“Survive And Advance” debuts tonight on ESPN at 9 p.m. Eastern.
It’s no surprise that the NCAA college basketball tournament engenders the most hyperbolic enthusiasm of any major sport’s championship. Its singular structure—culling teams from major and minor programs alike and pitting them against each other in a one-and-done bracket where the potential for upset lurks at every game—is seemingly engineered to forge unlikely heroes. Regional allegiance aside, sports fans latch on to a narrative when choosing whom to root for, and March Madness provides a yearly crop of underdogs to graft those stories upon. Small teams (or big teams on the outs) who, seemingly just lucky to be invited to the big dance, capture our imagination with the tantalizing hope of overcoming impossible odds on the biggest possible stage. Thus the cliché of the Cinderella team: An accidental invite becomes the ultimate success story. (I also maintain that the ubiquitous brackets themselves provide structure to the fairy tale concept: Each step along the way a clearly mapped objective, with a monster to be slain, all the way to the ultimate prize. Like the yellow brick road. Or a really good video game.)
Survive And Advance, the most recent installment in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, focuses on the quintessential Cinderella team: North Carolina State’s 1983 Wolfpack, who ran off an improbable string of nine straight, often last-minute victories in both the ACC and then NCAA tournaments. (One famous commercial even paired the championship game’s final play with the moon landing.) Unfortunately, both the filmmaking decisions and the somewhat anticlimactic nature of the games themselves combine to diffuse some of the seemingly irresistible drama of the Wolfpack’s fairy-tale season, leaving Survive And Advance a forgettable, if heartfelt, document of one team’s moderately improbable success, and the beloved coach who led them to it.
The film takes its title from the nature of the NCAA tournament, but also from the coaching philosophy of the late Jim Valvano, the charismatic coach who led NC State to victory. First seen on film working a speaking-engagement crowd like a Catskill comic, Valvano’s stock-in-trade as a coach (and seemingly a person) was a bottomlessly effusive optimism, a trait the film contests he inherited from his father and transmitted to the young men in his charge throughout his career. One player’s assertion that Valvano dispensed encouraging hugs “almost like your dad” might be on the nose, but the enduring affection his former players still feel for the man 20 years after his 1993 death from cancer is consistently affecting nonetheless. In his first year as NC State coach, Valvano swept in and quickly enthralled the team with basketball acumen liberally sprinkled with hugs, pep talks, jokes, and creative visualization in synch with his own unparalleled optimism (he actually had the guys practice cutting down the nets during practice in preparation for his promise of a national championship.) As another player recalls, “He painted a picture for us, and eventually we started to believe it.”
These players, now middle-aged men, form the narrative chorus of Survive And Advance and the film benefits from their obvious love for each other, their absent coach, and the ultimate hero of their championship run, Lorenzo Charles—who was killed in a traffic accident the year before the film was made. Survive And Advance repeatedly revisits the present-day champs at a restaurant, retelling old stories, reveling in old glories, and generally having a blast giving each other shit—and it’s gratifying and comfortable to watch. Throughout the film, each man’s distinctive voice and take on their shared experience becomes distinctly endearing: former sharpshooter Dereck Whittenburg’s avuncular charisma, Thurl Bailey’s smooth-voiced gravitas (it’s no wonder he’s a successful broadcaster), Cozell McQueen’s animated goofiness. Unfortunately, as a piece of entertainment, Survive And Advance too often allows the players’ chatty vibe to dictate its rhythms. When it should be thrilling and suspenseful, the film’s structure too often goes for a sentimental warmth akin to Valvano’s signature style.
