Category Archives: Sports

The Damned United (2009), directed by Tom Hooper

damned-unitedIn retrospect, I have had a wonderful career in Jewish education, the highlight of which was in Atlanta from 1970 through 1998. The school I led was Yeshiva High School of Atlanta and its enrollment grew from 36 to approximately 200 during my long and occasionally turbulent tenure.

I never for one moment thought that the success of the school was due to my efforts alone. That would be both arrogant and untrue. It succeeded because of many people: teachers, office staff, lay leaders, all of whom left an indelible mark on the school’s history.

For me, in particular, success resulted because of an extraordinary teaching staff that cared deeply for the students, that was extremely skilled, and that was dedicated to the welfare of the school and its students. Success was always measured by how well the students did academically and spiritually, not by increasing enrollment numbers alone. For the staff, the more important question was whether the students were touched and influenced by the ethos of the institution?

How to measure success in the arena of competitive sports is the subject of The Damned United, an unflinching look at the coaching tactics of Brian Clough, manager of an English soccer team. Although a professional sports team is different from a school, there are similarities. In both arenas, it is never one man that brings success; rather it is one man working with others that can change outcomes in an organization.

Brian Clough, manager of the lowly Second Division Derby soccer team aspires to coach a First Division team. When the chance comes to manage the highly successful Leeds United team, he jumps at the opportunity, leaving his long time assistant Peter Taylor behind.

Things, however, do not work out well for Brian in his new job. He immediately sabotages his relationship with his new players by berating them for their unsportsmanlike behavior in the past. Clough does this because of a long-standing antipathy for Leed’s former manager Don Revie, who ignored Clough when he came to Darby in 1967 to play Clough’s team. Clough, insulted by Revie’s slight of him, viewed the disrespect as intentional. This incident haunts him and often motivates his actions in the present.

Clough continues to alienate his players by constantly criticizing them and the team loses game after game until management fires him. After that sobering moment, Clough realizes his mistakes and seeks reconciliation with his former partner and best friend Peter Taylor. When the two friends finally hug and renew the loving ties that bound them when they first started working together, the relationship is restored.

The reconciliation comes about when Clough realizes that whatever success he has had is not due to his efforts alone, but to the efforts of Peter Taylor as well. Clough finally moves from arrogance to humility, ushering in a period of professional success where they again begin working with inexperienced players and enable them to win championships that far exceed past achievements.

Jewish tradition has much to say about arrogance and humility, polar opposites of human character. While self-confidence and self-esteem are praised, arrogance is viewed as a serious character flaw because the arrogant person assumes he knows it all. He does not allow room for the contribution of others, and so has a distorted view of reality. He is is so full of himself, there is no space either for God or other men to enter.

In contrast is the trait of humility, which presumes that man is imperfect, that he both fails and succeeds in life, and that God is ultimately in charge of the results of one’s actions. As the Sages caution in the Ethics of the Father, “be very, very humble.” The repetition of the word “very” suggests that one has to be overly concerned about succumbing to the aphrodisiac of arrogance.

Brian Clough’s journey from arrogance to humility in The Damned United reminds us that success in life in most cases requires one to be humble and acknowledge the contribution of others. It is only through the “one of us” that true success is achieved.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Fastball (2016), directed by Jonathan Hock

fastball-posterOne of my Torah teachers, Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, is an avid baseball fan. He sees baseball as particularly engaging for students of Talmud. His reasons? “Because it’s slow-moving and you can think,” he said. “Every play requires you to ponder what to do. How shall I react to the reality that I see on the playing field? What play are you going to use? In other sports, it’s quick; you don’t ponder what will happen next. Things move very fast in basketball and football. But in baseball you have questions. Is the pitcher or the batter a left-hander, a right-hander, will the fielders pull the infield in, push the outfield back, give up the run, worry about the bunt, go for the double play, the squeeze, should he steal, what do you do, put him in scoring position, hit away. There’s so much involved that you have time to think. To me, if you have that Talmudic mind, it’s one of the reasons you like baseball.”

The Talmudic mind is on display in Fastball, an intellectually engaging documentary about the fastest pitch in baseball, but also a trip down memory lane visiting the baseball greats of the past. The narration by Kevin Costner focuses on the confrontation between batter and pitcher that is fraught with tension and peril. The ball is thrown upwards of 100 miles per hour toward the batter’s head. The pitcher intimidates while the batter exhibits caution, vigilance, and nerves of steel. The film considers the extent to which the speed of the ball influences the success of the pitcher and the ultimate outcome of the game.

