There’s No Place Like Home debuts tonight on ESPN at 8 p.m. Eastern.
The rules of basketball are simple, the sport’s basic tenet being that one team tries to get the ball through the hoop while the other team tries to stop them. There are, of course, a bevy of more detailed rules that have grown more elaborate as the game has evolved (see: the NBA’s recently implemented “no flopping” rule). And that evolution has taken basketball to a global stage and a worldwide market that totals billions of dollars of revenue every year. And yet, no matter how big the game gets, it all comes back to those original rules, laid out by Dr. James Naismith in the late 19th century. And it’s Naismith’s rules that are at the center of There’s No Place Like Home, the latest entry in the 30 For 30 series.
The “home” in the title refers to the University of Kansas, where Naismith formed the school’s basketball program in 1898 and then coached for several years after writing the original rules of “basket ball” a few years prior in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Ironically, even as Kansas has long since cemented itself as one of the sport’s most elite collegiate programs, Naismith is the school’s only coach to have a losing career record.) Believing Naismith’s original written rules should return to that home, KU fan Josh Swade attempts to purchase the documents at auction and bring them to Lawrence—a quest that forms the core of There’s No Place Like Home.
The doc is one of the lighter entries in the series, which is fine. There are some fun moments and Swade’s enthusiasm is real and genuine. Not everything has to carry an immense emotional gravity to be worthy of the documentary. However, this one has a flaw, and it’s a substantial one that few, if any, 30 For 30 entries have faced: its hyper-narrow scope. Previous films in the series like The U, Pony Exce$$, and Little Big Men have focused on one team, but those teams all had a moment in time when they were a national phenomena, when they captured the attention of those outside their fanbase. There’s No Place Like Home lacks that broad appeal. Sure, there have been times the KU basketball team has and the love of Naismith’s game is, as previously stated, now global. But there are few ways for non-KU fans to identify with Swade and his quest. Even the Red Sox-centric Four Days In October had the distinction of featuring one of the greatest sports comebacks of all time and a focus on a series that captivated a wide swath of sports fans.
Kansas’ basketball program has never reached the level of omnipresent hatred that greets a team like the Duke Blue Devils, but it’s still not a squad that appeals to many outside the most rabid KU fans like Swade. (Swade himself echoes this sentiment, if unintentionally, in this interview when he says, “To be honest with you, I’m not sure on their end what made it a 30 For 30.”) It’s difficult to find the larger message of the documentary other than “Kansas is an important basketball institution.” Nor is it easy, despite the proclamation of an auction rep in the opening minutes, to accept the sale of basketball’s first written rules as an important, intriguing story to the last 30 years of sports, on par with Without Bias or The Two Escobars.
The filmmakers—which include Swade—try to raise the stakes in the opening scene when the rules are included in an auction of historic memorabilia that includes an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and General Custer’s flag from the Battle of Little Bighorn. But even though the story is told from Swade’s point-of-view, the viewer never buys into the rules’ importance alongside those historic artifacts. Even the inclusion of the rumored Duke bidders as villains (because of course) fails to create the necessary tension, as does a conflict with donors or an interminable bidding war. Sports fanaticism, if that’s the target here, was already handled much better by ESPN Films.
Kansas fans and even some hardcore lovers of basketball will find much to like about There’s No Place Like Home. And it’s not a poorly made film, just a boring one for those who don’t have a substantial emotional stake in what’s at play. But it’s comforting knowing this is just a small misstep, a bump in a series of otherwise outstanding documentaries—and even then it’s not bad. It’s just not quite up to the high standards viewers have for the 30 For 30 series. But knowing that subsequent docs will meet those standards makes it easier to deal with the entries—like this one—that fall just a bit short.
- I’m ambivalent towards the Jayhawks, for whatever that’s worth from a sports-fan-as-reviewer standpoint.
- Another important point: I don’t recall the doc ever saying Swade was an actual KU alum. Is it just assumed he is? Or is he one of these superfans that have no actual educational tie to the school? All the materials I found in my search just called him a “Kansas City-area native.” It’s an important distinction to make.
- The face of pure joy and devotion made by Swade as he holds up a sign in one photo that says “Hinrich and Collison are the real deal” made me laugh for some reason.
- Swade’s comparison of himself to Moses is silly, but not that outlandish when you consider the level of devotion college hoops fans take.
- The nonchalance the donor David Booth shows when dropping a cool million on the rules is probably the high point of the documentary for me and itself a moment worthy of it’s own documentary. You know, an Inception-like documentary within a documentary!
- Not that I’m one of those people, but the same could probably be said of Swade’s initial pitch to get the school to buy the rules and the implication of how much money the school is willing to sink into their basketball program versus education, etc.
- The awkward interactions with the interview subjects Swades wants to donate—but don’t—are cringe-inducing and kind of hilarious.
- Re: the title: Wizard of Oz reference, Kansas, yeah, I get it.