Category Archives: Sports

The Last Dance (2020), directed by Jason Hehir

As a teenager, my sport of choice was basketball. Not only could I play it with friends, but I could shoot hoops by myself if no one else was around. My most memorable Bar Mitzvah gift was a basketball given to me by my friends Kenny and Marilyn Beaman.

Because of my preoccupation with basketball, I asked my father to put up a backboard that would hang down from the roof of the garage in the back of my house, which he did. But there was one problem. The garage had glass windows close to the top of the garage door. With some regularity, windows were broken by an errant shot. It became more of a problem when the missed shot hit the glass of my neighbor’s garage door. But we persisted in playing.

I share this story to give you an idea of my long-standing interest in basketball and why I watched The Last Dance, a ten-part series on ESPN, documenting the six championship seasons of the Chicago Bulls, with specific emphasis on the trajectory of Michael Jordan’s career. I generally do not watch any series on TV because it is too time-consuming. My professional focus is on writing film reviews, which involve less of a time commitment. But watching Michael Jordan in his prime was a temptation I could not resist.

The Last Dance is a riveting documentary. It not only depicts the basketball prowess of Michael Jordan, but also portrays the thinking of management in dealing with a high profile athlete who is literally an icon to millions of fans. Moreover, I came away with a new appreciation for the other Bulls players who were a part of the Jordan years and who played important roles as supporting players. Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, and Dennis Rodman, each made meaningful contributions to the winning team. Additionally, Phil Jackson’s unusual out-of-the box coaching style was fascinating to observe, especially with the special farewell ritual he revealed at the close of the last championship season.

What was most impressive about the entire series was the complete focus of Michael Jordan on basketball. Nothing distracted him from his goal of winning a championship. He did not play to gain anyone’s approval. He worked hard at his craft simply because he wanted to be the best and he wanted his team to be successful. He set high standards for his teammates because he set a high bar for himself and he wanted his team to play at their absolute best.

In the world of Jewish learning, there are singular personalities who are known for their total focus on their mission as Torah scholars, as devout Jews, and as servants of Hashem. In my own experience, the figure of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein looms large. He was my Talmud teacher and the head of the Yeshiva University Kollel when I was a member of that august group in the late 1960s.

Rabbi Lichtenstein was a person from whom I gleaned many Torah values and insights about life. He was a living model of what a Torah personality should be, always studying, always a model of good behavior, and always conscious of the value of time. I would watch him walk quickly or run between classes or to the lunchroom, so as not to waste a moment. Even in the university cafeteria, he was not a schmoozer. He ate quickly and then returned hastily to the study hall. Every moment was precious.

Because of his single-minded focus on his studies, he was a giant role model. Students recognized his intellectual power and often posed questions to him outside of class to obtain his views on a variety of contemporary subjects.

I remember vividly a student asking him whether a particular budding Torah scholar in the Kollel should attend a Soviet Jewry rally. Rav Lichtenstein responded that for some students it was important to attend this worthwhile rally; but for this individual to develop his Torah learning skills to the maximum, he should not attend a rally that would take a substantial amount of time away from his Torah learning. The implicit message: to achieve greatness requires total focus.

Study of Torah demands this because study is a divine commandment, optimally done both day and night. Moreover, as Rav Lichtenstein writes: “First, study provides knowledge requisite to halakhic living, even as it deepens halakhic commitment. Second, since talmud Torah enables a person, within limits, to cleave unto God, it has moral, passional, and pietistic repercussions.” In the view of the Talmudic Sages, study of Torah is the equivalent of all other commandments; therefore, if one wants to achieve greatness in Torah learning, one must be completely focused on the task to the extent that he has the intellectual ability to do so.

In the world of sport, Michael was given the divine gift of a body that could be trained to enable him to be the ultimate basketball warrior. Because of his total focus and commitment to the game, we, the fans, can enjoy his athleticism on display in The Last Dance.

Creed (2015), directed by Ryan Coogler

I have a rabbi friend who shared with me his pain and disappointment over his son not being on the same page with him in matters of faith. He clearly loves his son no matter how far he has drifted away from traditional family values, but he longs for a time when spiritual reconciliation can take place, when father and son can reunite in a shared spirit and common direction of faith.

The Bible records instances where sons and fathers are very different from one another. For example, we do not hear much about the sons of Moses. We know their names but are unaware of their accomplishments. When Moses seeks to pass on the mantle of his leadership to the next generation, he chooses Joshua, his student, not his sons. In truth, it is not easy to be the son of a famous father, and it is not surprising that the sons of great men often have trouble establishing their own, independent identity. This scenario is played out in Creed, a further sequel in the Rocky film odyssey.

