After reading the Sports Documentary/Sports History issue of the Journal of Sports History (Summer 2014) I watched Michael Rapaport’s contribution to ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, “When the Garden Was Eden.” The documentary intended to show how important the New York Knicks teams of the early 1970s were to the NBA and that they represented an oasis in the tumultuous era, where people from different backgrounds came together and played as a team. As a professional basketball historian and fan I wondered about accuracy of its main argument but also how it fit with the sports documentary analysis I’d read.
As part of ESPN’s series, this documentary fits into the company’s model that Travis Vogan describes (“Institutionalizing and Industrializing Sport History,” 197). While the actor does not provide the cache that some of the earlier film makers in the series did, he brought the enthusiasm of a Knicks fan to his project and the style of the series provides the makers with cinematic signifiers that Joshua Malitsky discussed in his article, (“Knowing Sports,” 206).
The documentary proved to have a few minor inconsistencies and errors. “Garden was Eden” began by presenting the National Basketball Association as second to college basketball in New York City and as a “minor” professional sports league compared to professional baseball and football through the 1960s. One example mentioned is that the players received such small salaries to its players that they had to take jobs during the off-season (When the Garden Was Eden, 5-6 minute mark). Interestingly, while the comparison is made among the sports league, there is no investigation of how much players earned in baseball and football. In both of these sports, as well as hockey, players found themselves in the same position of having to work second jobs. Basketball had two centers that earned significant salaries, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, each earned around $100,000 annually. Walt Bellamy, the Baltimore Bullets’ center, earned $30,000 before becoming unhappy with contract negotiations with the team. Baltimore traded Bellamy to the Knicks, and his salary with them undercuts Reed’s comment here that none of his Knicks teammates earned more than $22,000. (The Bullets, The Wizards and Washington, DC, 78)
As part of the discussion about the insignificance of the NBA prior to the emergence of these Knicks, the film mentions that the league sometimes had its playoff finals shown on tape delay (When the Garden Was Eden, 6-7 minute mark). As Mario R Sarmento showed in his work, “The NBA on Network Television: A Historical Analysis,” the league had gained ground on television during the 1960s through the skillful directing of Roone Arledge. Ratings crept up and the NBA received increased revenue for its product. The tape delayed finals were not resolved by the development of a championship team in New York, as the film leads us to believe. The tape delay showing of the NBA Finals occurred during the late 1970s, when the broadcasts of all NBA games suffered severe ratings declines (Sarmento, 48-50).
More than the aforementioned inaccuracies, an omission proved a very important to making the point about the uniqueness of the Knicks. While painting the Knicks as a multi-racial team with a variety of individual personalities, the documentary failed to discuss the composition of any of other NBA teams. Wouldn’t Boston’s Celtics, Los Angeles’ Lakers, or Washington’s Bullets, also provide this same cohesion of different individuals into a winning team? I would argue that each team met this standard as well.
The style of its presentation aided immensely in making “Garden was Eden,” appear persuasive. The documentary adopted most of the claims that Malitsky described as assertions that contemporary documentaries make about sport. Rapaport’s film certainly used sports as visually spectacular, as individual expression and as already narrativized. However, it interplayed these three in an ingenious way that enabled them to reinforce one another and give more power to the argument the documentary advanced. During a twelve-minute stretch, the director took people from a black-and-white image of a down New York City, through colorful individualized introductions to each of the new Knick players, as they joined the team. This individual introduction of the biographies and special talents of these players included visually spectacular footage that depicted these youthful players as heroes were typically presented in many a Hollywood narrative movie. After more context about the disruption era with Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests, the montage ended with a photograph of all the players on the team seated in rows, presenting the documentary’s argument that these people of diverse backgrounds came together as a team. “Garden was Eden” also touched on sport’s connection with Capital but was neither critical or accepting sport as a business like any other. The movie celebrated the Knicks as significant to lifting up the fortunes of a struggling league, drawing celebrities (31 minute mark) giving it cache in the advertizing world and in magazines and books (52-55 minute mark). Interestingly, the documentary missed one opportunity to further this point when it presented the trade of Earl Monroe to New York. “The Pearl” wanted to leave Baltimore for a few reasons, a major one being a lack of advertising and business opportunities that could be had if he played with the Knicks.(59-62 minute mark, The Bullets, chapter 6).
Brett L. Abrams is a cultural historian with books on the Hollywood movie industry, stadiums in Washington, DC and professional basketball. His latest interest centers on pro sports fans and the various ways that we can understand them. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.