' Cinema Romantico: 30 for 30: The Billion Dollar Game

Monday, April 06, 2015

30 for 30: The Billion Dollar Game

In March of 2012 on the (real) first day of the NCAA Tournament I gathered, as so many do, in March Madness fellowship at a neighborhood watering hole with a few friends over a smattering of pints. Soon we and everyone else in the establishment were enraptured as Lilliputian UNC Asheville took 40 year basketball titan Syracuse to the wire. Oh, was it riveting! And it would have marked the first time the tournament’s lowest seed – 16th – had vanquished a lordly #1. Alas, a dubious call helped prevent it, and we mourned by being gently unruly. Then, we drank more and watched more basketball into the wee hours of the night. How exactly did a Thursday in March become among the pre-eminent sports-watching days in America? How is that productivity in offices nationwide plunges to such obscene depths and companies cough up over a billion to advertise in its midst?

That question is at the heart of Nick Guthe’s marvelous ESPN 30 for 30 Short, “The Billion Dollar Game” (watch it here), which in thirteen scintillating minutes chronicles how 16th seeded Princeton’s narrow, theatrical, fabled one-point defeat to top seeded Georgetown at the apex of its considerable college basketball power in the 1989 NCAA Tournament in primetime on ESPN on St. Patrick’s Day turned a mom & pop of a sports event into a Wall Street behemoth. If you don’t know the history, it’s bound to fascinate. Even if you do, as I did, it will grip you voraciously, pinning you under the welcome weight of nostalgia even as you are forced to confront the horrific paradox of this immaculate college basketball game helping foster the NCAA-as-Corporation.


Guthe builds from the ground up, beginning with the origins of the game itself, the scrawny Ivy Leaguers facing off against the intimidating coach John Thompson and his daunting freshman Colossus, Alonzo Mourning. (It makes me feel old but if you weren’t there then you don’t understand how mythical Mourning was in an era when every single game wasn’t televised. His feats were passed along word-of-mouth and trumped up by purple scribes.) He doubles back to re-testify how the tournament itself was resting on a delicate precipice of all the Haves wanting to completely exclude the Have-Nots from the field of 64 because more Haves meant more wins for the Haves and more wins meant more money and it always comes back to money. And that’s why when the game quickly, incredibly revealed itself more than a mere formality, it proved ESPN’s decision to air it at a time when every contest in the tournament was not televised prophetic, gathering viewers in droves and subsequently prompting CBS to cough up a cool billion (“The Billion Dollar Game”) to broadcast the entire tournament, right down to UNC Asheville vs. Syracuse twenty-three years later.

To be sure, “The Billion Dollar Game” keeps to the sunny side of the street, as you do when you’re bankrolled by the blazers in Bristol, Connecticut. In a way, it’s showing how, as they say, the sausage gets made, yet showing it with a soft gaze, openly acknowledging how the players in this game sparked the staggering cash flow of which they and all the players that have followed them get no cut; it just has no cojones to push that viewpoint more fully or forcefully. Still, it’s difficult not to take away the clear juxtaposition even if it’s not explicitly addressed – that is, an unheralded, unwanted team the powers-that-be would have gladly brushed aside in the name of the almighty dollar being the foremost instigators of providing the powers-that-be with all the almighty dollars they could handle.

Yet beyond that, because it keeps so much focus on this one game itself, it’s nigh impossible, unless you’re the coldest of cynics, not to conclude that what the tournament really comes down to, aside from the billions, aside from the braying heads, aside from the gamblers and the day drinkers, is the players and their feats of strength. Are we not entertained?

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