Category Archives: Sports

Moneyball (2011), directed by Bennett Miller

I like teachers and have great respect for them. This is why in my early years as a school principal, I always found it difficult to fire a teacher even when it was clear to me that it had to be done. One particular case still haunts me. The teacher was a wonderful person, but was boring. After much observation, I knew I would have to terminate him but I was conflicted. He had a large family and my firing him would have great consequences for his family. I agonized and finally called a mentor for advice. He was quick and to the point. He said: “You are not an employment agency. You must do what is in the best interest of the students.” It was one of those whiplash moments. Everything became clear. Students come first, and that conversation guided much of my subsequent decision-making in my professional career.

I was reminded of that conversation as I watched Moneyball, a smart, insightful movie about the business side of baseball. Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics must release a player and he does it with intelligence and style. He knows that his goal is to win games, and he will do whatever is necessary to achieve his end. He never loses his focus. He calls the player in the office and with a smile informs him: “Jeremy, you’ve been traded to the Phillies. This is Ed Wade’s number. He’s a good guy, he’s the GM. He’s expecting your call. Buddy will help you with the plane flight. You’re a good ballplayer, Jeremy, and we wish you the best.” The parting is necessary, but it is humane and brief.

Beyond serving as a model of management, Billy Beane’s story also has other important life lessons. Billy determines that players are valued incorrectly and that even a team with limited financial resources can find undervalued players who can be melded into a winning team. His strategy: select players with the highest on base percentage. Don’t buy players; buy runs and you will win ballgames. The strategy is successful, setting a precedent for how players will be recruited in the future. The lesson: sometimes we have to shift our paradigms in order to be successful at solving problems.

I had to shift my paradigm when I first began teaching. At first, my primary concern was teaching the material. In a few years, I realized that to be successful, I needed to alter my perspective. The successful teacher focuses on students, not just information. That paradigm shift would make a dramatic difference in the way I taught and the way students learned. I was now teaching people, not facts, and the classroom dynamic changed.

Another life lesson: statistics alone cannot predict the future. Scouts saw Billy Beane as a first round pick and they offered him a huge contract with a major league team right out of high school. Billy then came to the proverbial fork in the road: should he go to Stamford on a full scholarship or sign with majors. He chose the latter, but never fulfilled the potential that scouts saw in him. Money and fame were the allure; but when he left professional baseball, he vowed never again to make a decision based upon money alone.

These lessons reflect Jewish sensibilities. The ability to see alternate points of view, to shift paradigms, is the essence of Talmudic learning. The great rabbis Hillel and Shammai looked at the same realities but possessed vastly different approaches to solving problems. Moreover, King Solomon reminds us at the end of his life that wealth does not bring happiness. The truly wise man is the one who is happy with what he has.

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The Hustler (1961), directed by Robert Rossen and The Color of Money (1986), directed by Martin Scorsese

As a youth, I played basketball every Sunday at the local JCC on the Spartans, who were Spartans in name only. We had a mediocre record. Opposing us were much better teams, and one player outshined everyone. Robby regularly scored over 20 points a game, and when he reached high school, he was a superstar. Watching him was poetry in motion.

I expected to read about Robby in the newspapers, but it didn’t happen. Robby dropped out of college, never fulfilled his potential, and played basketball in local recreation leagues as an adult. The snapshot in time that I saw in high school was no predictor of future success. Only in retrospect do we possess clarity. That’s why I chose to review two movies which present the same character, “Fast Eddie” Felson, as a young charismatic pool hustler in The Hustler, and then as a successful liquor salesman 25 years later in The Color of Money. Watching both films gives us a rare opportunity to see the evolution of a character over a span of years. Has he changed and in what way?

There is a scene in The Hustler when Eddie, a pool playing virtuoso, is told that he has talent, but lacks character. Eddie, self-absorbed and arrogant, pursues money. To him, it indicates success; and he admires Bert, a wealthy gambler. When Sarah, Eddie’s girlfriend, asks Eddie how he knows that Bert is a winner, Eddie responds, “He has things.” It is a shallow perspective on life, and it takes a tragedy to remind Eddie that there are more important things than money and fame.

The Color of Money depicts “Fast Eddie” 25 years later, still a flawed character. He renews his passion for pool through a young protégé, Vincent; and offers to take Vincent on the road and teach him how to make money by playing pool in venues where he is unknown. Eddie still wants fame vicariously, and the temptation to hustle still motivates him.