Tracing the origins of the fastball compels one to visit the evolutionary history of baseball by interviewing celebrated players from both the past and present. Moreover, there is a scientific/mathematical analysis of the speed of the ball from the pitcher’s mound to the batter’s box, which enables the viewer to understand fully the impact of speed on the ball’s rotation.

After considering which pitcher has the best fastball, there is a vignette about a pitcher who is no longer remembered by the vast majority of fans and players even though he was reputed to have the fastest pitch. Why is this? Because even though he had the fastest pitch, he lacked consistent control of the ball. Speed alone does not make winners; only when speed is harnessed to control does winning occur.

This sensibility of balancing speed with control and mastery existed in Jewish academies of learning in the past and exists today as well. In many of these post-high school institutions of learning, there are two categories of classes. One class moves with alacrity and covers lots of Talmudic ground, but does not go deeply into the text. The second, more advanced class, moves more slowly and spends lots of time analyzing the nuances of the text. The great scholars emerge out of the second group of classes, which not only covers ground, but enables students to attain mastery of a topic. Speed alone does not produce success.

Fastball ultimately informs us that Nolan Ryan had the fastest pitch along with the most control of the ball. Interestingly, he had a long baseball career pitching for a number of teams.

It is this mindset of being both fast and controlled that contributes to success in all areas of life. When we are energetic and quick and combine that with a thoughtful demeanor, we increase our chances for success in life. In the Ethics of the Fathers, we are told to rise like a lion and be as swift as a deer, but we are also cautioned to be deliberate in judgment. Speed unfettered by reason leads to accidents. Speed buttressed by the attribute of control leads to success.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Goal! The Dream Begins (2005), directed by Danny Cannon

goal the dream begins posterI once heard a quotation that was reputed to be first said by Eddie Cantor, a celebrated comedian in the late 40s and 50s, which was “It takes twenty years to become an overnight sensation.” It was a piece of wisdom that caught my attention many years ago and that remains with me today. It is advice that I share with young people trying to make a mark in the world and who encounter setbacks, but I also tell myself and other seniors the same piece of advice. Let me explain why recently I have this adage on my mind.

For the past several years, I have taught in two schools in Israel. I enjoy teaching. I enjoy the fact that I am not totally anonymous as a senior citizen. I even enjoy parent-teacher meetings, which allow me to forge friendships with adults who are in the midst of defining themselves and shaping the lives of their children.

But there is one challenge. Frontal teaching is tiring, and I felt I needed to find other work that was less physically taxing. The question is what to do. After much thought, I concluded that since I enjoy writing and have had some success over the years in writing, I would try to develop an income stream around that skill. So it was with that in mind that I started to write film reviews, first in a blog, then in newspapers, and finally in a book entitled Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema.

 Speaking about the book in various communities both in US, in Europe, and in Capetown, SA, has led me to another goal: creating a cable TV program on “Kosher Movies’ patterned after the successful “Siskel and Ebert” show which ran for many years on public television in America. This vocational journey is still in progress and has taken almost five years so far, a journey that has reinforced my belief that success comes gradually and only after much hard work and effort.

This was a lesson I learned when I was a much younger man. However, it is lesson that still is with me today; and it is the crux of the inspiring movie Goal! The Dream Begins. Goal is the story of a soccer player who begins his path to success as a small child in Mexico who loves playing soccer, and whose story ends many years later in the soccer stadiums of England where he plays for the Newcastle professional team.

Santiago Muñez plays soccer in Los Angeles for a local Hispanic team. He has little hope to play professionally because he does not play in a college league and he comes from a very poor family. However, one day, he is spotted by Glen Foy, a former soccer player and scout, who encourages him to come to England to try out for a professional team.

Working in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and in his father’s gardening business, Santiago gradually saves up money to make the trip to England. But a problem arises. His father, feeling his son’s soccer aspirations are unrealistic, surreptitiously takes his son’s hard-earned money and uses it to buy a truck which will allow him to build up his own gardening business and to provide a livelihood for his son. Santiago’s dream is shattered, but then his grandmother comes to his rescue and gives him the money for the trip.

Arriving in Newcastle, he tries out for the team, but does not perform well. Again, he is rescued by a friend, who pleads with the team management to give him another chance. As a result, Santiago is given a month’s trial. Santiago has more setbacks during this trial period, but he has many stellar moments as well. Over time the coach recognizes his extraordinary talent, paving the way for Santiago’s success as a professional player.

