When basketball coach Paul Westhead was forced out of his job at the Los Angeles Lakers—just a year after winning the NBA championship—he moved on to Chicago, where was also fired after a spectacularly bad year. So Westhead returned to Los Angeles, and took a job coaching at Loyola-Marymount, where he knew he’d have the freedom to implement what he called “The System.” Westhead’s preferred style of play was all fast-break: minimal passing, no guarding. He conditioned his players through brutal practices that involved running hard up sand dunes. A skeptical Dick Vitale once dismissed the Loyola-Marymount game as “roller derby in shorts,” not basketball, but Westhead’s L-M teams averaged well over 100 points a game (including a record 122 points one season), and they became a perennially ranked program with frequent national TV exposure.
Then Westhead’s star player collapsed on the court and died.
Bill Couturié’s documentary “Guru Of Go” isn’t the strongest installment of ESPN’s 30 For 30, but it’s one of the truest to the spirit of the series: re-telling the half-forgotten sports stories that were front page headlines once, and restoring them to their proper context. Just about any sports fan who paid even the remotest attention to college basketball back in 1990 remembers Hank Gathers’ sudden death, and may even remember Westhead’s vaunted System, Loyola-Marymount’s improbable post-Gathers run to the Elite Eight, and the lawsuits by the Gathers family that effectively hounded Westhead out of yet another job. But putting all those pieces together? That’s what 30 For 30 is for.
Couturié chooses to put them together with the help of quotes from Shakespeare. Westhead is a former English teacher and Shakespeare scholar—he used to talk literature with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during his Laker days—and his story is full of comic coincidences and tragic ironies. Being a Philadelphia native made his winning a title with the Lakers against the 76ers all the more sweet, and it was his Philly connections that won him access to Gathers, a Philly kid who’d been cut by the USC Trojans before he landed at Loyola-Marymount. But it was also because Gathers came from the poorest section of Philadelphia that he pushed himself to the point of collapse, to keep his NBA dreams alive; and it was because of that poverty that Gathers’ family pressed their lawsuits.
“Guru Of Go” is most effective when it’s developing those connections—like when Gathers insists, “I have a heart the size of a lion,” shortly before his literally enlarged heart causes him to fall to the floor, suddenly and shockingly. It’s less effective when Couturié lets himself be heard on the soundtrack, goading his interview subjects into establishing the linkages he’s looking for. There’s a fine distinction between telling a true story with a sense of purpose and forcing that story into a tightly constructed box, and sometimes “Guru Of Go” is awfully boxy. (It’s telling that the pre-credits prologue fits almost the entire story into about five breezy minutes.)
Still, Couturié doesn’t waste his A-material. The footage of Gathers’ death—and the footage of a similar incident a few months earlier—is as brutal to watch now as it ever was, and Couturié pays it its proper due by following up with a montage of his interview subjects shaking their heads, unable to articulate how it felt to see Gathers go down. (When one teammate says that his first thought was that Gathers was losing his shot at the pros, it frames the stakes of this story exactly right.) And Couturié gets his emotional catharsis when Loyola-Marymount star Bo Kimble makes a free-throw one-handed in an NCAA tourney game in honor of Hank. Even Couturié’s frequent use of pages from Westhead’s journal pays dividends when he arrives at the passage where Westhead confesses that his System is “doomed to fail.”
That overarching theme to “Guru Of Go”—the idea that even the most successful method only works until it doesn’t—also defines this 30 For 30 installment, which is unfussy, informative, and eventually hits its limit of what it can offer. To quote the Bard: T’were well it were done quickly.
-Some of you might be wondering when the hell this 30 For 30 aired. ABC showed it on Saturday afternoon, to promote the new ESPN Sports Saturday show and to capitalize on college basketball fans waiting for Final Four games to start over on CBS. But if you missed this episode, don’t fret: it’ll be airing multiple times on the ESPN family of networks over the next week.
-I found it odd how everyone interviewed was identified by name and nickname, even though those nicknames were never a significant part of the story.
-Loyola-Marymount’s 1990 NCAA run included a victory over Alabama in the Sweet 16. Watching footage of that game—and seeing Wimp Sanderson’s ridiculous sportscoat—took me back the glory years of SEC coaches. C.M. Newton at Vandy. Hugh Durham at Georgia. Joe B. Hall at Kentucky. Dale Brown at LSU. And all significant games called by Joe Dean. “String music in Nashville, Tennessee!”
-Loyola-Marymount beat Michigan in the second round of the 1990 tournament by a score of 149-115. Tonight I watched Butler beat Michigan St. in a Final Four game 52-50. Different times.