Adonis “Donnie” Johnson is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the former boxing champion who fought a classic bout with Rocky Balboa many years before. Donnie wants to be a prizefighter, but he wants to succeed on his own, not because he is the son of a great fighter. Moving to Philadelphia from Los Angeles, he asks Rocky to train him. Rocky at first refuses, but he relents and even invites Donnie to live with him as they begin their training regimen.

Donnie has early fighting success, and it is soon discovered that he is the son of Apollo Creed. The name brings notoriety and gives him an opportunity to fight against the current champ Ricky Conlon, who is on the verge of retirement and looking for one last major financial windfall. While Donnie appreciates the opportunity that his name gives him, he has self-doubts and questions whether he will be worthy of his father’s legacy. Rocky gives him the courage and confidence he needs at his hour of reckoning.

Jewish tradition reminds us that not only can there be material legacies, but spiritual and intellectual ones as well. These legacies are not automatic. The Ethics of the Fathers tell us that even when it comes to Torah study, the fact that one’s father is an intellectual giant does not mean his son will also be one. The Rabbis state: “Prepare yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not an inheritance for you.” You have to earn your own credentials and not rely on the credentials of others, even parents.

Indeed, being the child of prominent parents is not a simple matter. Sometimes there are unrealistic expectations that frustrate children who want to do well. Unfortunately, they discover that whatever they do is never enough because it does not measure up to the achievements of the parent. Moreover, at times prominent parents are so busy with their own lives that they have little quality time to spend with their children. The bottom line: for children of famous parents to achieve, they must exert much toil and effort. There is no shortcut.

Creed reminds us that being born into a family of greats can be a good thing, but it is no guarantee of future success. It takes concentrated effort and fortitude to persevere in the face of obstacles to ultimately accomplish one’s goals. Sometimes success will come when you have a mentor, a Rocky, standing beside you who will be there to help you navigate the many challenges you will face as you try to make your own mark in the world.

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The Winning Season (2009), directed by James C. Strouse

Many years ago, I saw a very funny sports movie called The Bad News Bears starring Walter Matthau as the coach of a boys’ baseball team composed of untalented misfits. The narrative arc in The Winning Season is similar. The team is mediocre. The coach is a loser, and somehow he becomes a better person by working with the youngsters who bring out the best in him, all of this leading to a winning season. The concept is stale, but the treatment of this conventional story is warm and satisfying if you can tolerate the abundant profanity in the film that seems to be geared for a teen audience.

The Winning Season takes place in a small Indiana town where basketball is the main focus of the community. The girls’ team encounters challenging times when it has to find a new coach. The school principal desperately recruits his old friend Bill, a former athlete and high school coach, to coach the team.

But there are problems. Bill has a drinking problem. He also lacks people skills and offends almost everyone he meets. Moreover, he is not motivated to coach girls in spite of the fact that he presently has a lowly job bussing tables at a local restaurant. Reluctantly, Bill agrees to coach, but he is dismayed when he sees that only six girls attend practice and one has her foot in a cast.

Their first game reveals all their weaknesses. Bill accepts that reality, and proceeds to mentor them. They respond to his unconventional style and slowly begin to improve. They begin winning and advance to the sectional finals, where the girls are tested emotionally as well as physically. When one girls misses an important shot, Bill is there to remind her that the shot she missed will not be her last shot and that she still is a worthy person and athlete: “l’ve been where you are, you know? And this isn’t your last shot. Come on, l want you to get up now. Everybody come here. You played great. l want you to go in there and shake their hands, okay? Keep your chin up. There’s gonna be a lot of adversity, you know? lt’s only gonna make you stronger. You guys played a great game. Each and every one of you. l want you to feel good.”

Bill’s encouraging words reflect a Jewish approach to dealing with adversity. Rabbi Jonathan Feldman shares a story about a mother helping her daughter cope with hard times. The mother takes her daughter to the kitchen where she fills three pots with water and places them on a high flame. When the water is boiling, she puts carrots in one, eggs in another, and coffee beans in the last pot. After twenty minutes, she turns off the burners, and removes the carrots, the egg, and the coffee bean from their respective pots. She then asks the daughter what she sees. The daughter says she sees carrots, eggs, and coffee.

Her mother then explains: “Each of these objects faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.”

Rabbi Rosenfeld asks us to think about this: “Which am I? Am I the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity do I wilt and become soft and lose my strength?

Am I the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but changes with the heat? Did I have a fluid spirit, but after some trial, have I become hardened and stiff?

Or am I like the coffee bean? The bean actually changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you.”

The Winning Season reminds us that adversity can bring out the best in us.

