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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

'When the Garden Was Eden', Knickerbockers' pride

When the Garden Was Eden

Young folk, you probably don't know, but before Patrick Ewing, John Starks and Allan Houston there was life at Madison Square Garden. In fact, there were glory days, during the early 70s, when the Knicks were not only the most exciting team on the league, but also the most iconic and fascinating, as the roster was an incredible mix of personalities and attitudes. The most significant sports epitome of a transcendent, tumultuous period in America. That's what you're going to see at 'When the Garden Was Eden', an absorbing basketball documentary... that goes way beyond the rim, way beyond the game

Vietnam, a boiling racial unrest in the streets, the Watergate scandal... America was in serious turmoil... and so were the New York Knicks, a mediocre squad that clearly hadn't connected with the city and their people. As a matter of fact, with the exception of the ever-winning Celtics led by Auerbach and the Lakers, the NBA was still light years away from being the global league that is today. It's pretty interesting how director (more known as an actor) Michael Rapaport takes his time to show how small was the dimension of pro-basketball back then. And how and why that was about to change. Forever.

The story has the strength and the ingredients of a powerful novel (now I'm very curious about the book by Harvey Araton on which the documentary is based) and Rapaport, aside of collecting the opinions of almost all of the surviving players from those years, is wise enough to keep adding elements to his narration, creating a wonderful puzzle. One where facts, statistics and crucial games & moments are secondary compared. The main focus are the leading characters of the documentary. The people who became the Knicks team. A director's choice that makes the film fascinating, even for non-basketball lovers.

As a consequence, 'When the Garden Was Eden' turns out to be a wonderful oddity in this usually constrained territory of sports documentary. We are not invited to see a parade of epic plays of most talented guys (Willis Reed performance at the first Knicks NBA finals would be the exception), but how a team of very diverse people, with extremely different backgrounds, was built, and the sum of the parts worked together to bring the only championship years of the New York Knicks, making the Finals in three out of four seasons from 1970 to 1973, winning two titles (70 and 73) and changed the relation of the city with basketball, since then (and I hope forever) a basketball town, and propelled the media attention to the best of sports.

The work of assembling such a team makes Red Holzman one of the best coaches ever in my eyes because, as I'm saying, it's not just about choosing the right players, but also gathering and align them in the same direction (passing, defense, no stars, teamwork), despite being such an odd collection of personalities. Bill Bradley, a college star from Princeton that after retiring from basket would start a career in politics, two legends from the Jim Crow South, Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, a blue-collar guy from Detroit, two in principle "me first" guards from inner-city, Earl "the Pearl" Monroe and Dick Barnett, plus Phil "Action" Jackson from Montana. Then add the extraordinary personality of Jerry Lucas (my goodness, he deserves a film on his own) and you have such a melting pot. Egos, politics, money issues, class and social facts. Rapaport is not afraid to ask the questions, and players are keen to tell us everything. It's mesmerizing. How could it possibly work? The answer isn't clear to me. But it did. They embraced the differences and used the magnificent coalition of talents to became a unique team. Inspiring. Easy to understand the Knickerbockers' pride after watching this movie.

My only complaint (minor, very minor) is how quick the film ends. I understand the team didn't go further than seven years overall (quite a lengthy period in sports), and truth to be told, there's something incredibly intriguing in the way such a winning team vanished (some answers at the film are striking), and how the majority of the players moved to another business, but I would have loved a bit more of detail in that area, because some of the characters were so interesting (Bill Bradley on politics, Jerry Lucas, and of course Phil Jackson, to name just three) and can't help but having feeling there are some things left untold. It's one of those rare films that deserved a longer running time. Because, as I said before, 'When the Garden Was Eden' is not just about sport. It's about people, and how people, despite their differences, can come together.

SCORE: 7,5

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