Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Most documentary filmmakers will tell you that luck is the biggest factor in a successful project. Director Steve James couldn’t have foreseen all the twists and turns to come when he first trained his cameras on Arthur Agee and William Gates for what would become indisputably the greatest basketball documentary ever, “Hoop Dreams.”
Similarly, when a production crew started following the 1997-’98 Fresno State Bulldogs, it couldn’t have envisioned the final cut of the tragically underrated “Between The Madness.” The plotlines of the documentary, which aired on FSN in November 1998, include multiple suspensions, drug rehab, a lascivious Rolling Stone photo shoot, a conniving Mike Wallace, and an alleged assault and robbery involving a samurai sword.
The governing idea of the film was to profile Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian, who was infamous for providing safe harbor to troubled hoopsters. So there was obviously the strong possibility that the Bulldogs would be beset by off-the-court issues.
Troubles started piling up early in the season for Fresno State, which boasted several former McDonald’s All-Americans and was ranked in the preseason top 15 by most publications. Point guard Rafer Alston was suspended for the first few games for a domestic incident, and Terrance Roberson and Daymond Forney were out a couple weeks because of testing positive for marijuana.
The cameras found their leading man in charismatic shooting guard Chris Herren (who incidentally is also the subject of a tragically underrated basketball book, Bill Reynolds’ “Fall River Dreams”). To anyone who watched Fresno State’s late-night WAC games on ESPN in the late 1990s, it was plain to see that Herren was the driving force of those teams. The best on-court action in “Between the Madness” shows the fiery Herren igniting the crowd and his teammates. There’s no denying that Herren, with his frosted tips and “Good Will Hunting” accent, had a magnetic presence, something that didn’t escape the notice of Rolling Stone. The magazine profiled the team and singled out Herren for shirtless photos inside the Bulldogs’ locker room.
Herren partied as hard as he played, which is how he washed out of Boston College a few seasons earlier and became another of Tarkanian’s reclamation projects. Three games into the 1997-’98 season, Herren left the team for a few weeks to enter drug rehab (Nothing is specifically mentioned, but Herren admits that his drugs were harder than marijuana). The team’s play deteriorated without its leader. Herren’s demons would continue to plague him, even during his 70-game NBA career. He was busted for heroin possession twice, but now claims to be sober and is working on another book with Reynolds, called “Basketball Junkie.”
The most touching relationship in the film is between Tarkanian and Herren. At the news conference announcing Herren’s decision, a choked-up Tarkanian says that, besides his son Danny, Herren is the player he is closest to. It’s an affecting moment that underscores the biggest revelation of the film: the repudiation of the popular image of “Tark the Shark.”
Many would have you believe that Tarkanian was a Machiavellian coach that would break any regulations in pursuit of victories. But in this film, Tarkanian comes off as an avuncular optimist who refuses to give up on troubled players. The coach was almost naïve when Wallace and “60 Minutes” rolled into Fresno. Tarkanian knew Wallace wanted to cover the salacious stories surrounding the team, but after Wallace repeatedly praised the coach, Tarkanian thought the story could be spun into a positive. Wallace tells Tarkanian that the coach won’t be disappointed in the piece. Of course, when the story aired it focused on all the arrests and suspensions. There is a great moment when Wallace shows up for the Bulldogs’ NIT semifinal at Madison Square Garden and Tarkanian scolds the veteran newsman: “You lied to me.”
It was bad timing for Fresno State that around the time that the “60 Minutes” piece aired, center Avondre Jones and guard Kenny Brunner were arrested for allegedly robbing someone with a samurai sword. Jones had been kicked out of USC and had failed two drug tests already during the 1997-’98 season, so he was dismissed from the team by a wearied Tarkanian.
Herren’s return from rehab sparked a late-season resurgence by the Bulldogs, who in the film also deal with the suspension of Tremaine Fowlkes (failed drug test), the quitting of defensive stopper Willie Farley (he wanted to score more) and a heated spat between Alston and assistant coach Danny Tarkanian (shot selection being the key issue). Fresno State made it to the NIT semifinals, losing to Minnesota, which is pretty amazing given all the players coming and going.
Highlights of the film also include a pre-ESPN Andy Katz, who was covering the team for the Fresno Bee, and Portishead on the soundtrack to give it an ultimate late '90s feel. After the loss to Minnesota, Tarkanian is seen telling Katz, “Boy, I’m glad its over.” No doubt that he was, but that certainly made for a good documentary. The filmmakers were lucky to have been there to catch it on film.