EDITOR'S NOTE: This week the Times Free Press will publish a series of stories by The Associated Press on the top five selections for its greatest sports movies of all time.
NASCAR is back, minus fans in the stands, along with the Ultimate Fighting Championship and pockets of horse racing in the United States and professional soccer in Asia and Europe. For two straight weekends, four-player charity events have put live golf on television after a long layoff, and the real deal is on its way via the PGA Tour.
Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the NBA and the NHL are all working on plans to return and begin or complete their seasons, and the NFL and major college football programs are working to make sure their schedules start as planned in late summer.
Yet the absence of live — and therefore, unpredictable — events for much of the past two months due to the coronavirus outbreak has been tough for sports fans everywhere, and a full return is still weeks away at least. Having every sports channel essentially become ESPN Classic during what would be one of the most rewarding times of the year for fans just isn't the same.
Somehow, though, good sports movies, no matter how old, are ripe for repeat viewing. We're OK with seeing Jimmy Chitwood make that shot ... or Rocky Balboa fight Apollo Creed ... or Roy Hobbs smack a homer into the lights ... or Tom Hanks' character explain there's no crying in baseball ... over and over and over again. Familiarity with the who, when, what and where doesn't necessarily spoil the show.
With all of that in mind, The Associated Press put together an all-time greatest list of sports movies, a suggestion of what to put on the screen if there's no live game to watch. This is, of course, what we do at the AP: We rank things. So 70 writers and editors around the world voted on the best in the history of athletic cinema.
The AP Top 25 — actually, 26 films made the cut, because there was a three-way tie at No. 24 — has "Hoosiers" at No. 1, narrowly ahead of "Rocky" and "Bull Durham," which shared the No. 2 spot. "Caddyshack" and "Slap Shot" were next, followed by "Field of Dreams," "Raging Bull," "Major League," "The Natural" and "A League of Their Own."
These, and the rest of the films ranked, represent movies that we love and that explain our love of sports.
"Someone once described the challenge of writing a sports film like driving down a road full of potholes of clichés: You're bound to hit some. You just have to build a vehicle that has a bulletproof shock absorber, so they're not noticed," Angelo Pizzo, who wrote "Hoosiers" and another Top 25 selection, "Rudy," said in a phone interview.
"When sports films work, they work because the audience connects emotionally to the protagonist," Pizzo explained. "When people talk to me about 'Rudy,' if that movie works for them, it's because they see themselves in Rudy. They see themselves as someone who is not appreciated, is not seen, is not valued. And by sheer force of will and belief and faith, they manage to break through. It's not just about achieving the dream — it's about going on the journey to achieve the dream."
Sports help us build communities, create a shared history. They speak to how we yearn to win and how we empathize with those who lose. They are capable of filling us with hope and despair, triumph and disaster — often all four within a span of mere minutes.
Movies, meanwhile, can do the very same. They might be profoundly educational or purely entertaining — and in the best of cases both.
That's true whether it's in their most life-capturing form, the documentary — such as "Hoop Dreams" or "When We Were Kings," both on the list, at No. 14 and tied for No. 21 — or when based on, however strictly or loosely, real events, such as "Remember the Titans" or "The Pride of the Yankees" — tied for No. 18 and tied for No. 21 — or even when created out of whole cloth, such as "Caddyshack" or "The Natural."
Filmmaking, no matter the approach, comes with a license to shade and shape, to imagine, to create, to figure out ways to take the audience wherever it needs to go.
Movies and sports share certain constructs, themes or patterns that emerge over and over. The heroine/hero. The underdog. Good versus evil. The protagonist's path. The antagonist's resistance.
Maybe that's why the overlap of the realms resonates. Maybe that's why we watch.
"The world that sports creates has a couple of appealing things going for it. Unlike life, there are definable rules. There's a way of scoring. There's a way of declaring winners and losers. And it's an escape from the rigors of our own day-to-day lives," Pizzo said. "While sports are gone now, people who are sports fans — or even partial sports fans — are noticing how much of a role sports play in their lives."
"Hoosiers," the 1986 basketball flick starring Gene Hackman as the coach, shot all the way to No. 1, receiving 46 votes.
"If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don't care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game," Norman Dale, Hackman's character, says in the underdog story. "In my book, we're going to be winners."
That was also the case where the poll was concerned.
Loosely based on an Indiana high school basketball team in the 1950s, "Hoosiers" narrowly edged Academy Award Best Picture honoree "Rocky" — released in 1976, it was the first installment of Sylvester Stallone's series about an unknown boxer from Philadelphia who gets a shot at the big time — and "Bull Durham" — starring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon in 1988, it offered a fictionalized look at characters that populate minor league baseball.
Those two movies tied for second place with 45 votes each. There was a significant gap between the top three and the rest of the AP Top 25.
At No. 4 with 33 votes was "Caddyshack," the sole golf tale to make the rankings. That was followed closely by hockey's "Slap Shot" with 32 votes, and "Field of Dreams" with 31. "Raging Bull," "Major League," "The Natural" and "A League of Their Own" rounded out the poll's top 10.
In all, 117 films on a combined nine sports got at least one mention in the complete balloting; 69 received at least two votes apiece. The sport represented the most in the list was baseball with 10 entries, followed by football with four. Basketball and boxing each put three selections in the rankings, while hockey earned two. Golf, running, horse racing and cycling each got one mention.
SPORTS CINEMA SUCCESS
The top vote recipients in The Associated Press poll of best sports movies from a panel of 70 writers and editors, with year movie was released in parentheses:
1. “Hoosiers” (1986), 46 total votes
T2. “Bull Durham” (1988), 45
T2. “Rocky” (1976), 45
4. “Caddyshack” (1980), 33
5. “Slap Shot” (1977), 32
6. “Field of Dreams” (1989), 31
7. “Raging Bull” (1980), 25
T8. “Major League” (1989), 22
T8. “The Natural” (1984), 22
10. “A League of Their Own” (1992), 20
11. “Moneyball” (2011), 18
T12. “The Bad News Bears” (1976), 17
T12. “Miracle” (2004), 17
14. “Hoop Dreams” (1994), 14
15. “Eight Men Out” (1988), 14
16. “Chariots of Fire” (1981), 12
17. “White Men Can’t Jump” , 11
T18. “Remember the Titans” (2000), 10
T18. “Rudy” (1993), 10
T18. “Seabiscuit” (2003), 10
T21. “Breaking Away” (1979), 9
T21. “The Pride of the Yankees” (1942), 9
T21. “When We Were Kings” (1996), 9
T24. “Brian’s Song” (1971), 8
T24. “Friday Night Lights” (2004), 8
T24. “The Sandlot” (1993), 8
Others receiving at least five votes: “The Blind Side” (2009), “Happy Gilmore” (1996), “Bend It Like Beckham” (2004), “Rush” (2013), “Senna” (2010), “The Longest Yard” (1974), “The Wrestler” (2008), “Victory” (1981).