Spike Lee
Special to Page 2

During the past four days, we've had a large number of people weighing in various sports movie-related issues for our Page 2 Goes to the Movies package. However, none of these "experts" had ever been involved with the actual making of any movie.

Spike Lee
Spike Lee
We decided to remedy that unfortunate hole in our package by sending Page 2's Ralph Wiley up to New York to ask noted filmmaker and sports fan Spike Lee 10 Burning Questions on everything celluloid ranging from why he loved Gene Hackman as Norman Dale even though "Hoosiers" made him uncomfortable to the future of sports movies (and the Knicks).

1. Page 2: Is "Raging Bull" still the best sports movie?

Spike Lee: It's still up there. Depends on who's watching it, and what for.

Interesting. Why is that?

Lee: Why is still the best? Because it's completely authentic. The script was near-perfectly realized. Beyond that? Because it's not really about boxing. It's about this flawed man. Very flawed. The boxing you get as the setting, place, scene, historical backdrop make story seem even more real: Scorcese's '50s Italian Bronx.

Yeah, you kinda did that in "Summer of Sam" yourself. Seventies version Italian Bronx. Maybe you did a little bit of that in "Jungle Fever," too, and also in "Do the Right Thing," too. Say ...

Lee:... panning for trends, eh? Well, some of my associates growing up were Italian. That's why I like to try to get 'em, and right.

2. Boxing has produced more good films than other sports? "The Champ," "The Set-Up," "Body and Soul," "Rocky," "Raging Bull," "Hard Times," "Ali." Even Stanley Kubrick delved into it. Why?

Lee: Because it's just two guys in the ring, and physically it's easier to reproduce; Robert De Niro is a great actor, we all know that, but he wasn't all that convincing as a baseball player in "Bang the Drum Slowly." But he was totally authentic as the boxer Jack La Motta.

Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro
3. Have the best sports stories already been put on film or digital?

Lee: Oh no, because making a great sports film is very hard to do; it is so hard to duplicate the action, rarely can actors be as believable as athletes; even stunt men can't; great sporting events and teams are more intriguing than you could ever write, reality is so much better than stuff you could make up; like in fiction, the best stuff is true.

4. Other than boxing, what sport is most ripe for storytelling?

Lee: Remains to be seen. The future will tell us, what we are able to do, and what technology can help us do. The great stories have to be found and told first as writing. Then the script gets realized.

5. You are, among many other things, a maker of outstanding documentary films of narrative and visual originality, on a par with Ken Burns, if not Sembene or Bunuel in that category. What role can documentaries have in sports movies or sports storytelling?

Lee: So often it's hard to re-create the great stuff you've seen live, on TV and even read about in sports; for example, how are you gonna do a movie about Michael Jordan? Who's going to play Michael Jordan? And have you suspended disbelief? So it is possible that in the sports genre of film, sometimes, say in terms of a sports biopic, the next best thing to live is documentary. So far. Stay down, and keep your head up, though; we may see a whole new wave.

Rick Fox
Rick Fox
6. So then are sports movies a legitimate movie genre now, like the Western, crime noir, heist, romantic comedy, biopic, etc.?

Lee: Sports film is a genre now, most definitely. And broadening.

7. What performances by actors in sports movies have you liked?

Lee: Gotta go No.1 with Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront," although it may be a little bit of stretch; not a sports movie but a sports character in a movie, which opens up a whole bag. But still ... great. De Niro in "Raging Bull"; Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner were excellent in "Bull Durham"; And Denzel in "The Hurricane" and "He Got Game." Overlooked piece is "Bingo Long & The Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings," with James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor; Paul Newman in "Slap Shot," "Somebody Up There Likes Me," and yeah, "The Hustler," even though Fast Eddie was not really an athlete. Burgess Meredith, Sylvester Stallone, and big ups to Talia Shire and Burt Young in "Rocky," first one only. Gene Hackman, "Hoosiers."

What did you think of "Hoosiers?" Seems like some people want history to be an episode of "Friends," or go the other way and are overly sensitive about whether black folks will think a movie like "Hoosiers" is racist or willfully ignorant of the bigotry of the times, '50s Indiana, the same decade when Oscar Robertson and the Indiana state championship Crispus Attucks high school team of Indianapolis also had a compelling, parallel story, as yet to be told. Isn't that the key; if both stories are told, isn't there balance?

Lee: I'll say this ... I definitely had an uncomfortable feeling about that film as I was watching it. I didn't stop to analyze why I had the feeling, and haven't since. But it was there. At the same time, Gene Hackman gives a great performance in that movie.

8. What performances by athletes as actors have you admired?

Lee: Ray Allen, "He Got Game." Rick Fox's recurring role on "Oz," Rosy Grier did a lot of good stuff in his day, quiet as it's kept -- he was underutilized as an actor, I think; Muhammad Ali as himself in "The Greatest." Jim Brown in "On Any Given Sunday," and Lawrence Taylor was good, too, although he was basically playing himself.

Tony Siragusa
Tony Siragusa
Which former pro athlete became the best pro actor (talking now Bernie Casey, Mike Warren, O.J. Simpson, Jim Brown, Carl Weathers, Fred Williamson, Woody Strode, Fred Dryer, Mark Harmon, Merlin Olsen, The Rock, Brian Bosworth, Howie Long)?

Lee: Bernie Casey. Jim Brown. Maybe Merlin Olsen.

What current athletes strike you as having acting potential?

Lee: Rick Fox, Ray Allen, and I'll tell you, Tony Siragusa; he's in "The 25th Hour," my new film (with Ed Norton, Phil Seymour Hoffman and Anna Paquin). I saw Tony in "Hard Knocks" on HBO last year, at Ravens camp. I said, "This guy can act!"

Another Italian-American? They're going to put you in the Italian-American Hall of Fame. Like the wall at Sal's Famous.

Lee: Ha-ha! They're compelling personalities. It's New Yaw-k!

9. What scenes from sports movies have stuck with you?

Lee: For the wrong reasons ... and I've said this before ... the basketball scenes from "American History X" and "White Men Can't Jump," and others. Inauthentic, put a hurting on my eyes, man; short rims, trampolines. In a memorable sense, Brando and Rod Steiger in the back of that cab in "On the Waterfront," that was affecting. De Niro as La Motta, bloodied but unbowed. Sugar Ray had won but hadn't knocked him out. Said through a bloody face, "I'm still here, Ray."

Nothing's been shot in sports movies that haunts you?

Michael Doleac
Michael Doleac
Lee: Haunted me? No, not yet. There probably have been some things, but I can't think of them right now, which means only that I've probably been affected in some subconscious ways.

10. Did you like the Antonio McDyess trade?

Lee: If he's healthy, and he plays like the Dice of old, with him and Doleac, we're really gonna meet the Lakers in the Finals now."

No bleep?

Lee: Wink, wink."


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