Killing Of Bin Laden An Event Right Up A Documentarian's Alley

By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/

NEW YORK ( — Once again, a major world event has been told through the eyes and ears of a sports commentator. It wasn’t by design, obviously, but since so many of us live and die with our teams it makes total sense that many of us just happened to have a game on when it all went down.

So how does one relate the killing of Osama bin Laden with sports? It’s not an easy task due to the fact that one was a real-life necessity, while the other is and will continue to be, really, at the end of the day, just a form of entertainment that gets us through all of our unique real-life necessities.

But every now and then they cross paths, usually with chilling emotional resonance. They did again on Sunday night, albeit on a lesser scale due to the fact that Sunday nights are not usually reserved for an entire slate of professional sports, but more for marquee games in any one of the four major North American leagues. Still, what was captured on ESPN cameras inside Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and broadcast over WFAN radio will become part of the history of the day reviled bin Laden finally got what he had coming to him.

Live television and radio is one thing. There’s no way to practice telling the world something incredible has happened that is completely unrelated to the event unfolding on the field. But documentary makers have been doing this with precision for years, creating pieces of our history that will be kept as favorites inside our DVD collections until it’s time to pass them on to younger generations, along the way introducing us to the professionals responsible for telling the stories live as they happened.

Three of the better sports-related documentaries I have ever seen revolved around three of the most disgraceful episodes in recorded human history. I am referring to the slaughter of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Muslim students in 1979 and the 2001 World Series in the Bronx, just a few miles from the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center.

And right-thinking movie and cable television executives and producers used their expertise to create memorable pieces of film that will stand the test of time because they told each incident’s story using sports as the backdrop.

The 1999 film “One Day In September” chronicled the tension and ultimate tragedy that gripped the world when terrorists seized the Israeli Olympic compound in Munich. We watched in both fascination and horror as complacency on the part of the authorities turned into a botched rescue and then, ultimately, into the death of 11 athletes following a firefight at a nearby airport.

That film won the 2000 Academy Award for best documentary and along the way showcased the true greatness of Jim McKay as not just a sports broadcaster who had seen it all during countless decades as the most recognized and trusted man behind a mic, but also as the common everyday human being who just happened to be, lucky for us and the world, working that day doing something, as it turned out, nobody else was capable of doing.

In 2001, HBO produced one of its many crowning achievements in the world of sports documentaries, “Do You Believe In Miracles? — The Story Of The 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team.” The film brilliantly cut between the growth of a band of fresh-faced and seemingly in-over-their-heads hockey players and their methodical and cunning coach to the goings on in Iran as 52 Americans were held hostage in their own embassy for 444 days as students rallied in support of a revolution.

The documentary gave us background on the political ramifications of the embassy siege, explained in great detail the failures of the Jimmy Carter administration and illustrated why the Americans boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow due to the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan, all the while using as its base the development of Team USA and the rich history of the international hockey dynasty that was the Boris Mikhailov-led Soviet National team, winners of just about every major competition from the early 1960s through 1976.

McKay was again a focal point of the connection between the public and what became the political world of international athletic competition, but more importantly we were introduced in earnest to Al Michaels, who in his own right made a name for himself as the absolute guy you want calling a big event. His signature phrase, “Do you believe in miracles?” as the clock wound down in the Americans’ unbelievable 4-3 win over the Soviets in the medal round has stood the test of time as the single most memorable call in sports history.

HBO struck gold again in 2004, albeit on a more personal level with New Yorkers, producing “Nine Innings From Ground Zero,” a documentary about the 2001 World Series, which took place six weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks. The city was still in a state of denial and the world had been put on notice that the greatest fighting force the earth has ever seen would be making life miserable in other countries in pursuit of those responsible for the cowardice acts committed in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa.

The documentary split its time focusing on those three unforgettable games at Yankee Stadium and on the first responders and common everyday folks impacted by the horror of that September morning. Through the words of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver we got to absorb Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius hitting unexplainable home runs in the bottom of the ninth of successive games. We listened as they explained how Arizona aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling basically pitched about as well as is humanly possible in Games 1, 2, 6 and 7.

But then HBO took over, showing firefighters sleeping on couches in between inhumane shifts, and others wishing they could find someone — anyone — alive in the rubble. We saw volunteers flock to ground zero from all over the country and citizens pitch in with supplies at a moment’s notice with no regard to the personal cost it would inflict on their livelihoods. We also felt good about our president. George W. Bush exemplified true leadership in the face of the horror as he turned Manhattan into his northern Oval Office, while all the while coordinating how to get the bastards responsible.

I’m sure there are many other films that have captured the American spirit in the face of extreme adversity, but these three just happen to be the ones that hit home with me. You probably have your personal favorites and I welcome you to talk about them in the comments section below this column.

That said, I’m not a Mets fan, but I immediately clicked the radio on Sunday night at the behest of my Twitter followers so I could hear the incomparable Howie Rose keep his composure and inform the public of what had happened in Pakistan, all the while being responsible to not be irresponsible in his reporting and, as if he refused to let it get lost in the shuffle, continuing to call what was a tightly contested baseball game between the Mets and Phillies.

So you see, sports are entertainment, but they can be the setting for much more than simply balls and strikes; touchdowns and interceptions; slam dunks and 3-point shots; or glove saves and power-play goals.

As with anything in life, timing is everything. The next time something that impacts the world takes place, find a second to see or hear how a professional outside that realm handles the situation. I guarantee you that you will be impressed and it will help you remember for the rest of your life where you were the day the news came down.

Time and again, the proof will be in the production, which is why sports will continue to have a place in dates and times when it isn’t the regularly scheduled guest of honor.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini

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