In addition, the Wolfpack’s situation wasn’t exactly the abject origin story of even a half-decent fairy tale. NC State had a long and successful basketball history and had won the tournament just nine years before. Sure, Valvano had taken over from the revered Norm Sloan, but hopes were high going into the 1982-83 season, with highly-touted players like Bailey, Charles, Whittenburg, Sidney Lowe. And yes, Whittenburg’s broken foot partway through the season sent the team into a slide that necessitated a win in the ACC tournament to make the NCAA tourney, but this was hardly a legendary underdog to the extent of, say St. Bonaventure, Gonzaga, or Butler (none of whom, to be fair, won a championship). NC State was a major program having some tough breaks. Survive And Advance plays the underdog card early and often, but the premise just doesn’t land as hard as intended.
As for the team’s unprecedented run itself, apart from the sheer number of close games, there’s a serious lack of the cinematic, Hoosiers-esque big plays usually required to cement such a run in the public consciousness. In their nine-game tournament streak, they won two in blowouts, and while they went to overtime in most of the others, their eventual triumphs are presented as a result of shrewd, intuitive coaching from Valvano, strong fundamentals and defense, a startling run of terrible opponent clutch foul shooting, and the occasional outright fluke. The film attempts to present all those missed free throws as some sort of Valvano Jedi mind-trick at several points, but it seemed more like, well, some poor foul shooting. Even the big final-second play (against the mighty University of Houston), voted by ESPN as “the greatest college basketball moment of the 20th century,” involved the Wolfpack shakily trying to run out the clock before the streaky Whittenburg launched an off-balance desperation air ball which Charles opportunistically intercepted and slammed home. Maybe we’re too picky demanding our big sports moments to be improbably dramatic, too-good-to-be-true, definitive statements of unassailable triumph, but such a workmanlike dénouement isn’t the ending to anyone’s favorite fairy tale. And this is a movie after all. NC State won it all after some adversity and, considering the genuinely likeable group of guys they all seemed (and still appear) to be, I’m happy for them. But as a piece of filmmaking/mythmaking, Survive And Advance is improbably pedestrian.
- As anticlimactic as I found the film’s depiction of the Wolfpack’s championship run, just looking at the household names the decidedly not-famous NC State-er’s opponents became is enough to give them the benefit of the doubt: Ralph Sampson, Clyde Drexler, Sidney Green, Sam Perkins, Hakeem Olajuwon, and some guy named Jordan.
- Not to speak ill of the dead, but from what we see onscreen, a little of Jim Valvano goes a long way. As a coach/father figure I’m sure he was inspirational, but here we get little more than schtick and cliché. (What he says he learned from his team at one point: hope, dreaming, persistence, love. Got it.)
- Director Jonathan Hock (who helmed the 30 for 30 episode The Best That Never Was) twice attempts to milk tears by interviewing an assistant who invariably wells up and states “I can’t go on” while talking about Valvano. The man’s emotions are no doubt genuine but as a filmmaking tactic, it’s an obvious ploy to drum up emotion the film isn’t generating on its own.
- Hock’s directorial style often seems bound and determined to deflate any tension the succession of big games builds up. When the UNC game (against Jordan) comes down to one final Tar Heels shot, he cuts from the ball in the air to someone ruefully saying, “I thought it was going in” before cutting back to the ball clanging off the rim. Thanks, movie.
- Whittenburg’s rumination on the nature of his youthful fame—“There’s a saying that as athletes get older, the accomplishments get greater. The truth is, they just get further and further away”—has a resonance the film itself mostly lacks.
- Game footage of the 7-foot, 4-inch Sampson is the most startling thing in the film. I’d forgotten how effortlessly dominating a player he was (when healthy). Guys that big and athletic shouldn’t be that graceful, too. It’s just not fair.
- The film touches, apologetically, on the unceremonious end of Valvano’s tenure at NC State where allegations of institutional impropriety forced him out in 1990. While many allegations (of payouts to players and point shaving) were found baseless, the widespread academic failure of a disproportionate number of the young men under his guidance was not. Again, not to disparage someone clearly so beloved, but a documentary invested in more than hagiography would not relegate this aspect of Valvano’s career to a mere footnote.