Like most of you, I suspect, I watch ESPN 365 days a year, or close to it. The last two evenings I was treated to Black Magic, a documentary that was, without question, the best television programming the network has put out this year. It was the best documentary I've seen since the nonpareil Hoop Dreams. I sat through most of the program, a thorough look at the men who integrated collegiate and professional basketball, with a slack-jawed awe. This is good, really good, I kept saying to myself. This is ESPN?
For its many faults, and they are well-chronicled, ESPN went against all its better instincts in airing this documentary. Looking back, Black Magic was anti-ESPN in almost every way. It featured historic people discussing important things in conversational voices, rather than forgettable people discussing unimportant things at jackhammer volume. It featured intimate one-on-one interviews with legends of the sport; not once were they asked what size their flat-screen television was or who they were rocking out to on their iPod. For two evenings, ESPN broadcast a program devoid of ulterior motives and entirely without commercials. Surely, it was snowing in hell.
The civil, adult tone of Black Magic never faltered, not when Pee Wee Kirkland regaled the audience with the story of his imprisonment (and subsequent 132 point game in a prison league), not when Willis Reed described himself as too stubborn to make a good SNCC protestor ("If someone punches me, I'm going to punch them back"), not when Bob Love reminisced on the day his wife left him shortly after a career-ending injury. From its passionate retelling of the legendary Big House Gaines to the heartbreaking treatment of Bobby Phills' untimely death, Black Magic rang true in ways the rest of ESPN could only dream of. I mean, can you imagine what Cold Pizza or First Take or, really, whatever they call it, would say about Pee Wee Kirkland? I can: Michael Vick. I'm still trying to get those six months of my life back.
Over the last two evenings, the volume on my television could be resurrected from the mute graveyard without fear of screaming talking heads arguing about "Bracketology" (Where is the Kansas Board of Education when you need it to put an end to this science?) or "Who's Now" or The National Steroids Epedemic or whatever. I was treated to a world in which dignified spirits succeeded against a society that was set up for them to fail; a world in which John Chaney was still a leader of young men and not someone whose dirty coaching demanded he be fired; a world in which silent, classy Ben Jobe led Southern University to the first NCAA tournament victory in the history of Historically Black Colleges yet didn't allow himself the job of savoring the win because it came at the expense of a lifelong friend, Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins.
For two evenings it was a beautiful, alternate universe, as if constructed by Le Anne Schreiber herself. Then, the program ended and normal life resumed. Flipping through the day's mail, I eyed the latest copy of ESPN: The Magazine. In an instant, the teamwork and the selflessness of Black Magic evaporated. In its place? LeBron James posing solo on the magazine's cover, wearing a baseball cap with four letters written on it in what appears to be blinging diamonds. What four letters graced his cap, you ask? What other four letters could it have been: ESPN.