Bull Durham is the best sports movie

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Everyone will agree it’s tough right now trying to get along without live sports to watch and wager on. The coronavirus has taken care of that.

And it may stay that way for a while. So what do you as a sports fan do to stay in touch with the games you love?

You watch movies. And there’s no lack of subjects to choose from.

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Miss football? How about “Brian’s Song” or perhaps “Any Given Sunday.” Wish there was hockey? There’s always “Slap Shot.” Need a good boxing movie? “Rocky” or “Raging Bull” should fill the void.

In a favorite sports movie inquiry to handicappers, sportsbook directors, broadcasters, ex-coaches, former pro players and colleagues, 32 responded. The Hustler ran beside Bull Durham down the stretch, but Bull won by a nose.

The deciding late vote — giving Bull Durham the 4-3 triumph — was cast by Mike Brocki, a pal of 40-plus years whose four-year minor-league baseball career included the 58 games that Ken Griffey Jr. spent at Single-A San Bernardino in 1988.

“So many aspects of the movie are real,” Brocki said of Bull Durham.

With nearly 40 percent of the tally, the diamond dominated. It contains infinite nostalgia, but Opening Day also just came and went, with no ball, in the coronavirus pandemic’s shuttering of almost all athletic endeavors.

Allow this, then, to serve as a brief diversion, to quench any sports-entertainment thirst or void.

While there’s a famous pool room scene late in Bull Durham, An entire movie — The Hustler — was shot in a pool room.

Jackie Gleason watched Paul Newman get cute with the cue. During down time in filming The Hustler — Newman is Fast Eddie Felson to Gleason’s Minnesota Fats — they played billiards for a buck, then another game, and another. Newman won all of them.

“Let’s play for a hundred,” said Gleason, ensnaring Newman.

“He whipped my ass,” Newman told biographer Shawn Levy. “He was hustling me. He was looking down my throat the whole time … he had the patience to lose the first three to sucker me in for the last one.”

Sports can still save America

Life imitating art, imitating life? Gleason had spent his youth in pool halls, so he was intimate with their angles and raw desperation, gritty authenticity that makes The Hustler my favorite sports movie.

“As good as it gets,” says South Point oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo. “Willie Mosconi was the technical adviser. In the movie, they go to the Kentucky Derby. George C. Scott, Piper Laurie, the nuances, the subtleties.”

But Bull Durham and The Hustler had competition. Jay Kornegay, vice president of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, helped Hoosiers acquire multiple votes.

“Not sure how many times I’ve seen it, but I still get a boost when Jimmy (actor Maris Valainis) hits that last shot.” Kornegay said of the movie about a small Indiana high school team that ultimately wins the 1954 state title.

He was envious that my former colleague and current San Francisco Chronicle film critic G. Allen Johnson helped make Hoosiers. Attending Indiana University in the fall of 1985, the Indiana native worked on some sets — including Hinkle Fieldhouse for Jimmy’s big basket — as a part-time production assistant.

“The legend of the small-school Milan championship in 1954, that the film was based on,” Johnson says, “was a part of the DNA of every basketball-loving kid who grew up in Indiana.”

But Hoosiers had competition on the cinematic court. Former UCLA and NBA star Ed O’Bannon favors 1979’s The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, which included Julius Erving and 20-year-old Art Manteris, whose stunt work earned him $1,500 a day.

“To tumble over the scorer’s table,” Station Casinos’ sportsbooks head said in his 1991 biography.

Ed’s younger brother Charles, however, purposely taped over Fish. Chuck admits to the perfidy, saying his favorite movie is Love and Basketball, “because I’m in it.”

Mike Downey, 11-time sportswriter of the year in three states, tabs White Men Can’t Jump, highlighting the hilarity of the first 30 minutes.

“In an emergency, even a pandemic, I can always count on (it) for a laugh. Wesley (Snipes) and Woody (Harrelson) forever.”

But not all sports movies are spoofs or stretches of the truth. Some are historic. Sports columnists Mark Whicker (Hoop Dreams, 1994) and Ron Kantowski (Senna, 2010), and the Vegas Stats & Information Network’s Ron Flatter (Tokyo Olympiad, 1965), all tapped profound documentaries for their favorite sports flicks. Flatter, in particular, hails director Kon Ichikawa’s tack at the 1964 Summer Games.