Eddie, however, eventually begins to see in Vincent aspects of his younger self which repel him. Money is now irrelevant to Eddie; what is important to him is simply being the best and winning fairly. There is a moment where he sees his reflection in a pool ball and what he sees he does not like. Eddie’s newfound integrity reinvigorates his pool game, and his ultimate challenge is not winning a game of pool under dubious circumstances, but rather beating Vincent in a private game.

Ethics of the Fathers says that “every man has his hour” of prominence and success in life.  Eddie had his in The Hustler and now Vincent has his in The Color of Money. The question we all face is what happens after our hour in the sun. Do we allow old age and self-doubt to emotionally cripple us or do we redefine ourselves in light of our new reality? Abraham, our forefather, is a role model. The Bible tells us that “Abraham was coming in days,” an unusual way to inform us that he is old. The commentators tell us that this indicates that, in spite of his age, he was vigorous and productive on each day of his life into his senior years. He never retired until God retired him. Change for him was a constant.

Making changes is never easy, but in a moment of reflection, Eddie changes his perspective and desires integrity to crown his life. King Solomon instructs us: “a good name is better than precious oil.” Eddie Felson finally understands this time-honored maxim that integrity is better than wealth.

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Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), directed by Steve Zaillian

As an undergraduate student at Yeshiva University many years ago, I had the opportunity to watch Bobby Fischer play chess. I do not know how to play chess, but a friend of mine who did was participating in a school-wide completion between about 50 students and the chess master, who would play all of them simultaneously. I still remember coming down to the school cafeteria and watching close to a hundred students set up their chess boards on long tables preparing for their match with Bobby who would stroll down the various aisles making his moves quickly as his opponents reflected on what to do next. To my knowledge, no student won his match that night; but it was fascinating to observe this chess genius casually dispose of so many opponents in so short a time.

Searching for Bobby Fischer is a film about chess; but, more importantly, it is a film about life. We watch as little Josh Waitzkin develops a love of chess. He is fascinated by the game and enjoys watching the exciting contests of speed chess in Washington Square Park in New York City. His mother senses his love of the game and pays to have him play one the players in the park. His interest in the game grows, and his father decides to get him a top flight teacher. Josh studies with the guru but still retains his childlike interests and attitude. Basically Josh is kind person, the kind of person who wants to be nice to other people. He does not hate his opponents, nor does he look at them as objects to destroy. His mother, on listening to Josh’s wish to help a friend, tells him “You have a good heart. That’s the most important thing in the world.”

It is this conflict between being nice and being a winner that is the subtext for this sports film about  chess. As Josh achieves success in tournaments, his father becomes possessed with his son’s genius at playing the game. Frank Waitzkin comes to see chess not as game nor as science, but rather as pure art. The notion that his son plays like Bobby Fischer animates his ego and he begins to push Josh harder. He more than Josh wants the glory, the attention, the honor that he never received in his life. Frank pursues the ephemeral goal of fame, and forgets about  balance in life. As Josh advances in skills, his teacher Bruce puts him though exercises designed to toughen Josh mentally. But Josh is boy who likes and respects other people. His coach’s desire to make him like Bobby Fischer “who held the world in contempt” evokes a simple, direct response from Josh; “I’m not him.” His mother sharpens that observation when she tells her husband that “Josh is not weak. He’s decent.”

Several Torah themes are embedded in Searching for Bobby Fischer. In Proverbs, there is the wise directive to “train the child in the way that he goes (Proverbs 22:6).” The message here is that parents need to understand the uniqueness of their children. Different children possess different personalities, different interests, and different proclivities. That is the lesson that Frank Waitzkin learns as he first pushes Josh to excel, and then comes to recognize Josh for the decent boy that he was and is. Frank ultimately realizes that the game of chess does not define his son, who is much more than a chess player. He is a good son, a caring friend, and a decent human being who wants balance in life.

We also learn from the film that wisdom can come from many places, from parents, from a speed chess hustler in Washington Park, and from a serious teacher of chess. Notably, all are present for Josh’s crucial match at the Chess Grand National Tournament in Chicago, the site of the film’s finale. Our Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers explicitly tell us: “Who is wise? He who learns from every man  (Avot 4:1).” Everyone has something to teach us if we are a careful observer of mankind.

Finally, we learn the pursuit of fame is illusive. The more one runs after it, the more difficult it is to acquire. Finally, fame in the Jewish view is acquired through the simple acts of friendship and kindness that punctuate our lives. The film ends with Josh putting his arm over the shoulder of a friend who has just lost a match and telling him, “You’re a much stronger player than I was at your age.”  As the credits begin to roll, a coda informs us that while Josh still plays chess, he also plays baseball, basketball, football and soccer, and in the summer, goes fishing.” Josh intuitively understands that a fulfilling and meaningful life is a life with balance.