Judaism values perseverance, staying on task and showing commitment in the face of obstacles. The patriarchs of the Jewish people–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–all exemplified this trait. Maimonides mentions Abraham specifically because of the ten tests he endured during his lifetime. Those tests included, among others, the experience of being exiled, the abduction of Sarah, his wife, the binding of his son, Isaac, and his battle with the four kings.

One of the commentators observes that he was able to overcome these challenges because his perseverance was rooted in hope, in a positive outcome after many years of struggle. Abraham believed that things would get better, and, therefore, he was able to withstand the obstacles.

Santiago Munez in Goal! The Dream Begins almost loses hope, but his innate sense of optimism and hope for the future enables him ultimately to triumph. For him, the impossible dream becomes possible.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

McFarland, USA (2015), directed by Niki Caro

McFarland USA posterWhen I was a freshman at Yeshiva University, I thought I would try out for the basketball and wrestling teams. In high school I had never played on a school team, but I enjoyed the competition of organized sports. A freshman who befriended me was Bobby Podhurst, the tallest fellow I had ever known and I went with him to a practice one evening to see if my skill level in B-ball was up to college standards.

Since Yeshiva University had no gym of its own, we had to take a subway to Power Memorial High School for practice. I soon realized that I was not ready for prime time basketball after a long day of general and Judaic studies and then traveling for an hour on the subway for a late night practice. It was an exhausting experience, which clearly indicated that playing on a college athletic team was not for me. I lacked the skills and the stamina. However, I did learn one thing from placing myself in the shoes of college athletes for one evening. I gained a better understanding and appreciation of what a student commits to when he plays in organized athletic competition.

These thoughts raced through my mind as I watched McFarland, USA, a heartfelt sports story about an obscure school in a disadvantaged California community that emerges as a cross-country racing powerhouse.

The year is 1987, and football coach Jim White finds himself the assistant coach in McFarland, a small high school populated by Latino students with no plans to go to college. The future for them is arduous work picking crops on the field in the hot sun so that their families can survive economically. Jim observes that a number of boys do not even finish football practice because their parents pick them up to take them home to help them harvest crops.

Watching the boys run around the track during practice gives Jim the idea of starting a cross-country team of runners, mostly comprising those students who are cut from the football team.

The cross-country team initially does not have success, and Jim attributes it to his inexperienced coaching of the sport. He also learns about the personal challenges the boys face coming from a poor background. For them, attending college is an impossible dream.

One day Jim decides to join them in the fields to get an idea of what that work is. Only by standing in their shoes for the day will he understand the mighty challenges the boys face. For Jim it is an exhausting experience.

As the boys and Jim begin to know each other better, they find success on the running trails. They win competitions, and the townspeople buy uniforms and new running shoes for the team. One success follows another and the McFarland team eventually qualifies for participation in the state championships. The coda as the credits roll juxtaposes images of the actors with the real people they portrayed, and indicates what they did after high school. The ending of their individual stories is both surprising and inspiring.

Like many sports movies that depict a team’s rise from obscurity to fame, the story of McFarland is inspirational; but McFarland has another agenda as well. It considers the topic of prejudice as it depicts the team’s encounters with other schools, which have a negative view of Latinos. Moreover, Coach Jim White initially is himself guilty of prejudice. It is only when he joins the boys in the fields that he begins to understand what their life is like and begins to relate to them with genuine love and concern.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic Jewish work of ethical instruction, states: “Do not judge your fellow man until you have been in his position.” This is a maxim that Coach White takes to heart. Once he understands the challenges of his students, he is able to be a friend and mentor to them. They sense his sincerity and are ready to give him their very best. McFarland reminds us to refrain from judging people until we truly understand why they do what they do.

Purchase this movie on Amazon.com.

Foxcatcher (2014), directed by Bennett Miller

foxcatcher posterInherited wealth can be good or bad. If it enables a person to do many good deeds that are beneficial to society, that is great. But if it isolates the possessor of such wealth and makes him immune to the intrusions of society, if it allows and encourages him to live in his bubble divorced from everyday realities, then it can very bad.

I have an acquaintance who is independently wealthy. He did not earn any of his wealth. His parents support him and his family totally. They bought his home for him and he does not work. He spends his day planning to begin an Internet business and he has been planning to do this for the past five years, all the years I have known him. I occasionally wonder what motivates him to get up every day.

