A couple months ago I attended a screening for a wheelchair basketball documentary called The Rebound. It tracks the story of a club team from Miami that is trying to win a title at the national championship tournament. Stories of pain, regret, and hope emerge from the lives of the players, for whom basketball is an anchor and a beacon. I'd seen it once before, at a film festival in Brooklyn, where my wife had also gone to see it on a different night. As we compared notes, I realized that I had a blindspot right where the bullseye of the film was. Even though basketball can't save your soul, and #ballislife is a half-truth at best, it is a wonderful gift that gives hope.
Mine is a similar story, of receiving basketball as a lifeline when the prospect of growing up watching from the sidelines as my friends played sports (and impressed girls thereby!) loomed like a black cloud over my life. Not that I haven't told that story to thousands of school kids, fellow athletes, and corporate employees over the years. I tell it even when I've forgotten it. After decades of elite sport and the Paralympic pursuit of excellence, there are times when I lose touch with the sheer joy and relief that the discovery of wheelchair basketball brings, and those feelings collect dust in the corner while I strain and strive.
So I'm thankful for this film's unabashed foregrounding of the personal struggles and triumphs, and backgrounding of the nitty gritty details and distinctions of wheelchair basketball as a high performance sport.
That being said, I have to raise one question; might the film have been better had the filmmakers told us that Miami was a second division team competing for the second division title?
At the time the film was made, Miami played in Division II of the NWBA (technically called Division III at the time due to a misnomer). The film never mentions that Division I exists, leaving the viewer to assume that this Miami team was among the very best teams in the country, when in fact it was among the best second division teams.
Why does that matter? Is that simply my ego talking because I play Division I? In any case, insiders don't need this pointed out - they know the context already. And outsiders can't tell - it all looks crazy and awesome to them. So what's the problem?
Well, I wouldn't necessarily call it a problem. And ego is always lurking, so let me acknowledge that valid possibility. But I would call it a missed opportunity. If you're trying to impress a general audience with the speed, skill, and dynamism of an unfamiliar sport, wouldn't it be even more powerful to show off those traits, and then point out that there's a higher level still? You open up the possibility of an imagination-fueled response like, "It's incredible what these guys can do. And you're saying there's a higher level?! Dang. I wonder what that level looks like."
You could also argue that by choosing not to clarify the competitive context, the film falls short of truthful story telling. But you don't need to settle that debate in order to acknowledge that the full context would make the story richer and the range of responses broader and deeper.