much different than Luis Tiant's.

William Bendix starred in the fascinatingly awful "Babe Ruth Story." Bendix looked like he couldn't hit one of 714 pitches out of the infield, let alone whack 714 over the fence. Chad Lowe, or maybe it was brother Rob since they look the same to me -- played a hockey player in "Youngblood." Either or both had Mike Modano's looks, but none of his ability or toughness. Dick Butkus played some woebegone gym teacher on some woebegone sitcom on some woebegone minor-league network. And Keanu Reaves can't act whether he's riding a bus in "Speed" or playing a quarterback in "The Replacements."

But let's not dwell on the negative. Some athletes were believable in their roles.

How about the Hanson Brothers in "Slap Shot?" They made Tie Domi proud. Ray Allen was great in "He Got Game." Jim Brown was in some really bad movies, but he gets a lifetime dispensation for being in "The Dirty Dozen." Lawrence Taylor was a violent linebacker with a drug problem in "Any Given Sunday." Typecasting.

And one last hurrah to sports types crossing over. The brilliant portrayal of hockey announcers by Mike Lange and Paul Steigerwald in Howard Baldwin's epic, "Sudden Death" -- which is exactly what you wished for while watching it. But that aside, Lange and Steigerwald were terrific, much better than alleged star Jean Claude van Damme.

From the other end, professional actors who portrayed sports figures. Paul Newman in "Slap Shot" and Gene Hackman in "Hoosiers." Charlie Sheen was excellent as Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn in "Major League." Ditto Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hays. I liked "The Natural" and Robert Redford and Robert Duval in it. Duval was exemplary portraying how disagreeable, unfair and vicious sportswriters truly are. And my all-time performance? Tom Hanks as drunken sot manager Jimmy Dugan in "A League of Their Own." There's no crying in baseball!

Here then, for no particular reason with no particular facts to back it up, is my list of the greatest sports movies. "The Godfather" and "The Godfather II." All right, I realize that unless killing is considered sport, neither should be included in the category. But they're my favorite movies of all time, and it's my list and my column, so I get to make the rules.

Next, "Animal House." Got a problem with that? See above. Plus, there was a golfing scene in it. "Major League." I lived through decades of unimaginably bad Cleveland Indians' baseball so trust me, it's an accurate depiction. "Fortune Cookie" starred Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Need I say more? "Field of Dreams." I know, a bit of sappy science fiction. But I made the mistake of seeing it just a couple of weeks after my father died, so you can understand its impact on me. "Slap Shot" and "Bull Durham" and "It Happens Every Spring" make the list. The latter is an oldie with Ray Milland starring as a college professor who discovers this wood repellent potion that he rubs on baseballs. Good thing he wasn't pitching in college with aluminum bats. Consider Milland the forerunner to Gaylord Perry.

"White Men Can't Jump." You can't deny the premise, or Rosie Perez, for that matter. And my all-time favorite? Drum roll please! "A League of Their Own." If that comes on, I'll stop whatever it is I'm doing, especially if Hanks/Dugan is about to tell the right fielder, "There's no crying in baseball!"

As for the worst sports movies, well, I need more column space for that. Maybe I'll just wait for Shaq to sign his next film deal. I'll start with that one and work my way down.


Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 8-9 p.m. weeknights on WBGG-AM (970).

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