“(He) threw out the rulebook,” said Flatter. “Actually, it is barely a record at all. Imagine handing a bunch of film cameras to a bunch of clichéd yet well-trained flies on the wall and having them shoot for 16 days … a blast of energy. It has stood the test of time.”

The eminent Roxy Roxborough checked in from Thailand with Seabiscuit, the 2003 Gary Ross production that starred Jeff Bridges and Tobey Maguire, “with an eclectic cameo by the uncredited William H. Macy, narrated by historian deluxe David McCullough.”

And since we began with baseball, we’ll walk off with it.

From Field of Dreams, “Hey Dad, wanna have a catch?” always affects handicapper Tom Barton and Las Vegas Review-Journal sports-betting columnist Todd Dewey, who lost fathers at young ages.

“The happiest and saddest movie line of all time,” Barton says. Dewey said: “Still shed a tear every time (Costner) says that.”

Sunset Station sportsbook director Chuck Esposito and Top Ranking Boxing social-media ace Ryan Greene often parrot phrases from 1993’s The Sandlot.

“The perfect escape from modern reality” picture, said Greene. Esposito said: “It embraces friendships and lasting relationships. Sports bring kids together.”

VSiN’s Matt Youmans and author Steve Rushin reserve a special place in the laugh track of their lives for The Bad News Bears, the 1976 vehicle in which Walter Matthau is hard-drinking Little League coach Morris Buttermaker.

Youmans has watched it 30 times, “and it cracks me up every time.” Rushin played Little League in Bloomington, Minn., and after he first saw Bears, “I had an overwhelming desire to live in the San Fernando Valley, which somehow seemed like the future; I think it was the gloriously modern-looking Pizza Hut.”

Fox Sports hoops analyst Steve Lavin owns an affinity for 1973’s Bang the Drum Slowly, from Mark Harris’s 1956 novel of the same title, in which New York Mammoths catcher Bruce Pearson (actor Robert De Niro) hides a cancer diagnosis. Its theme and final line serve Lavin as a life-long maxim: “From here on in I rag nobody.”

Favorite Sports Movie votes

Bull Durham (4)

The Hustler (3)

The Sandlot, Bad News Bears, Field of Dreams, Hoosiers (2)

Cinderella Man, Raging Bull, White Men Can’t Jump, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, Love and Basketball, Hoop Dreams, The Natural, Bang the Drum Slowly, Two for the Money, Remember the Titans, The Blind Side, Rudy, The Karate Kid, Miracle, Seabiscuit, Senna, Tokyo Olympiad (1)

The voting panel (in order of above votes): Karen Crouse, New York Times; Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal; Jay Posner, San Diego Union-Tribune; Mike Brocki, entrepreneur; Vinny Magliulo, South Point oddsmaker; Charles Bentley, Cal State San Bernardino; Rob Miech, Gaming Today; Chuck Esposito, Sunset Station sportsbook director; Ryan Greene, Top Rank Boxing; Matt Youmans, VSiN; Steve Rushin, author; Todd Dewey, Las Vegas Review-Journal; Tom Barton, handicapper; G. Allen Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle; Jay Kornegay, Westgate SuperBook; Dave Cokin, handicapper; John Tournour, broadcaster; Mike Downey, sportswriter; Ed O’Bannon, ex-NBA player; Charles O’Bannon, ex-NBA player; Mark Whicker, sportswriter; Eric Wynalda, soccer coach; Steve Lavin, Fox Sports TV analyst; Jeffrey Benson, Circa; Paul Stone, handicapper; Paul Caligiuri, soccer coach; Dana Lane, handicapper; Steve Bennett, SportsCasters; Tony Luftman, NHL Network; Roxy Roxborough, handicapper; Ron Kantowski, Las Vegas Review-Journal; Ron Flatter, VSiN) 

About the Author
Rob Miech

Rob Miech

Rob Miech is a writer and contributor for Gaming Today, covering soccer and producing sports betting features. He has written about college hoops for the Las Vegas Sun, CBS SportsLine and the Pasadena Star-News. He is the author of four books, including Sports Betting for Winners.

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