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The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019), directed by Simon Curtis

A friend of mine has two dogs. What is unusual is that as a child, he was petrified of dogs. Yet now he is an adult and dogs are an integral part of his life. I am not sure why his attitude towards dogs changed, but it is clear every time I visit him that the dogs provide unconditional love for him, his wife, and his kids. Indeed, the dogs are a genuine part of his family.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a dog story, but we know that every dog story is really a story about people. The title of the film is a term used by Denny, an auto racing teacher and a race driver, to describe the particular skill of controlling the car when the surface of the road is wet and unpredictable. The term is a metaphor for being able to manage the unpredictability of life. Denny says it best: “The best drivers only focus on the present.” They do not let the burdens of the past or the uncertainties of the future prevent them from moving forward.

The film opens as Enzo, an old Golden Retriever, is near death and is waiting for his owner, Denny, to come home. Denny arrives and carries Enzo out of the house. As he does so, the film’s narration begins as Enzo begins to tell the story of his life.

Denny buys Enzo as a pup and the two bond strongly. A year later, Denny marries Eve, and Enzo’s life is disrupted for a short time until he gets used to sharing Denny with his beloved Eve. Eve’s parents, Maxwell and Trish, express misgivings about Denny’s career choice, and worry when Denny and Eve start a family.

Their daughter, Zoe, gives great joy to Denny and Eve and to her parents as well. Denny, Eve, and Zoe lead idyllic lives until Eve develops brain cancer. Her love for Denny and Zoe enables her to survive for a short time, but then she succumbs to her illness.

Denny is at a crossroads. He has left his racing career to care for his cherished wife and now he has to care for his daughter. Eve’s parents go to court to gain custody of Zoe, feeling that Denny is often absent from home and unfit to take care of her. The custody battle turns ugly when Denny inadvertently knocks down Maxwell, his father-in-law, causing him to break a rib.

Throughout all of this family turmoil, Enzo stays with Denny, serving as his quiet and loyal friend. Although Enzo cannot talk, his presence is comforting to Denny, and Enzo looks forward to time after death when he thinks that he will be reincarnated as a human being.

Enzo’s thought processes are given expression in his very human observations of his owner and the world around Denny. Judaism generally considers dogs as not having a soul like that of a human being; but, according to some Kabbalistic sources, dogs do go to “heaven,” and live some kind of afterlife.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin, a noted Jewish educator, writes: “while they are different from humans, animals too have souls that live on and can be elevated. This idea presents us with an enormous responsibility in our interactions with the animal kingdom. After all, the animal’s elevation in the afterlife can be dependent upon our positive interactions with it.”

Enzo probably would have a great life in the hereafter because of his interactions with his loyal and kind owner Denny. Their easy rapport with one another underpins a deep relationship between human and dog, a relationship in which Enzo gives emotional support to his owner who has endured the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for dog is kelev, which is a contraction of the words kol lev, meaning “a full heart.” The good dog is the one who is loyal, serving us with a full heart, reducing our stress and supporting us through tough times.

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Ford v. Ferrari (2019), directed by James Mangold

A rabbinic colleague once confessed to me that he disliked one of his synagogue board members. Feeling that the board member was always out to get him, he had to control his anger whenever he spoke to him.

I cautioned my friend never to lose his cool when speaking with this person. In spite of his negative feelings for him, it was important to maintain cordial relations, not only because of the many Jewish sources frowning upon anger, but also because he may need his support in the future to accomplish the Torah goals of his rabbinate. I told him: do not antagonize people that can hurt you. In Ford v. Ferrari, Carroll Shelby, an American car designer, and Ken Miles, a superb race car driver, are tested in the crucible of life experience to maintain calm when everyone around them wants to interfere with their jobs.

Carroll Shelby, a professional racer, is compelled to retire early because of a heart condition. Realizing he no longer can race, he develops his other interest, designing race cars. In the course of his work, he meets Ken Miles, a race car driver and an exceptional mechanic who follows his own inclinations as he runs his car repair shop.

Customers admire Miles’ attention to detail, but bristle at his brusque demeanor. Customers dwindle and he finds himself unable to support his wife and child.

While all this is happening, Henry Ford II is struggling to improve Ford’s bottom line in the face of sagging sales. Lee Iacocca, a Ford executive, suggests that Ford field a race car at the celebrated 24-hour Le Mans race in France to change Ford’s image in the minds of the many young people ready to buy new cars.

Ford then hires Carroll Shelby to design and test cars for the race. Shelby asks Ken Miles to be his driver, and Miles accepts knowing that the corporate powers at Ford are worried about his unpredictability as a spokesman for Ford. Throughout the car’s development, Shelby and Miles are second-guessed by Ford management who view the entire initiative as a public relations project, not as a test to prove Ford’s racing dominance over Ferrari, the winner of Le Mans for many years. Ken is angry when his desire for excellence is countermanded by Ford’s desire for expediency and immediate results. Ken becomes so disillusioned with their interference that he wants to quit, but Shelby convinces him to stay the course, and not allow anger to control his responses to Ford’s interference.

