Category Archives: Sports

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.

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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.

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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.

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Warrior (2012), directed by Gavin O’Conner

warrior posterAs a parent, I sometimes wonder if I did my best in rearing my kids. Is there anything I should have done that I did not do? Thank G-d, I do feel I did my best, but parenting is not a cookie cutter activity and in hindsight I think of things that I might have done differently. The reality is that I was a different parent for each one of my children. I was growing older and some of my children had a different version of my younger self. I had more experience by the time I was parenting my younger children, but I may have had less quality time with them because my professional demands were increasing. More things were going on in my life and that may have affected my parenting style.

Parenting is the subtext of Warrior, a gritty and violent story about a mixed martial arts competition which culminates in a fight between two brothers, Tommy and Brendan, whose father was not there for them in their formative years. Both brothers are angry young men, but one has learned how to forgive and one has not.

Tommy Riordan, an ex-Marine, visits his father, Paddy Conlon, a recovering alcoholic who now has made religion a part of his life. Still angry at his father for his abusive behavior towards his mother many years ago, he has no interest in reconciliation. However, it turns out that he needs his father to train him for a mixed martial arts tournament named Sparta, which has a prize purse of $5,000,000. Tommy wants to win so he can give the money to the family of his Marine buddy who died in a friendly fire incident in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Brendan Conlon, Tommy’s older brother, is having challenges of his own. A high school physics teacher and former martial arts fighter, he can’t make ends meet after refinancing his home mortgage to pay for the open-heart surgery of his daughter. Faced with the possible loss of his home, he decides to re-enter his former profession as a mixed martial arts fighter to increase his income. When his friend, Frank, a fighting coach, loses his primary fighter for the Sparta competition, Brendan asks Frank to use him as a replacement.

When Brendan arrives at the tournament, he sees that Tommy is entered as well. As this grueling contest of skill and strength progresses, Tommy and Brendan win their respective matches bringing them to an inevitable showdown against one another. Their shared animosity for their father is the glue that binds them together, but Brendon’s forgiving nature allows him to move beyond feeling intense anger for his father. Tommy, however, is a loner with no wife and family and he stews with hatred.

In the early part of my professional career, I served as a synagogue rabbi. Part of my job was to perform funerals, and I was often witness to scenes of family reconciliation at times of emotional stress. The mortality of a parent, the aging of a parent, or the serious illness of a parent made the family more sensitive to one another, more willing to let old irritants and old arguments fall by the wayside in order to be at peace with parent and siblings. When a parent is on the verge of leaving this world, family bonds reassert themselves.

Jewish history reminds us not to let the sins or shortcomings of the past determine our future. After the sin of the Golden Calf, the close relationship between God and the Jewish people, comparable to the relationship between parent and child, was torn asunder. But the holiday of Yom Kipper teaches us that the break does not have to be permanent. There is a time for healing no matter what the mistake. Warrior reminds us that families sometimes fracture, but family ties don’t break. In moments of despair and anger, exercising both courage and humility can re-establish love and connection.

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Remember the Titans (2000), directed by Boaz Yakin

remember the titans posterIt was in the 1950s. I was attending a public junior high public school in Mt. Vernon, New York. There were two high schools in town, Edison and Davis. Edison focused on vocational training and Davis focused on getting kids into college. Most blacks went to Edison and most whites to Davis. But it was a time of civil unrest throughout the United States, and there was a drive to create one large Mt. Vernon high school that would be more fully integrated. Nationally, there was a movement to change the stereotypical view of blacks as low achievers and encourage more blacks to attend university.

My junior high was predominantly black. My childhood neighborhood changed once low income housing for the area was built. Whites moved away in droves and I was the only white kid on my block. My parents could not afford to move even if they wanted to, so I developed friendships with the black kids in my school. Many had exotic names and I was fascinated by their distinct personalities. I remember with fondness Linwood Lee, gentle and soft spoken, Wendell Tyree, strong and boisterous, and Quentin Pair, a thoughtful and brainy young man.

It is with this background that I watched Remember the Titans, a rousing and inspirational sports film with a subtext of racial tension, a tension that influenced what happened on the football field in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. T. C. Williams High School has just been integrated and the favorite to become the new coach of the team, Bill Yoast, is passed over to allow Herman Boone, a successful black coach, to take charge of the football program. In spite of his initial disappointment, Yoast stays on to become Boone’s assistant so that the boys he worked with for so long can fulfill their athletic and scholastic potential.

During training camp and the football season, the players work with one another, get to know one another, and, in most cases, finally accept one another for who they are, not for what they may or may not represent. What matters is performance, not race, and the boys bond during a challenging season in which they are tested both on and off the field. Ultimately they understand that welcoming the stranger, the one who looks different, into your midst brings godliness into the community, for all men are images of the Divine.

The Bible is filled with references encouraging us, and even mandating us, to be kind to the stranger, to the outsider who is different. It is connected to the Jewish experience in Egypt, about which Exodus states: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Moreover, there is a classic adage in the Talmud that “we are all responsible for one another.” This emerges from the basic notion that we all are created in God’s image and we are all part of one cosmic family. We are all brothers regardless of the color of our skin.

The Kabbalists write that the commandment ‘love your neighbor as yourself” has mystical meaning numerically. The phrase “as yourself” in Hebrew is the numerical equivalent of the word Elohim, one of the names of God. This numerical equivalency indicates that when you love your neighbor, you are in essence manifesting your love of God.

Interestingly, we see that the Biblical story of Abraham stresses the priority of being nice to the stranger over praying to God. Abraham interrupts his prayers when three strangers come to the door of his tent, for welcoming the stranger takes precedence over conversing with God.

