Time To Wallow In The Mire, or Ray Manzarek Ruins Basketball

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As a general rule, HBO’s sports documentaries have been pretty great. Yes, some of them tend toward hagiography, and the music can oftentimes be punishingly “heroic,” to the point where the score from The Natural would tell these pieces to take it down a notch. Even with these caveats, though, HBO’s output is generally well done, full of great archival footage and admirably focused on painting a picture broader than the usual simpled-down sports story. See Mantle, for instance, for a reasonable mixture of hero worship and idol smashing on the subject of Mickey Mantle. (Warning: It contains heavy Billy Crystal content.)

One of my favorites among HBO sports docs is The UCLA Dynasty, a survey of John Wooden’s years in Westwood. It tells a fascinating story of how this strait-laced Hoosier used his almost Ned Flanders-esque earnestness to craft one ultra-disciplined, going-on-unbeatable championship team after another while the world outside Pauley Pavilion was literally going up in flames. As Watts burned down and the Black Panthers had gun battles with the LAPD, Wooden was somehow able to convince his charges of the importance of putting on their socks in the correct manner. It’s a great story.

In the standard HBO sports-doc format, we often receive testimonials from celebrity sports fans, or in the case of college teams, famous people who attended these institutions. The UCLA Dynasty gives us a few of these, such as Penelope Spheeris, Mark Harmon, and Beau Bridges. (The latter two were also student athletes during the Wooden administration’s dynastic period) There is one alum interviewed, however, who nearly brings the whole production crashing down around him. That would be Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek.

If you’re wondering about Manzarek’s hoop bona fides, you should know that he provided the musical accompaniment for Bill Walton’s spoken word album Men Are Made in the Paint. (Yes, that is a thing that actually happened, thanks to Greg Ginn) So I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that his appreciation for the sport of basketball is sincere. I am not, however, prepared to forgive him for this brief but excruciating segment in which he explains to us the greatness of the school’s first national champions with a vocabulary consisting entirely of Doors song titles:

In a documentary that is otherwise commendable, this one tiny sequence feels like biting into an apple and finding half a worm. Only the worm is hilariously self-important and was barfed-upon by Jim Morrison literally hundreds of times.

The first inclination is to blame the director; just because you filmed Manzarek saying this doesn’t mean you have to use it. But it’s also tough not to wonder whether this bit was whittled down from a 20-minute fantasia where Manzarek just kept going on, naming title after title. “Crystal Ship!...Touch Me!...People are Strange, man!”

Manzarek only makes one other appearance in this doc, but it too is a needle-across-the-record doozy. It comes during a segment that tries to convey the political context of what was going on at UCLA, and on pretty much every other college campus, in the late 1960s. The basketball team was not completely isolated from this, as many athletes were vocal about their political consciousness. Walton participated in anti-war demonstrations, and several Bruins refused to participate in the 1968 Olympics, with Lew Alcindor being the most prominent of those objectors. That Wooden was able to bridge a generation gap without being an intractable drill sergeant-type makes his accomplishments even more impressive.

How does Manzarek sum up this tumultuous period? By explaining The Doors to us, of course.

And there you have it. The 1960s were a time not only of The Doors, but also Doors-inspired college basketball.

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UCLA's campus buildings feature an extensive collection of doors.

Doors of UCLA, a new HBO documentary, featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Marques Johnson, Ed O'Bannon, Gail Goodrich, Reggie Miller, Don MacLean, Sidney Wicks, Bill Walton, and Jordan Farmar.