The Talmud tells us, “The life of those who cannot control their anger is not a life (Pesachim 113b). Moreover, “when a person gets angry, if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him (Pesachim 66b). The great Maimonides writes that when someone becomes angry, it is as if he worships idols (Hilchot Deot 2:3). The Sages caution us not to be angry, for when we are angry we do not see the consequences of our actions and often do things we regret later on. When it comes to the trait of anger, Maimonides says there is no middle way (Hilchot Deot 2:3). We should avoid it at all costs. It may be necessary to appear angry at times, but we should not actually be angry.

The Orchot Tzadikim, a 15th century ethicist, observes that anger destroys personal relationships. People do not like to be around angry people; therefore, angry people often end up isolated, apart from friends and even from family. Furthermore, anger often drives out positive emotions like forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and sensitivity.

Ken Miles in Ford v. Ferrari begins as a quick-tempered man, prone to anger. Through real life experience, he learns that by controlling his emotions and his responses to provocations, he can lead a more satisfying life.

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Resurrecting the Champ (2007), directed by Rod Lurie

resurrecting the champBeing a parent is challenging, but it often brings out one’s best self. Let me explain. One of my children once asked me a question of Jewish law. I felt it was a simple question and I responded quickly with an answer. Months later, I realized the answer I gave him was wrong. I apologized to my son and then I told him the correct answer.

The relationship with my son was strong and life moved on, but I was deeply troubled by the fact that I had given him an answer that was not accurate. The incident still haunts me thirty years later. I had wanted my son to feel he could always rely on me to give him the best advice, the most accurate information; and in my own mind, I had let him down. From then on, I resolved never to be quick when a question is posed to me. Lesson learned: Allow some time to think things through carefully.

I realized then and I realize now that we are always role models for our children, and we have to make good decisions not only for ourselves, but good decisions that will stand the test of scrutiny by our children. Such is one dilemma in Resurrecting the Champ, a story about a successful prizefighter who, in the twilight of his life, becomes a homeless person, living on the streets.

Erik Kernan Jr., a sports reporter for a major newspaper, is upset that his editor, Ralph Metz, buries his stories in the last pages of the paper. Metz tells Erik that his articles are boring and lack interest, and Erik begins to think of doing regular reporting rather than sports.

On one fateful night, Erik serendipitously encounters a homeless man who calls himself “Champ,” and discovers that he once was a professional boxer named Bob Satterfield, who had been in the ring with such boxing luminaries as Ezzard Charles and Jake LaMotta. In truth, Satterfield is a forgotten man and most boxing aficionados thought him dead. Erik sees Satterfield’s story as a ticket out of his current job and as a way to become a feature writer at a weekly sports magazine. He pitches the idea to the magazine editor, who is intrigued with what might be a major article about the rise and fall of a contender for boxing royalty.

In his quest for success as a writer, Erik becomes careless in fact-checking Satterfield’s story, and thereby hangs the moral crux of the narrative. Erik’s moral dilemma is highlighted in his relationship with his son, Teddy. Erik is separated from his wife, Joyce, and only sees Teddy periodically. To maintain his iconic status in his son’s eyes, he often tells him of his friendship with sports celebrities, but Erik does not really know them. He only covers their athletic events, and his relationships with them are superficial. Nonetheless, Teddy believes his father.

This belief is tested when his father is openly accused of lying to promote his professional career as a writer. How the Satterfield story is ultimately regarded and how Erik’s relationship with his son is resolved is the stuff of real life compromise. The resolution may not be neat, but it is emotionally satisfying.

Jewish tradition has much to say about how parents should serve as role models. The patriarchs of the Jewish people were mindful that they were role models for an entire people, not just their own families. The Bible states regarding Abraham: “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him (Gen. 18: 19).”

A key aspect of the parental relationship is honesty. In depicting the relationship between fathers and sons, honesty emerges as a critical bond that unites the generations, a connection that is sacred between parent and child.

In truth, no one is perfect. All parents possess flaws, but Resurrecting The Champ suggests that we can still love and respect our parents in spite of any flaw. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks poetically describes the function of parents as role models: “Judaism, more than any other faith, sees parenthood as the highest challenge of all. Judaism takes what is natural and sanctifies it. What Darwin saw as the urge to reproduce, what Richard Dawkins calls ‘the selfish gene,’ is for Judaism high religious art, full of drama and beauty. Abraham the father, and Sarah the mother, are our enduring role models of parenthood as G-d’s gift and our highest vocation.”

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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.

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