As much as I’ve loved ESPN’s “30 For 30” series, they haven’t necessarily made it easy for viewers to keep up. The series premiered in the fall and ran a pile of installments in a rush and then vanished for several months. It returned with “Winning Time,” one of the franchise’s best installments to date and then took another couple weeks off.
TV Review: ’30 For 30′ — ‘Guru of Go’
The next “30 For 30 Film” isn’t premiering in primetime and it isn’t even premiering on ESPN. It’s airing at on Saturday (April 3) afternoon on ABC as an appetizer before Final Four coverage begins on CBS. It’s been programmed to coincide with the NCAA Tournament, which makes sense since its major focus is on the unlike tournament run of the Loyola Marymount Lions back in 1990. But even here, its timing is off, since ESPN already paid tribute to that team on the 20th anniversary of Hank Gathers’ death, using much of the same footage and, I believe, some of the same interviews. So ESPN already scooped its own documentary last month.
Confusing timing aside, “Guru of Go” isn’t one of the best of the “30 For 30” films. Directed by Emmy and Oscar winner Bill Couturie, it’s a straight-forward and by-the-numbers documentary, suffering from the same topical and stylistic familiarity that made the USFL and Jimmy the Greek films also feel not-quite-worthy of the more specific, more personal, more cinematic entries in the “30 For 30” franchise.
But even the bad “30 For 30” films have their moments and “Guru of Go” is emotional and heartbreaking , if not necessarily illuminating.
[Some more thoughts on “Guru of Go” after the break…]
The title “Guru of Go” refers to Paul Westhead, whose brand of up-tempo basketball was predicated around The System, a strategy of running up and down the court and basically wearing down your opponent based on conditioning and sheer volume of shots. Westhead had his breakthrough as coach of the Lakers’ 1980 NBA Championship squad, but then wandered the coaching desert for years before bringing The System to LMU, where he was the architect of one of the most exciting college basketball teams ever, with the 1989-90 LMU team averaging 122 points per game, a record which still stands. Heck, it more than still stands. How often do you see a college team score 122 points in any single regulation game these days? Even in early non-conference games with superpowers taking on cupcakes, you basically never see it, but those LMU teams were doing it every single night.
They were able to produce at that volume because of two kids from North Philadelphia, Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble. From there, well, you know the story…
That’s the disappointment of “Guru of Go.” It’s the story you know, albeit told by the principles roughly 20 years after the fact. I remember that 1989-1990 LMU team vividly and I remember that they weren’t under-the-radar even at the time. Gathers’ heart problem and tragic death were reported on extensively and their NCAA Tourament run was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. So if you like the “30 For 30” films that cast light on things you didn’t know about, “Guru of Go” is almost a total failure. That doesn’t, mean, though, that my stomach doesn’t still sink when I watch the footage of Gathers toppling to the floor after a thunderous dunk and convulsing. I remember it from then and I remember it now. And Kimble’s left-handed free-throw tribute to his fallen friend still gets me choked up. But that’s a reflex, almost, and had little to do with anything done by Couturie.
For a story about a format-shattering coach and an outside-of-the-norm team, Couturie takes a low-tempo, conventional approach. It’s all stock footage and talking head interviews and Couturie’s innovation is actually to slow things down, emphasizing Westhead’s background as a Shakespeare teacher, structuring the film around quotes from The Bard which are occasionally illuminating and sometimes pointless. [The warning to “beware the Ides of March” relates to a specific day in March, not to the month as a whole, for example.]
Although the doc’s title refers to Westhead exclusively, the focus is almost entirely on that one LMU team. Why not call the doc “The Guru*s* of Go” to give Kimble and Gathers equal billing?
Or why not actually make the documentary about Westhead? The coach’s story has this interesting late-act twist where he ends up coaching the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, but Couturie makes no effort to show how The System might work better or worse with women. He doesn’t, in fact, successfully articulate at all why The System failed in multiple NBA stops and why it didn’t work in Westhead’s stint at George Mason. If the movie’s thesis is that The System was a one-trick pony that worked only when Westhead lucked into this perfect combination of inside (Gathers) and outside (Kimble) talent, Couturie is too soft and gentle to come out and say it. And despite the Shakespearean quotes, Westhead’s actual intellect is only slightly exposed. You never come away with a sense of why and how this man came up with this System. He never see the influence Westhead’s System had in other programs, both in slight integrations and adaptations or in its purest form in oddball locations like Grinnell in Iowa, which became notorious for its own version of The Fun and Gun. The things I’m mentioning here, these are the aspects of the story that I don’t know, that most fans probably don’t know. So it’s frustrating for Couturie to eschew the untold story to just do the latest version of a story that’s already been told in depth.
“Winning Time” wasn’t exactly innovative in its structure or story, but Dan Klores brought such life and enthusiasm and spirit to his story. Following after that, “Guru of Go” can’t help but look inferior. And it is, but that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the 51 minutes I spent watching it. Sorry, but I’m holding “30 For 30” films to a higher standard.
“Guru of Go” premieres at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 3. It will air on ABC.