Remember the Titans, based on a true story, reminds us that great things can happen when we approach a situation without the baggage of prejudice and old memory tapes, when we welcome the stranger in our midst to the family of man.

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42 (2013), directed by Brian Helgeland

forty twoAnger is a terrible trait. I was blessed to be raised by parents who seldom if ever argued. Tension was not a part of our household ambiance. But I did know people who argued constantly. There were the tenants who lived above us in our three-story house in Mt. Vernon, New York. Every day I could hear the hollering between husband and wife, parent and child. As I kid, I didn’t know what to make of it except that it was not pleasant to listen to.

When I was courting my wife in the 1960’s, we occasionally double-dated with another couple, who were constantly arguing with one another. They eventually married. At the time, I was shocked since the arguing never seemed to stop. Someone always had to be right and the other wrong. Divorce came several years later and it did not surprise me at all.

The stirring 42, the story of black baseball player Jackie Robinson is a classic illustration of successful anger management, controlling one’s emotions in the face of extreme provocation. Branch Rickey, President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted to bring African-American players into major league baseball. To accomplish this, he offered a contract to Jackie Robinson, who would become the first black to break the baseball color barrier. The film describes Robinson’s year with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn farm team, in 1946 and his rookie year, 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers, as they fought for the National League Pennant.

Racism at that time was very much part of the country’s landscape. Subjected to taunts from adults and children, who followed the bigoted example of their elders, Robinson endured much abuse. He knew it would happen. Rickey, before employing him, informed him of the controversy that his hiring would generate. Moreover, Rickey told him that to be a success, he would have to control his temper. Robinson realized the historic nature of his employment and agreed to Rickey’s terms.

Not only did some of the fans express racist rants to Jackie, but some of the players and managers did as well. In one particular game, the manager of an opposing team used racist epithets to unsettle him, but Jackie responded by hitting successfully, stealing a base, and scoring the winning run.

Although some of Jackie’s own teammates were unenthusiastic about his joining the team, most supported him and championed his participation in the game. In one very touching moment, Pee Wee Reese, the team’s shortstop, demonstrates his support of Robinson in a public way before a hostile crowd in Cincinnati, earning the kudos of Branch Rickey, the one responsible for bringing Robinson into the organization.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a seminal work on Jewish ethics, defines the hero, the truly strong person, as one who can control his impulses. Strength in the Jewish view is not manifested in physical terms by muscle size or possessing a large body. Rather it is defined by character, an inward quality.

Because we are all tested every day by irksome comments from business associates, acquaintances, friends and family, Jewish tradition encourages us to control our anger in order to reach our own potential as a holy people. Every day in my private prayers, I pray to God to help me control my reactions to provocations. As a teacher, I am tested in the classroom. I know that an inappropriate response to a child’s problematic behavior can hurt me and the child for a long time afterward. Words are like arrows and cannot be retrieved once released. Therefore, I have to think deeply before responding. 42, in its depiction of the remarkable strength of character of Jackie Robinson, serves as an object lesson in restraint that demonstrates true strength.

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Into the Wind (2010), directed by Ezra Holland and Steve Nash

into the wind poster A number of years ago when I was principal of a school in Atlanta, l traveled to New York for some school business. In a New York hospital was a graduate of our high school receiving treatment for a life-threatening illness. My schedule was tight and I weighed in my mind whether I would have time to visit him, finally deciding not to visit because of the difficulty in making some scheduling adjustments. A few weeks later, the student died. Twenty years later, I still feel remorse for not having paid that visit.

Jewish tradition tells us that when an opportunity for a good deed, like visiting the sick, comes your way, you should not take a pass. Rather you should do whatever it takes to do the good deed, even if means sacrificing more time or inconveniencing yourself. I was reminded of this as I watched Into the Wind, a very stirring documentary about Terry Fox, a young man who at age eighteen was diagnosed with a malignant cancer and had to have his leg amputated.

Three weeks after the operation, Terry was walking with the help of an artificial leg. He underwent months of chemotherapy at the British Columbia Cancer Control facility and watched fellow patients suffer and die from the disease. Witnessing such tragedy gave Terry a sense of purpose: he wanted to dedicate his life to funding cancer research so that other people would have hope and courage.

After reading an article about the first amputee to complete the New York City Marathon, Terry was inspired to begin a run across Canada to raise money for cancer research and cancer awareness. His Marathon of Hope began on April 12, 1980, when Fox dipped his right leg in the Atlantic Ocean.

Heavy rain, strong wind, and a snowstorm plagued the first days of his run, and few people were aware of his effort. Soon, however, more and more people learned about Terry and greeted him along the way with contributions. He became a hot news story and was interviewed on many of his stops.

Unfortunately, Terry never finished his run. Completing two-thirds of the journey across Canada in 143 days, the cancer had metastasized and new tumors were found, forcing him to end his Marathon of Hope.

Terry Fox’s story is one that reminds us of the value of time and good health. The rabbis of the Talmud comment: “If not now, when?” It is an exhortation to make the most of every available moment and not to waste an opportunity to do a good deed. My teachers impressed this life lesson on me during my college years and I have tried to actualize that message in my life. As I get older, I realize more and more the holiness of a moment. In a second, I can do something which may have a ripple effect into eternity. That is the measure of man: how he uses the gifts of time and good health that God gives him. That is the legacy of Terry Fox, who taught people to use time wisely by using it to improve oneself and the world. It was a message imbibed in the spirit of all those who knew him.

What made this film especially memorable were the comments of friends and family who knew Terry and who spoke to him in the course of his run. Their love and admiration for him were palpable. The movie was made in 2010, several years after Terry died, but the tears were still flowing when evoking his memory. His legacy is one of hope and courage in the face of adversity. His message to all of us: treasure time and use wisely the minutes that we possess.

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