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DVD Review: Black Magic

When I was sent a pre-release copy of ESPN’s documentary Black Magic, I was stoked to get the opportunity to finally watch this documentary. Living in Canada, I don’t have the chance to watch ESPN, yet all summer long I kept hearing great reviews about this documentary which only served to increase my curiosity.

When I cracked open the DVD and noticed it was 224 minutes long I began to question what I got myself into. Who wants to sit on the couch for nearly four hours watching a documentary? I hadn’t even pressed play and I could already feel my butt becoming numb at the mere thought of sitting on the couch for that long.

Despite some initial hesitation, four hours later I was still trying to absorb what I just watched and wishing the documentary had been longer.

Yes, you read that right: After sitting for nearly four hours watching a documentary I was hoping there was more to watch and learn.

The documentary started with an incredible look at the secret game that John C. McClendon organized back in 1944. The illegal game between Duke University and North Carolina College was the first time a team of black players played a team of white players and is viewed by many as a huge step forward for the game of basketball and integration. The documentary continued to focus on McClendon and showed how his motion offense changed the way the game of basketball was played and the role he had in ending segregation in NCAA basketball.

We live in an era where players, coaches and anyone associated with a professional sports team are warned not to cause ripples. What amazed me while watching this documentary was the fact McLendon risked his career, reputation and possibly even his life by trying to bring about positive social change while attempting to improve the way the game of basketball was played. It wasn’t for his own personal glory, it was because he saw the benefit of this game to his players and to African Americans all across America.

While many basketball fans look to Mike D’Antoni with awe and admiration for how he’s changed the NBA over the past decade, the simple truth is what D’Antoni’s numerous accomplishments pale in comparison to what McLendon accomplished. McLendon was mentored by Dr. J. Naismith on how the game should be played from baseline-to-baseline and with that knowledge he created revolutionary offensive sets which would see lots of transition baskets and shots within the first eight seconds.

Another part of the documentary that caught my attention was the rare candidness that Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland showed when talking about the mistakes he’d made in life. Far too often professional athletes hide behind cliches when “apologizing” for their mistakes. Kirkland broke free from this and was refreshingly honest and candid in talking about the mistakes that resulted in him spending time in Northeastern Penitentiary. The part with him talking about Kirkland ripping up the Anthracite Basketball League and scoring 100 points in a game while in NE Penitentiary is some truly remarkable material.

Just when my attention was starting to wane, another gem came out about the start of John Chaney’s coaching career. While most basketball fans know Chaney as the coach at Temple, his coaching career began at Cheyney State College where in 1978 where he brought his team to the Division II Finals. Chaney has long been a favourite coach of mine so the chance to listen to him tell stories of his time as a head coach had me completely mesmerized.

I consider myself as a fan of the history of the game, but after watching this documentary I realized just how much I have to learn about the game. Between all the anecdotes from Willis Reed, John Chaney, Bob Love, Al Attles, Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland, Bob Dandridge, Sonny Hill, Harold Hunter, Cleo Hill, Ernie Brown, and the widows of Clarence “Big House” Gaines and John McLendon, I’ve learned that I still have a ton to learn about the history of basketball and the NBA.

Throw narration by Samuel L. Jackson and music by Wynton Marsalis and Black Magic is able to provide the perfect combination of entertainment and information.

I don’t care how big of a basketball historian you consider yourself, I feel confident that there are parts of this documentary that will teach you something. For a rabid basketball fan like myself, watching this documentary was like sitting in a lecture hall for four hours while soaking up over 100 years of the history of the game.

If you’re looking for a way to get your basketball fix this month and learn something new, I’d like to recommend picking up ESPN’s riveting documentary Black Magic.

Ryan McNeill
Ryan McNeill has appeared on ESPN Radio, MTV Canada, SiriusXM, The Fan 590 and other radio programs and TV shows. He has covered the NBA with media credentials since the 2007-08 season.
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  • rashad

    Good stuff Ryan. I liked this series so much when ESPN aired it, I asked for a copy on the spot, and they told me to wait until the DVD. This is a tremendous educational tool, that I wish could somehow be incorporated into the NBA rookie symposium.

  • Ryan McNeill

    Great idea about using this during the rookie symposium! I think a lot of the younger players can learn a lot from what’s shown in this documentary.

    I think it was up for sale as of yesterday, maybe you can snag a copy this weekend somewhere in DC or online at the ESPN shop.

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  • Joseph Huff

    I watched this documentary in it’s entirety and all I can say is “amazing.” The dance which has and is taking place between Whites and Blacks in this American experiment is nothing than AMAZING and SAD, for both races. I wonder how it’s all going to end.