Home > Culture, Reviews, Sports, Television > Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #4 – Jordan Rides the Bus, Run Ricky Run & You Don’t Know Bo

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #4 – Jordan Rides the Bus, Run Ricky Run & You Don’t Know Bo

There is little question of how success is generally measured in sports. More than anything else it might be, high-level athletic activity is a business of repetitive accumulation: of goals, points, home runs, touchdowns, awards, championships, stacked on top of one another to make a pile higher than the next. There may be moments of style and wonder along the way, but these are merely the cherries on top of the heaping sundae of amalgamated success. Unlike so many others walks of life, in particular our personal or emotional purviews, the terms of success in professional sports are undeniable and quantifiable. There are clear-cut winners and losers, champions and also-rans, statistical milestones to reach and even firm expectations to be fulfilled (or not). Sporting heroes may sometimes amaze with their acts of physical prowess, but they establish a legacy with accolades and achievements.

But what happens when an athletic star refuses to conform to the expectations of sustained, determined accumulation of success? What if a sports hero of sublime talent decides that following this path laid out for them will not fulfill their hopes and dreams, will not bring them personal or spiritual completeness? Or what if their particular ability is so galactic and outsized that it threatens the ideal of a lengthy athletic career? Do we have room in our considerations of sporting achievement for these kinds of figures, and if we do not, can we make room?

Bo knows abs.

Three of ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentaries focus on stars who raise these questions. All of them are African-American, and all of them took high-profile hiatuses from the game they excelled at smack dab in the middle of their prime, albeit for idiosyncratic reasons. In You Don’t Know Bo, director Michael Bonfiglio examines the briefly blazing phenom Bo Jackson, who was a standout athlete in both the NFL and Major League Baseball before a freak hip injury cut off his astronomical potential. Clips of his exploits (including football runs both bruising and lightning-quick, 500-foot home runs, and ridiculous outfield throws) are interspersed with reminiscences from Jackson himself and those who played with and coached him, as per the standard sports doc M.O.

But where You Don’t Know Bo breaks with the standard assessment of the career of a tremendous talent that is cut short by injury is with its inclusion of the profusion of barely-believable, half-true folk tales that swirl around Jackson. Bonfiglio seems most interested in these stories, enlisting storytellers like Chuck Klosterman and Michael Weinreb to dub Jackson a mythical superhero, a larger-than-life figure whose aura transcended even his not-inconsiderable media and advertising hype.

Anecdotal tall tales pepper the film’s opening, visualized in comic-book drawn animation, lending Jackson’s narrative the contours of heroic folklore: his college baseball coach claims to have seen Jackson leap over a Volkswagen, rumours abound that he once got in trouble for killing either the local minister’s pig or a pack of wild boars by throwing rocks at them, that he could leap a 40-foot ditch or hit a scoreboard with a football. Even his career-shortening injury itself, his incredible momentum while running disconnecting his entire hip bone, fits into this epic framework. The core suggestion of this examination of Bo Jackson’s legend is implicit: championships and scoring records are one thing, but an athlete that astounds us, that seems to be practically super-human, is something special.

Another athlete that astounded sports fans with his feats while also accumulating stats and championships was Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever. Like Bo Jackson, Jordan dropped out of the sport he dominated at the peak of his powers. Unlike Jackson, Jordan did it of his own accord. Ron Shelton’s Jordan Rides The Bus documents the Chicago Bulls superstar’s decision, after capturing his third consecutive NBA title and losing his father to a roadside murder, to leave basketball for baseball in 1993. Chasing a dream his deceased father had for his son to play baseball in the big leagues, Jordan was an underwhelming ball player for the Chicago White Sox’s AA club for one season before returning to the Bulls to grab three more championships.

Jordan Rides The Bus raises alternate, conspiratiorial motivations for not only his brief sport switch but also his father’s death (gambling, evidently, which the oft-lionized Jordan had an issue with, apparently). But it seems fairly clear that his stated explanation was genuine. Shelton’s film does a better job laying out the flow of events and the effect that a worldwide superstar’s presence had on a minor-league ball team in Birmingham, Alabama than it does interrogating Jordan’s mindset (the man himself does not appear except in archival footage, but does contribute voice-overs that sound like sports-cliche-ridden motivational speeches). But the simultaneous hubris and naivety of Jordan’s choice to swing a bat instead of dunking a ball is still striking. It must have come from a personal place, because otherwise, how does it make any sense at all?

In the company of practical living gods like Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan, former NFL running back Ricky Williams cannot help but look distinctly human, for all of his obvious athletic gifts. Wonderfully, what Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni’s Run Ricky Run shows Williams to be is very distinctly human, with all of the oddness and inconsistencies that non-idealized humanity confers. Williams, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back for the University of Texas and flegdling professional star for the Miami Dolphins, retired prematurely like Jordan, but to follow a distinctive and much more ambiguous search for meaning and fulfillment, away from sports altogether.

As well known for his substance-abuse policy violations due to marijuana use as for his on-field exploits, the Williams that emerges from Run Ricky Run is a man misunderstood and misrepresented by cynical sports media conceptions that labeled him “troubled”. Employing intimate and revealing footage shot by Pamphilon during Williams’ hiatus from the game, a picture emerges of an open-minded hippie seeker trapped in the herculean body of a sports star. Williams reads philosophy and new-age spiritual literature, practices yoga, massage, and holistic medicine, has relationships (and children) with multiple women, and gradually opens up about and comes to understand his parents’ divorce as well as his own report of sexual abuse by his father that led to it.

Although all of these films provide compelling alternate possibilities to the previously-explicated terms of sports success, Run Ricky Run is both the most surprising and the most fascinating of the three. The possibility that Ricky Williams’ peculiar narrative presents is that essentially harmless personal eccentricity can have a place alongside the wealth, fame, adulation, and victorious glory that are the expected rewards of professional sports stardom. Success need not entirely trump personality, even if that personality rejects the typical demands of that success.

Categories: Culture, Reviews, Sports, Television

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