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Chariots of Fire (1981), directed by Hugh Hudson

When I first was becoming an observant Jew, I found it difficult to wear a yarmulke (skullcap) in public. The head covering identified me as an Orthodox Jew. Although I was growing religiously I still wanted to blend in and not be different from my peers. So I struggled inwardly. Sometimes I wore it; sometimes I donned a baseball hat, and sometimes I did not wear a head covering. My religious ambivalence came to the forefront when I accepted a role in our high school production of The Diary of Anne Frank. I played the part of Peter Van Daan, Anne’s romantic interest; and in one climactic scene near the end of the play, I had to embrace Anne and kiss her. From an Orthodox perspective, this was a no-no, but I was full of myself and my acting ability and did not pass on accepting the part or the kissing that went along with it.

The play was presented on Friday night, the Sabbath, as well as on Saturday night and my synagogue rabbi came to see the play on Saturday night. I sensed an oncoming crisis. I was going to kiss a girl publicly in front of my rabbi. What to do? The answer: I did it and my face turned beet red from the embarrassment. Trying to live in two disparate words was impossible for me, and that play became my last foray into acting in a play with a co-ed cast. My approach to my growing religious observance was inconsistent, and it was not until years later that I had the courage and wisdom to live a consistent religious life in which my actions in life mirrored my ideology. Which is why I became enamored with Chariots of Fire.

I first saw Chariots of Fire, a drama about the nature of sports, the competitive drive, and the consistency of religious convictions in 1981 when I myself was running five or six times a week. The film is about two men who are running in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a young Scottish preacher, and Harold Abraham, a very competitive British Jew. The story chronicles their journey to Olympic glory, and in the process contrasts the lifestyles and worldviews of these two men.

We first see Liddell participating in a community get-together in the Scottish highlands. Having served as a missionary in China, he is a celebrity in his hometown because of his holy work on foreign soil and because of his running prowess. In an impromptu run, Eric competes with the local runners. As he rounds the track, the camera captures him in slow motion, running as if possessed by a divine spirit. Eric compares running in a race to participating in the race of life itself, both of which require concentration and energy to succeed at the highest levels. He feels that his power as a runner comes from the “Kingdom of God” within him, and this enables him not only to win races but to soar in life as well.

His mentors recognize that Eric’s ability to influence people and to move them spiritually is directly connected to his notoriety as a runner. They advise him to run in God’s name and so use his talent to bring more people under the canopy of faith.

His sister discourages him from running, fearing that it will take him away from his missionary work. Eric, however, tells her that God made him for a purpose and also made him fast. He poetically expresses his innermost feelings when he tells her that when he runs, he feels God’s pleasure and that winning a race is way to honor God.

This notion of sports competition as being emblematic of life is underscored in a scene which depicts Eric delivering a sermon in church focusing on passages from Isaiah, Chapter 40. As he speaks, images of Olympic competition mirror the Biblical phrases that he utters: “He giveth power to the faint….they that wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary.” The sum total of all these images brings home the message that ultimately God is the source of all power, not man.

The crux of the movie occurs when Liddell is asked to compete on Sunday, his Sabbath. He has to wrestle with his desire to compete and win on the one hand, and his desire to be faithful to his religious beliefs on the other. In the end, he places principles before personal gain. Moreover, he understands that all his strength comes from God, and that all his earthly activities should express his connection with the divine.

In Jewish tradition, there is the notion that whatever we do in this world should be done to glorify God. In the classic text, Ethics of the Fathers, it states: “All that the Holy one, Blessed is He, created in this world, He created solely for His glory.” The rabbis deduce from this that even mundane acts can acquire sanctity if we perform them with the right attitude. Eating can be a mitzvah (a good deed) if we eat to nourish our physical bodies in order to be strong to serve God. Sleeping can be a mitzvah if we sleep in order to give our bodies needed rest so that we can rise like a lion on the morrow to do God’s work. It is this mindset that exemplifies the character of Eric Liddell. He sees life as an opportunity to serve his Creator, and he sees his running achievements as emanating not just from his own efforts but also from God’s personal involvement in his destiny.

In Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell reminds us to place spiritual integrity over worldly glory. In his penultimate race, we see Eric running as if possessed by an inner spirit. As he runs, we hear his voice echoing his earlier comment to his sister: “Where does the power come from to see the race to its end? From within. God made me for a purpose. He also made me fast. When I run, I feel His pleasure.”

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