Category Archives: Sports

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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Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag posterIn my class of eighth graders, we read a story entitled ‘A Retrieved Reformation” by the celebrated short story writer O. Henry. It is about Jimmy Valentine, a career safe cracker who resolves to become an honest man after his release from prison. The students discussed Jimmy’s reformation making references to the seminal concept of repentance in Jewish law, even citing the semi-holiday of the Second Passover, which was observed by those who were legitimately prevented from observing the first. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is an archetypal story of second chances, but set within the tumultuous landscape of Indian and Pakistani politics in the late 1940s.

The film opens in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, where Milkha, representing India, loses his race because of a backward glance down the final stretch of the race. Thus begins a flashback to Milkha’s own tortuous past in which he and his parents were separated because of a politically-motivated land division between India and Pakistan, leaving his parent’s property in a no man’s land between the two countries. Left alone, Milkha joins a local gang and steals in order to survive. This life of a brigand continues until, as a young man, he meets Biro, a beautiful Indian woman. He then resolves to turn over a new leaf in life and emerge an honest man, respected by Biro, his beloved, and by all men as well. She promises to wait for him until he transforms himself from thief to a respected man of position in society. Unfortunately while he is gone, Biro’s father marries off his daughter, against her will, to someone else, and Milkha’s dreams are shattered when he returns a few years later to ask her to marry him.

Time passes and Milkha ultimately finds himself in the Indian military.  It is there that his running skills are noticed and developed. Proverbs tells us the righteous fall many times, but they invariably rise again to meet the next challenge. This is the journey of Milkha who does not make excuses for failure, but rather admits his mistakes and resolves to try harder at his next effort.

An especially effective scene is one that takes place in the aftermath of a racing loss. He determines that he needs to be stronger and so runs over rough terrain with weights on his legs pulling a tire behind him. Indeed, Milkha travels a long and hard road to running success under the eye of watchful and caring coaches, and to eventual redemption as a human being. The end is truly uplifting. He is finally able to transcend his past and redefine himself as a person of worth.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a vibrant narrative of a world class athlete who overcomes many obstacles to become a champion. What separates it from similar stories is the wildly colorful way it indirectly celebrates the Indian way of life, which depicts the reality of both the joy and sadness of living a full life, and making the most of the gifts God has given us.

The movie is close to three hours long but is never boring. We see Milkha as a child relating lovingly to his parents and sister, observing violence perpetrated on loved ones in his native community, witnessing horrific tragedies, and we see him staring death in the face. We also see him as an adult wooing a beautiful girl, dancing and singing with his fellow soldiers, and winning races that bring him fame and adulation. Such is life as seen from the perspective of maturity. It is filled with agonies and ecstasies, sadness and joy, mistakes and mid-course corrections as we struggle to survive and triumph in a complicated world.

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Trouble With the Curve (2012), directed by Robert Lorenz

trouble with the curve posterMy son called me recently to ask if he could bless his children every Friday night as is the custom in many Jewish homes. Our family custom was to bless the children once a year and he felt that he needed my permission to change a family tradition. I appreciated his call and then proceeded to tell him that if I had to do it all over, I would have blessed the children every Friday night. To be able to look each child in the face every week, to bestow a blessing upon them, and then to hug them and kiss them is a treasured moment that ideally should be done every week. There is no down side to such a practice. I simply had not done it weekly because I had no family Sabbath tradition of blessing the children in my own family and, therefore, only adopted the once-a-year custom as a default position.

I thought of this as I watched Trouble with the Curve, a baseball movie that is really a story about a dysfunctional relationship between a father, Gus Lobel, a baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves, and his daughter, Mickey, a successful attorney on the verge of becoming a full partner in a prestigious law firm. They rarely look one another in the eye, they seldom embrace, and hardly ever speak to one another after the untimely death of her mother when Mickey was only six years old. Gus retreats into his own reclusive baseball world of scouting and she tries to find meaning and success in practicing law, which she has done only to win the attention and affection of her mostly absent father.

Their relationship is tested when Gus discovers that his vision is becoming impaired, severely affecting his ability to judge and evaluate new baseball talent. Coupled with this challenge is the reality of his advanced age, which makes him a candidate for retirement or being fired from a position he has held and nurtured for the life of his professional career. When Gus is offered a comfortable early retirement with the option of collecting disability plus a pension, he sarcastically responds: “Save it. Being comfortable is overrated.”

Gus does not want to retire. Although he is sent to scout one of the top prospects in the upcoming high school draft, his superiors lack confidence in his judgment. Many of them prefer to rely on computer-generated information and devalue the contribution of the veteran scout who sees the player live on the field in a competitive situation.

Mickey wants to be a good daughter and assist her father, but he consistently refuses her aid in a gruff, insensitive manner. In spite of this rejection, Mickey resolves to join her father on his trip to North Carolina where he is evaluating Bo Gentry, the whiz kid who may be the answer to the Braves’ quest for success on the ball field for the next five years. This special time spent together affords them an opportunity to redefine their relationship and to allow the love that was dormant for so many years to re-emerge and create new pathways of understanding between them.

Trouble with the Curve on one level refers to the inability of a batter to hit a curve ball, but, in a deeper sense, it refers to the reality that life is not a straight line. Life throws us curves, and it is our job to adjust to the inevitable change that occurs to all of us. In the face of emotional chaos and confusion, we need to reaffirm our love to those who mean the most to us.

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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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