The sinister side of possessing lots of money is depicted in Foxcatcher, the dark and brooding story about John E. du Pont, heir to the du Pont family fortune, who decides to sponsor Mark Schultz, an Olympic wresting champion for an appearance at the Seoul Olympics.

Mark and his older brother Dave were both gold medal winners, but Dave is married with kids and he has no plans to participate in the upcoming Olympics in Seoul. Mark, however, is single and, outside of wrestling, has little other interests. He is contacted by John E. du Pont, a well-known philanthropist and wresting aficionado, who would like Mark to train at his private wresting training facility, Foxcatcher Farm, built on the du Pont estate in a suburb of western Philadelphia. Mark moves there and a friendship of sorts develops between him and du Pont. Strangely, du Pont introduces Mark to the use of cocaine, downplaying its negative effects.

Another oddity. When Du Pont tells Mark that he regards him as a true friend, he tells him he can call him by his familiar name: “My friends call me Eagle. Or Golden Eagle. Either of those would work.” Clearly, du Pont has grandiose visions of himself, unlike Mark who is a humble, unprepossessing figure.

When Mark and his teammates take a morning off, du Pont is incensed and he verbally assaults Mark, devastating him emotionally. Du Pont then calls Dave Schultz , a proven winner and effective coach, and convinces him to join the team at Foxcatcher. Upon his arrival, Dave sees that his brother has lost his self-esteem, is emotionally distressed, and is out of shape. In spite of Mark’s lack of conditioning, Dave works with him to win a match that secures a berth on the Olympic team. However, in Seoul he loses his matches.

Mark ultimately leaves Foxcatcher, but Dave stays on as du Pont’s assistant coach working with new wrestling talent. Du Pont is jealous of Dave’s natural rapport with the new recruits and is unsettled by Dave’s independence. Du Pont’s isolation eventually leads him to behaviors that are not mollified by interactions with the real world. Du Pont is a loner and that ultimately leads to a tragic denouement.

The Ethics of the Fathers states that jealousy and the desire for fame drive a man out of the world. Moreover, the Sages tell us not to separate ourselves from the community. John du Pont fails to understand these basic truths. Lacking self-esteem, he lords over others, always desirous of demonstrating his superiority. In truth, others resent him, finding him out of touch with the real world and focused only on creating an image of himself as a leader of men. Indeed, no one regards him as a leader. They simply follow his wishes because he pays their salaries.

Furthermore, his inability to connect with the community-at-large in a genuinely friendly way isolates him. He has no companions to whom he can relate honestly; therefore, he essentially only converses with himself. Foxcatcher is a grim film expressing the perils of seeking fame and leading a lonely life. Much can be learned from John du Pont’s bad example.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

More Than a Game (2008) directed by Kristopher Belman

more than a game posterOne of my fond childhood memories is going to the local JCC every week to play basketball. Sunday was game day and one day during the week we would go the “J” to practice, which ended with “dessert.” “Dessert” was lining up on the right of the basket, then on left, then in the center and the coach would feed us the ball and expect us to make the lay-up on each side of the basket. If we missed a lay-up, we would have to go down to the locker room, so we all tried to be the last man standing.

It was an enjoyable but competitive way to end the practice session, and we all looked forward to it. I still remember the sweet smell of the gym and the sweat that were part of the experience of playing b-ball with my good buddies at the time.

So it was with a great sense of familiarity and recognition that I watched More Than a Game, much of which takes place on the basketball court and in the locker room. It is the inspiring story of the high school basketball team of Lebron James that went on to win the national championships. Much of the footage is of the actual games that were played, but just as mesmerizing is the camaraderie of the players, and the coaching comments of Dru Joyce, an unlikely high school basketball coach who viewed football as his primary sport.

Dru became highly interested in basketball because of his son, Dru Jr., who, although 4’11,” was enamored with the game. His father, recognizing his son’s’ passion for basketball, decided to coach a youth league team that included many talented players including Lebron James. When the boys went to high school, they enrolled as a group in St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Ohio, largely because of its coach who they credit with improving their skills and their game. Disappointment, however, reigned when the coach accepted a college coaching position. It was then that Dru Joyce became their high school coach.

