Dan Klores thought he was finished with sports films. Then Reggie Miller crept into his consciousness.
The result is Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks, which airs Sunday (3/14/10) on ESPN, after playing at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
"I didn't want to do another sports film," says Klores, a one-time journalist and founder of his own PR firm, who has segued into filmmaking full-time. "But then I was at a Knicks' game with my son and I thought it could be fun.
"Fun - that was the word. When I started, I said I needed to make it fun for everyone. Before every interview, I said to the person I was interviewing, 'This should be fun.' My approach was not Reggie as a basketball player but that Reggie was a performance artist and Madison Square Garden was clearly his stage. That's why I chose opera for the soundtrack."
Winning Time chronicles the special adversary relationship between perennial all-star Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks of the mid-1990s. In particular, Klores focuses on two astonishing Miller performances in the Garden: a 1994 playoff game in which Miller single-handedly beat the Knicks by connecting for 25 points in the fourth quarter; and a 1995 playoff game in which Miller brought the Pacers back from the brink of defeat by scoring eight points in the game's final nine seconds.
Klores started making documentaries in 2003 and has had several films invited to the Sundance Film Festival, including 2007 Independent Spirit Award winner Crazy Love. For Winning Time, his central focus was Miller: a talkative, self-confident, even swaggering player who seemed to take his game to another level whenever he faced the Knicks.
"Reggie was wonderful," Klores says. "I always felt that, when an athlete was so great, you may not be an intellectual about everything but you should be able to talk about what you do. He has a precise knowledge about the minute points, about the mental and physical part of the game. He also had the best line about Larry Brown (then-coach of the Pacers and subsequently an embattled coach for the beleaguered 21st-century Knicks): that he was a perfectionist in an imperfect game."
Even with a distance of 15 years, Klores found that the Knicks' memories of those remarkable games remained strong and detailed: "John Starks was terrific and Jeff Van Gundy has that insatiable knowledge," Klores says. "I chose to interview (then-Knicks coach) Pat Riley last because I had the feeling he'd be so good that he could take over the movie. I kept the interview with him to a half hour on purpose. And Patrick Ewing - everyone said, Ewing, he'll be hard, tough to talk to. But he was exactly the opposite. He had a smile but also an anguish."
Klores made the film as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series of one-hour sports documentaries. But once he started working on it, he knew he'd need more than the 54 minutes the network allowed him - and was able to stretch it to 68 minutes. Even then, there were things he couldn't squeeze into the film.