During the ESPN anniversary year that launched the “30 for 30” documentary series, one of the most interesting things about the films was how little they resembled one another. All were about sports (mostly), and all were about things that happened during the first 30 years that ESPN was in business, but beyond that they felt completely distinct from one another, whether the narration-less video collage of “June 17, 1994,” the kinetic energy of “Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks,” or the mournful quality of “The Two Escobars.”
As ESPN has kept the series alive well past that anniversary year – including the brief stint when new films were presented under the “ESPN Films Presents” banner – certain formulas have crept in, particularly when it comes to films about iconic teams. They're still fun, still full of great archival footage and wonderful memories from the team members in present-day, but movies like “The Fab Five,” “Bad Boys,” or tonight's documentary “When the Garden Was Eden” (it premieres at 9 Eastern) are all very much of a piece, despite the different subjects and filmmakers involved.
The director in this case is actor and lifelong Knicks fan Michael Rapaport, and the subject is the brief window in the late '60s and early '70s when the Knicks – featuring Hall of Famers Willis Reed, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, “Dollar” Bill Bradley and, later, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe – won multiple championships and played the kind of smart, selfless basketball that many longtime NBA observers consider the platonic ideal of the game.
Because of that talent and that style, but also because they played in New York, that Knicks team is perhaps the most over-chronicled in the history of the sport. (There's a funny sight gag in the movie where we see the covers of the many books the players put out in the year after the 1969-70 championship.) Whether the present-day Knicks are good or (as they are at the moment) struggling, they're always held to the standard of the Reed/Frazier/Bradley unit. Whenever an athlete makes an improbable and sudden return from injury, the immediate comparison is to Reed's dramatic entrance from the tunnel in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. That era produced five Hall of Fame players, the most successful coach in NBA history in Phil Jackson (who came off the bench to swing elbows as the kind of player he would despise when he was running the Bulls), a longtime U.S. Senator and presidential candidate in Bradley and (with all due respect to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), the NBA's greatest dresser of all time in Frazier.
But “When the Garden Was Eden” makes an excellent, if familiar, case for why this is a team the media won't stop talking about 40-plus years later. The Frazier fashion montage alone may be worth your two hours, and if it's not, the black-and-white footage of Reed single-handedly fighting the entire Lakers roster – and winning! – is. Other than DeBusschere, nearly all the significant players from that era were still alive when Rapaport began doing interviews (Dean “The Dream” Meminger died after Rapaport spoke with him), so we hear not only from the stars, but important and interesting role players like Jackson, Meminger, Dick Barnett, Jerry Lucas and Cazzie Russell, and they're as candid about the low time as about the high; the story of the time Russell called Reed “Uncle Tom” is among the most electric sequences of the film, and there's not a second of game footage involved.
It's the footage, though, even more than the interviews, that carries “When the Garden Was Eden.” When you've heard Bob Ryan and Mike Lupica and Tony Kornheiser go on and on about this team for decades, the talk of their basketball genius can grow tiresome, even for a Knicks fan. (The one angle I wish Rapaport had had time for was talking to Patrick Ewing, Carmelo Anthony, et al about what it's been like playing in the perpetual shadow of that team.) But when you see extended footage of them in action, you get it. This was not a team of all-world athletes, but they saw the floor and each other extraordinarily well, and watching them make, as they put it, “the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the basket” is as gorgeous in its own way as a montage of Dr. J or Michael Jordan throwing down dunks.
With so many more viewing options than even when “30 for 30” debuted in 2009, and with the series now an ongoing thing rather than a special event, I've probably had time to watch fewer than half of the recent films. (Are there recent ones people feel were particularly strong?) “When the Garden Was Eden” is a fun one, though, even if it will remind you of many “30 for 30″s” past.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org