In one of his first speeches to his team, he reminds his boys that, in the final analysis, basketball is not the be-all and end-all of life. What is more important are the life lessons learned in the game. They learn the value of teamwork, of working together towards a common goal for the good of all. They learn about stepping up with extra effort when their star player is not with them, of not making excuses but confronting adversity head-on and triumphing over it. They learn to appreciate the value of the contribution of every individual player. In a clutch game, it is not Lebron who comes to the rescue but Dru Jr. at 4’11,” who makes seven 3-pointers in a row to drive the team to victory.

There is a notion in Jewish tradition of a rebbe, a teacher who transmits not only information, but who also functions as a mentor and life coach to his students. Students view him as a role model and learn by observing him both in class and out of class. The rebbe is the paradigm for the ideal Jewish teacher.

What emerges from viewing More Than a Game is how much Coach Joyce functions as a rebbe and father figure to the team, some of whom come from broken homes and single-parent families. He is the rock providing emotional stability and security to boys whose home life is in disarray. For them the basketball court becomes a sanctuary. It is a place where the world with all its everyday challenges and disappointments can be put in the recesses of one’s mind as one concentrates on getting the ball into the net. Like the quintessential Torah teacher, Coach Joyce not only transmits data but also gives his students an approach to successful living that transcends the basketball court.

Coach Joyce acknowledges that there are times when he gets caught up in the superficial things, in the winning and the losing. But, in a sobering moment, he realizes that his mission is not only to win games, but to enable young boys to become men. He is their rebbe, the instrument of their growth as complete and successful human beings.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Friday Night Lights (2004), directed by Peter Berg

friday night lights posterMany years ago, I met a teacher from a prestigious private high school in Atlanta, who shared with me his approach to class management. He told me that he tells his students that he has only two rules: do your best and do not hurt other people. It was an “aha” moment for me, for it made me think about simplifying my teaching style. Perhaps instead of stressing compliance with rules, I would reasonably request that everyone do their best and that they not hurt other people. In specific terms, students should not prevent me from teaching or prevent other students from learning.

Once I adopted these rules, I informed my classes that the source of these rules was the Bible, which states that man is created in God’s image. If everybody is a reflection of the Divine, then everyone deserves respect. Practically speaking, this meant that students would have to listen to other students and not interrupt them, and that students would not disturb the lessons with conversation while I was teaching. Compliance with these basic rules would insure that I would have a “perfect” class. A variation of this kind of divinely-inspired discipline permeates the sports program at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, in 1988, the setting of Friday Night Lights, the story of one tumultuous year in a high school football program.

The football season starts with promise as “Boobie” Miles, the star player runs through the opponent’s defenses with reckless abandon. But success is short-lived when Boobie sustains a season-ending injury. Coach Gary Gaines now has to rely on his quiet, less flamboyant players to win games. Chief among them are Mike Winchell, the quarterback who needs to play with consistency to win games, fullback Don Billingsley, who has a rocky relationship with his fault-finding father, third-string running back Chris Comer, who fears getting hurt, and safety Brian Chavez, who is brainy, but lacks natural football savvy.

After some initial losses, Permian begins to win regularly. The possibility of playing in the State Championship Final looms larger with each win. The team coalesces in spirit as the season progresses and makes it to the championship game facing a much more physical team from Dallas.

Down by over two touchdowns at the half, Coach Gaines gives a half-time speech for the ages, in which he defines “being perfect.” His coaching mantra has been “be perfect,” and now he explains what it means: “Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship with yourself, your family and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth. And that truth is you did everything you could. There wasn’t one more thing you could’ve done. Can you live in that moment as best you can, with clear eyes, and love in your heart, with joy in your heart? If you can do that gentleman – you’re perfect.” He continues: “I want you to take a moment, and I want you to look each other in the eyes. I want you to put each other in your hearts forever because forever is about to happen here in just a few minutes. Boys, my heart is full. My heart is full.” It is a speech that brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it because of its emotional power and because it resonates to my Jewish soul.

Jewish tradition also encourages us to aim for perfection. How do we define it? There is a classic Chassidic story about Zusha, a great Sage, who was weeping on his deathbed. His students asked him why he was so sad, to which he responded that when he arrives at Heaven, God will not ask him why he did not achieve as much as Moses, but rather why he did not fulfill his potential as Zusha.

The Talmud encourages us to be as great as Moses, but the reality is that we cannot be as great as he. We cannot be perfect. But we do have a responsibility to be the best that we can be given our talents and unique circumstances. Friday Night Lights reminds us to do our absolute best. A supreme effort in this world may open up the gates to the next.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

%d bloggers like this: