- Bad Boys dir. by Zak Levitt, and: The 84 Draft dir. by Zak Levitt
ESPN Films’ documentary series 30 for 30 has garnered substantial acclaim in its first five years. A key component of the series’ success is its reputation for giving respected filmmakers the freedom to examine sports stories about which they are passionate. However, documenting decades of sport history often requires ESPN and filmmakers to partner with the media production arms of sports leagues in order to obtain the rights to use old footage. One of these production arms, NBA Entertainment (co-producer of 2010’s Once Brothers), realized that it could use its vast archive of basketball history to produce 30 for 30–like documentaries for its own NBA TV. The resulting projects have established NBA Entertainment and NBA TV as viable curators of original long-form programming.
Despite NBA Entertainment’s attempts to replicate 30 for 30’s formula, there are noticeable dissimilarities between how it and ESPN Films approach NBA history. These differences manifest in two 2014 projects: Bad Boys (produced by the NBA, but part of 30 for 30), and The 84 Draft (produced by the NBA for NBA TV). Although both films are guided by NBA Entertainment’s go-to director Zak Levitt, who edited 30 for 30’s Once Brothers (2011), Bad Boys delivers a more characteristic 30 for 30 story that taps into both the Detroit Pistons’ stint at the top of the league in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the sociocultural context of the time. The 84 Draft, meanwhile, offers a more sport-centric and disjointed look back at its namesake event and the Hall of Famers it produced—Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, and Brazil’s Oscar Schmidt.
Bad Boys is framed as a reclamation project, an ode to a forgotten great team in a struggling city from an era flush with great teams in economically healthier metropolises—the Lakers in L.A., the Celtics in Boston, and the Bulls in Chicago. The film presents a clear narrative trajectory through the Pistons’ workmanlike progression from NBA doormat to contender to champion. Levitt makes great use of the players’ participation in the film, pulling candid moments out of the famously—and as the film argues, rightfully—guarded Isiah Thomas, but giving supporting players like Rick Mahorn and Mark Aguirre their due as well.
The film convincingly demonstrates the Pistons’ influence on the court—primarily how their physical play took advantage of and eventually altered the league’s officiating and how they played like “a team” in the first big era of superstars. But it also detours into the Pistons’ impact on popular culture and on Detroit. This is the sort of context many 30 for 30 films provide to signify sport’s cultural import, to varying degrees of success. Bad Boys unsurprisingly draws connections between the roughneck Pistons and blue-collar Detroit, but it also argues that the team nearly singlehandedly repaired decades-long racial tensions by winning with an attitude that the underdog Motor City appreciated. Though these [End Page 227] causal leaps are easy to illustrate with excerpts of footage from the team’s championship parade, Bad Boys likely overstates the social impact of winning basketball games.
However, Bad Boys succeeds when it examines the troubled legacy of the Pistons’ biggest star, Thomas, who ultimately comes to stand in for both the team’s and the city’s overlooked-yet-flawed statuses. An entire segment is dedicated to the 1987 controversy that saw Thomas clumsily reinforce postgame comments from teammate Dennis Rodman that, if Larry Bird were black, he would be perceived as “just another good guy.” Archived footage shows how the ensuing media circus spurred a Thomas mini-meltdown and eventually painted him as a villain, one that the NBA and popular media pitted against Bird, Magic, and Jordan. Present-day interviews with Thomas do not press the issue enough, but it is clear that he feels that he received a raw deal that kept...