The Media Learning Curve: The readiness is all

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Photo courtesy of ESPN Films
Derrick Gathers, the brother of former LMU star Hank Gathers who played his college basketball at Cal State Northridge, has a joyful moment during the filming of “Guru of Go.”

That’s Paul Westhead’s favorite Shakespearean line above, from “Hamlet,” as he explains in “Guru of Go,” the latest ESPN “30 For 30″ documentary that debuts Saturday (Channel 7, 2 p.m.) and we got into with today’s media column (linked here).

Director Bill Couturie said that long before he even scripted how this film could come about, he had a list of quotes from Shakespeare that he thought would go well with the piece, based on Westhead’s background as an English lit teacher and trying to pass on his knowledge to a bunch of basketball players who probably didn’t know any better.

As a result, an underlying theme to “Guru of Go” are Shakespearean references the really tie everything together. Even better, Couturie said he discovered that Westhead kept a journal, thinking he’d someday do a book of “The System” and his days of coaching, going back to winning an NBA title with the Lakers in 1980, to leading Loyola Marymount on its fanatical run in the late ’80s, to getting the Phoenix Mercury to an WNBA title three years ago, and now trying it out on the women’s college level in the University of Oregon, which made the NIT.

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From that journal, excerpts are used to tell the story of Westhead’s philosophy that really cut through the on-camera interviews and archived footage. It’s more personal, straight from the pen and paper, that gives “Guru of Go” another dimension in the doc drama that ESPN is trying to reveal to viewers with this series.

More Q-and-A with Couturie (pronounced ko-TOUR-e-AY), who grew up in Palos Verdes Estates and now lives in Ojai, on the project:

Q: What made you pick this project over all the other sports stories of the last 30 years?
How did you get connected?

A: I did a film, “Into the Fire” (linked here) and the writer on that project, Steve Delsohn, who also does work for ESPN, convinced me I should get into this “30 For 30″ project, and he had some ideas. The one that lit the spark for me was with Paul Westhead. I’m a documentary film maker, not a sports guy, but I like sports. The thing that works for me is when I fall in love with a character. This Shakespearean scholar spouting to 7-foot black kids from ghetto, how does that work? A lot of stories are also best told fictionally, but some stories really wouldn’t work as fiction because you wouldn’t believe it, it’s too far fetched. That’s where the filmmaker of a documentary has a great opportunity to have a story only to be told in a non-fiction sense — starting with the Lakers, and Jack McKinney getting into a bike wreck, leading to Westhead taking over and leading the team to the championship, then Magic Johnson gets him fired for ‘not running enough,’ etc.. There are so many twists and turns.

Q: What kind of challenges did telling this story present, especially when the title, “Guru of Go,” implies it’s really all about Westhead and his system, but there’s this Hank Gathers story that also fits into it?

A: It’s only 50 minutes long and you’re telling the story about the last 30 years of one guy’s life, and the last 15 yeras of two other lives. Time is critical. It would have been journalistically irresponsible to not include all the Loyola Marymount parts to this. But with Paul, he had all the right parts at LMU to make this work, and given how critical Hank was to the whole system made it all the more astounding.

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Q: The most powerful thing has to be where you have all the people you’ve interviewed for this piece stop and pause when it got to the point where they had to talk about Gathers’ death. Each handled it in their own way … and what about the way Derrick looked right into the camera?

A: On the first day of shooting, we filmed Derrick and Bo Kimble. Once Derrick understood this wasn’t going to be just a quickie news piece and we’d go indepth, he got into it. He wears his heart on his sleeve. As a documentary guy, you live for that kind of interview, one who spills his guts like that. As soon as we had that, I knew we’d have a good movie. Then when Bo came in, he was also thoughtful and charming. Then I knew we’d have a great movie. Normally, the first day is a bust in getting a documentary going, you’re just getting your feet wet, and you’ll figure things out as they go along. But we got two major interviews the first day.

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Q: You wish you could have had more time to get more material in, or is 50 minutes enough?

