This is the extended version of a story that appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 14 One Day, One Game issue. Subscribe today!
AS THE STAR of such classics as "Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams" and "Tin Cup," Kevin Costner is the undisputed champ of sports films. His latest, "Draft Day," hits theaters April 11. It follows Costner's Sonny Weaver Jr., a fictional down-but-not-out Browns GM, through a dizzying first day of the NFL draft. ESPN The Magazine went long with the Oscar winner about why sports movies still resonate and whether Crash Davis will make a comeback.
Sam Alipour: Congrats Kevin, you're the first inductee of The Mag's Sports Movie Hall of Fame -- which I just now made up. No plaque or anything. But how does it feel?
Kevin Costner: [Laughs] I get my own category? Listen, I love sports. They define my life. I lived fictitiously through sports, so I guess it's fitting. I don't know, maybe I've got one more sports movie in me.
Alipour: You're the Michael Jordan of sports movies. Clearly, you're an athlete -- you played baseball in high school -- but what is it about the genre that keeps you coming back for more?
Costner: I want to be attached to good writing. I make up my mind if I fit a script based on my love of the sport. If I saw a great hockey script, I wouldn't do it simply because I'd destroy it for anyone who loves hockey. I couldn't fake it. Even a non-athlete could tell. Laurence Olivier might have been our greatest actor, but if he couldn't catch or throw, he shouldn't try to play an athlete.
Alipour: What took you so long to do a football film?
Costner: I've seen a couple of football scripts come and go, but I don't like wearing fake uniforms in fake leagues. I'm a purist. So I was really happy that the NFL endorsed "Draft Day."
Alipour: The NFL is awfully finicky about its brand and movie rights.
Costner: It should be. Sometimes we use and abuse them, and it's not a fair representation of the league. On the other hand, sometimes they can be too precious. You can't be precious with sports because there's a roughness -- a lot of vulgarity too, which I like. But the NFL opened the doors for us. Our cameras were everywhere at last year's draft. I wasn't there that day, though. I'm not really enthralled with all that. I'm more interested in the script. I'm not a fantasy football guy either.
Alipour: Good god, man. And you call yourself an American?
Costner: I know, but I make cowboy movies, so get over it! I do love watching good football. I'm from LA, and we don't have a team, so I watch the 49ers a lot. When they weren't playing well, I watched the Dolphins or Steelers or whoever's playing well.
Alipour: What type of research goes into playing, as a fictitious Seahawks exec puts it, "the most desperate GM in the league"?
Costner: I talked with the Rams and Cleveland GMs. But through ESPN, the access they've given fans to locker rooms, it's pretty easy to spot when something sounds authentic or like bulls---. I understand the game, and if there was a moment I didn't understand, I would've sought them out. I understand the game, and desperation. I know what it's like to go against the grain on a hunch when everything is riding on it.
Alipour: By the way, in the film, the Seahawks GM is a real jerk. In your research, did you find that to be accurate?
Costner: [Laughs] Yeah. Well, guys are edgy. There's a level of gamesmanship. There's no 50-yard line, but make no mistake, some guys are elegant and some guys are crude, and they can and will twist the knife. What feels like a dream job to the rest of us -- just try it for a second. You're dangling by a thread.
Alipour: The Browns in this film are true to life -- i.e., garbage. Did the team have any qualms about being portrayed as such?
Costner: I think Cleveland loves this movie because we're honest with it. What would the league be without Cleveland? Bummed out. The Browns can turn it around. The Saints, for a long time, didn't look like much. No one saw the Seahawks coming four years ago. The right coach and players come in, and then suddenly history doesn't matter anymore.
Alipour: Texans tailback Arian Foster plays a potential No. 1 pick. You don't share any screen time aside from split-screen phone calls, but what do you think of his performance?
Costner: He did great. He had to play somebody younger, a guy right out of college. He had good rhythm. It really worked for us, and I think it was fun for him.
Alipour: You've covered baseball, golf and now football. So, Kevin, why do you hate basketball so much?
Costner: [Laughs] There's no hate. I actually had a basketball movie that I wanted to do -- "Basketcases," about a coach, an old-school guy. He benches a player who isn't playing well and next thing the coach knows, he has to sit down with his agent and lawyer, and the radio guy wants his job, and the owner brings in a sports psychologist. We'd watch the guy trying to handle a really f---ed-up situation. But I wasn't able to fully develop it. A movie has to have a chance to be great or I won't do it.
Alipour: You've played John Dunbar, Eliot Ness, Jim Garrison, Robin Hood. Where do Ray Kinsella and Crash Davis rank in your heart?
Costner: "Field of Dreams" and "Bull Durham" were huge movies for me. "Field of Dreams" was our generation's "It's a Wonderful Life." The speech that writer-director Phil Robinson wrote did something an athlete alone couldn't do -- it identified why we love baseball. It almost takes a non-athlete to write that. Phil couldn't play a lick, but he could write a very memorable speech that encapsulated what we fans think about the sport. That's what great writing does.
"Bull Durham" found the right amount of vulgarity and the right amount of poetry too. It's about a guy who doesn't even make it to the big leagues. People who really love sports understand why a guy would room with some 18-year-old just so he can hit a few more home runs and get a record -- the most home runs in the minor leagues -- that he's not actually terribly proud of. There's nobility in obscurity. That, in a way, is what made "Bull Durham" stand out.
Alipour: "Bull Durham" turned 25 last year. In 2008, Ron Shelton said the sequel is a go -- you and Susan Sarandon's character, Annie Savoy, would revive Nuke's [Tim Robbins] failed career, perhaps with a knuckleball. What's the latest?
Costner: Ron and I never talked about it. I saw him on March 18, actually. I just did a movie called "Black and White" that I financed myself, and Ronny came to watch it. Ron is working on a "Bull Durham" play [a musical, scheduled to premiere in Atlanta in September], but we've never, ever talked about a sequel. Not a single conversation. I don't see it happening. A great writer might find the right window. But it would have to be great for me to make it.
Alipour: Time was, most of the best sports movies were about baseball. We're seeing fewer -- and crappier -- baseball movies. Do you agree? And if so, what gives?
Costner: I would agree with that. But you can still make a baseball movie that moves people, if the story's handled right. Listen, a good baseball story doesn't make a good movie, OK? A good script makes a good movie, and I can't say that any clearer. Even when it's written right, [a sports movie] is like a salmon headed upstream, with all of the committees in this town that can affect it. The salmon has to worry about chemicals, bears, nets, the 4-year-old with his hook -- it's almost a miracle if it gets upriver. These days, it takes an artist to make one and to be strong enough to protect it.
Alipour: Of your sports films, my personal favorite might be "Tin Cup." You'd be hard-pressed to find a pro golfer who can't quote it.
Costner: Going for it on that last hole, "pulling a Tin Cup," it's actually a part of their language now. That's the genius of Ron Shelton, who wrote all of that stuff. I get way too much credit -- I'm just smart enough to not want to change things. That was pure Shelton.
Alipour: How do your skills compare to Roy McAvoy's?
Costner: Listen, I can make any shot in golf; I just can't make 72 of them. I play two or three times a year -- that's it. I can't remember the last time I played 18 holes. But because of that movie, people at Pebble Beach think I must be really good.
Alipour: Do you have another sports flick in you?
Costner: I do have one more, but it's has a pretty short shelf life. I'd have to put it together in the next two years, and it's not written yet. It's a really good baseball movie. I might develop it and give it away.
Alipour: Care to give us a taste?
Costner: I can't, Sam, I can't. I'm shooting you straight, though -- it could be a really good movie.