#05: Oral Histories are Documentaries with Words

Item! A few weeks ago, I wrote a tweet about submitting my writing to a website that didn't belong to me for the first time in years. This past weekend, I found out that I'm one of the newest writers for 16 Wins a Ring. 16 Wins a Ring is a website dedicated to all things NBA and I've been assigned to not only write about my favorite sport in the world but I'm also covering the Chicago Bulls. Yeah, I don't know what they were thinking. Be prepared for a bunch of #FireGarPax and “What Jimmy Butler is Doing Now” think pieces. But seriously, I'm hoping to have my first pieces ready soon. I highly encourage anyone who loves the NBA to follow 16 Wins A Ring on Twitter and on Medium. I'm really excited to be a part of the team.

If you have Tidal, I highly encourage you to watch the Footnotes For 4:44 video. I haven't seen it on YouTube yet and maybe it'll get uploaded there like “The Story Of O.J.” did. But even if you have to borrow someone's login to Tidal, watch this video. It's great.

Song of the moment belongs to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's “Brand New Funk”. Mostly because I found out that we share the same birthday but also because I remembered how good his album was 10 years ago. It still holds up nicely today. Check out his website to find out all the cool stuff he still has his hands in musically, including his Summertime mixtape series with Mick Boogie and his Vinyl Destination vlogs.

And if Jay still has bars… can I please get one more Will Smith/DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince album? Please? And no I'm not comparing Hov to Will; I'm just a fan of Will's work too. Don't get me started on Willennium.

I'm a sucker for a good documentary. Mostly about things that interest me so I'm not going to watch The Saga of Photosynthesis on Netflix. But sports, music, television, etc., I'm there. The first actual documentary I can recall watching was Hoop. I got it for Christmas of ‘94 (maybe ‘93, I'm not perfect) because I loved basketball. My dad must have thought the story of two high schoolers trying to make it to the NBA would appeal to me. And if the fact I can remember Arthur Agee getting crossed up by Isiah Thomas in the opening 30 minutes or the heartbreak William Gates felt when he failed to lead St. Joseph's down state again because he was late to the game proves anything, dad was once again right.

The most recent documentary I took in was the History of the Eagles due to a (surprise) recommendation from a Bill Simmons column from Grantland. Just like Simmons, I recommend the first half over watching the entire thing (it's on Netflix) but it's still a really cool watch overall.

And speaking of Grantland, that brings me to today's topic, the sibling of the documentary: the oral history. For those of you confused (pervs), an oral history is simply the written form of a documentary. Writers will interview everyone involved with a certain thing and then piece the thing together from start to finish. To a documentary fan like myself, it is a thing of beauty. It was Grantland that first exposed me to them but I'm sure they had existed for many years prior.

The oral history of the Malice at the Palace not only cemented me as a lifelong (who knew it would be their life and not mine) Grantland fan but also brought to life that awful night in Auburn Hills when then-Indiana Pacers Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson decided to rush fans in the stands and pummel their faces after someone threw a beer on Artest. I was watching the game that night and even 13 years later, it's one of the most awful sports related spectacles I've seen in my life. Not to mention the aftershocks it had on an Eastern Conference championship contending Pacers squad (this forced Reggie Miller to retire. Sure, he had played many seasons to this point but this is the thing that made Reggie say, “Enough is enough”. Thanks Ron). The oral history as a whole was great as most everyone involved took part in the story (I think Mr. World Peace passed, you'll always have 1 or 2 who decline to comment) and gave fresh new takes on the proceedings. There were regrets, sure, but there were also a lot of answers.

Another great oral history provided by Grantland was the one on the Houston Rockets team that was supposed to be a threat to repeat as Western Conference champions in 1986. How did this team that not only knocked off the defending champion Lakers and pushed one of the greatest teams of NBA history in the Boston Celtics to 6 games disappear without a trace? Drugs you say? Well… yes but there was a lot more to it. Sure, 30 For 30 does a great job covering the stories they're going to cover but was the 80s Rockets on their radar? I highly doubt it. How different would the late 80s have been out West if the Rockets could have kept contending? Do they beat the Lakers in ‘87, another potentially all-time great NBA team? How would the Bad Boys have handled a healthy Twin Towers duo of Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson? This oral history makes you explore all those thoughts.

On the other hand, not all oral histories are great. I bought that ESPN book a few years back, thinking it would be a fun read about all my favorite personalities and what it was like to work at what seemed like one of the greatest places ever. I was horribly wrong. Eight hundred and thirty-two tedious pages later, I might have my number one pick for worst book I've ever read. Sure, the personalities are there but so much time is spent describing how ESPN got on the air and how important it was that they aired boat races in the early years, I feel like I found the key to sainthood for finishing the whole book. If you take anything from this column, listen to the audiobook of the ESPN book if you just can't live without knowing how many sexual harassment cases they avoided in the '80s.

I was inspired to write this when I accidentally ran into the oral history of Wedding Crashers (which will be featured in the next Dope Reads drop), which is on my list of movies I'll drop everything to watch (another future podcast/column) and I got super excited. Then I realized how much of a nerd I am and then I had the nerve to put it on the Gram (to 1 like I think). A quick Google search provided at least 5 different oral histories I'm interested in reading, so it's safe to say my obsession will continue. I highly recommend looking through the Grantland archives at some of their work, including a huge (no pun intended) piece on Boogie Nights. I haven't even finished it and I think it's pretty fantastic.

I hope to one day be responsible for the oral history of Boyz II Men's careers start-to-finish (may that day never come), including interviews with Marc Nelson and Michael McCary (who isn't dead. Geez people). Or… the definitive oral history of Roc-A-Fella Records, featuring interviews with everyone from Jay to Teairra Mari. And Rell and Christión! That is an oral history that needs written even though an actual documentary would be way better. I think an oral history of “The Gold N Blue” could be really cool too but mostly for local Morgantown/WVU purposes.

And as I wrap this column up, I just Googled Hoop Dreams so I could start linking things… and there’s an oral history of Hoop Dreams! Three years old but once again it’s on (Jay/Sigel – The B. Coming – 2005 Dame Dash Music Group).

I really should attempt to write that Roc-A-Fella oral history though.

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