A: When someone from ESPN saw it, they said, ‘If we’d known how good this was, we could have given it a 90-minute slot.’ I already had sweat blood to get it down to 50. Hopefully, there will more that gets onto the DVD when that is released later. You’re always working with collapsing and expanding time in a documentary to get different effects and create a different impact. I wanted to get a clip in of Hank’s 48-point game against LSU and Shaquille O’Neal, but that didn’t make it. I also knew there was more footage out there of him being a comedian — everyone talks so much about that. I know some of that was lost in a fire apparently. When we had a screening of this last week at LMU, a friend of Bo’s came up and said he had a VHS tape of Hank rapping and being funny. I knew someone would have something like that, and unfortunately, it was at the premiere. The most difficult part was trying to tell two stories here. We debated that a lot. Hank’s story was emotional, but ESPN said they felt they had already told it (in its “SportsCentury” series). But so many people knew it we decided we had to tell both stories, integrate the A-Story about Paul and the System, and the B-Story about Hank and Bo, and then make them flow together so they felt natural and not forced. When we screened it to friends of mine, who aren’t sports people, they agreed that you don’t need to care so much about basketball to fall in love with the movie. Is it about basketball? Yes, but it’s a human story. Documentaries and films are different, but they really work the same way. You’ve got to tell a compelling story, and you have to have great characters. I look for personalities and storytelling and let the graphics move the rest of the story along. And here, I fell in love with the characters. Derrick again was one of the best interviews I’d ever done. I hadn’t met him and two hours later we’re hugging and kissing each other. Derrick was able to access his most private feelings, and many have a hard time doing that.

Q: Where were you when Hank Gathers died in 1990?

A: I was in the Bay Area and I had read all about it, but I didn’t follow LMU’s run in the NCAA tournament. To me, it was a news story and I guess it hellps to have a fresh pair of eyes on this. And I know after this documentary, one thing I was telling the people I talked do: I don’t think you’ll ever have to tell this story again because I think we have the definitive version.

Replays for “Guru of Go” after its debut Saturday (available at this link): Sunday, 7 p.m., ESPNU; Tuesday, 8 p.m., ESPN2; May 1, 5 p.m., ESPN2; May 4, 6 p.m., ESPN; May 5, 10 a.m., ESPNU.

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== This two-hour time block that ESPN has branded and shifted to ABC for Saturdays called “ESPN Sports Saturday” — kind of like “Wide World of Sports” without the exotic locations — will not only include “Guru of Go” but also an hour-long wrapup show of the week’s worth of sports news called “Winners Bracket” with Michelle Beadle and Marcellus Wiley. Eventually, the block will include Rick Reilly’s “Homecoming” show and “E:60″ news magazine segments. Hannah Storm will anchor it.

== The re-emergence of the Arena Football League comes via the NFL Network, which will use Paul Burmeister, a former Iowa quarterback on play by play, and Solomon Wilcots as the anlayst on the game of the week, starting tonight at 5 p.m. Fran Charles will also call some games on the network’s 18-game package, with Charles Davis and Tom Waddle also joining in. The first game: Chicago Rush at Iowa Barnstormers. The last game: July 30: The Tulsa Talons vs. the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgs.

== NHL.com has launched a digital vault to give access to contests from the past going back to the 1960s. In addition, there are “condensed games” — 10-12 minutes long, from the previous night, and a three-year archived of full replays of all games since the 2007-08 season. It starts at $4.95 a month. More info: (linked here).

== Gary Stevens, part of the NBC crew in Arcadia hosting Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial coverage on Saturday (Channel 4, 2 p.m.), says it about Lookin At Lucky: “(He) is the obvious pick (for the Santa Anita Derby), but it was interesting listening to Bob Baffert this week saying that he just wants to get through this race and that the horse is much better on dirt than synthetic. It almost sounds like if he gets beat that he is not worried about it. He’s looking forward to the Kentucky Derby. Having said that, Sidney’s Candy is a speed horse who can actually take it wire-to-wire. I also like the gelding Caracortado. He’s only lost one race.”

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