By chance, this weekend I watched a pair of great sports docs made five years apart about the intertwined lives and careers of two pairs of athletes and was struck by the thematic parallels -- and telling differences -- and how they reflect issues of race and class that continue to haunt our national dialogue.
McEnroe/Borg:Fire & Ice, an HBO sports doc made in 2011, depicts the short but intense rivalry between tennis's two top male players, tempermental John McEnroe and unflappable Bjorn Borg, at the turn of the 80s, which peaked quickly, then sent both men into different kinds of tailspins.
Doc & Darryl, ESPN's latest in its stellar 30 for 30 series, charts the instant stardom and nearly as rapid descent into addiction and self-destruction of two young New York Mets phenoms of the mid-80s, pitcher Dwight "Doc" Gooden and slugger Darryl Strawberry.
You can look up all the career stats somewhere else, but what struck me was this:
- Borg won Wimbledon at age 20, won it 5 more times and the US Open 5 times, but retired at 26.
- McEnroe won the US Open at 20, won it 3 more times and Wimbledon 3 times, then took a year off at 25, married Tatum O'Neal and never won another Grand Slam.
- Gooden was Rookie of the Year at 19, Cy Young the next year, and in the World Series the next. Then he started being suspended for drug use, and though he pitched a no-hitter for the Yankees at 31, never had a dominant season after he was 25.
- Strawberry was Rookie of the Year at 21. His productive years lasted a bit longer -- till he was 29, and he actually hit 24 homers as a Yankee at age 36. But he was suspended three times for drug use, was arrested for soliciting sex, and he too never matched his first few years' dominance.
What both films make clear is that all four men became lost souls, even at the height of their power and fame - or because of it. All had dalliances with drugs, divorce, and darkness, but the way their paths diverged reflects where they came from as much as who they were.
Borg, an only child who grew up in suburban Sweden, retired young because he'd lost the winning edge, probably chased to the exit by his inability to beat McEnroe after holding him off at the 1980 Wimbeldon final. He divorced his tennis-star wife, and then again, had a child custody battle with a model, nearly bankrupted himself, auctioning off his trophies in 2006 (and then having to buy them back at a premium). When things were bad, in 1989, he ended up in the hospital for a sleeping pill overdose, but he claims he'd been trying to counteract food poisoning. In the contemporary scenes, he seems at peace with himself.
McEnroe, who grew up in the upper middle class neighborhood of Douglaston, Queens, took his year off to marry actress Tatum O'Neal, a notoriously tempestuous relationship (he would be awarded sole custody in their divorce because of her drug addiction, but he also admitted to using cocaine.) He ended up in a happier second marriage to rocker Patty Smythe and a successful sportscasting career. The movie includes the touching information that Borg tells McEnroe "I love you" on the phone, and Smyth has to egg her husband on to say it back.
Gooden and Strawberry had to climb much further to get where they were -- and didn't have as strong support systems when they faltered. Strawberry grew up in South Central LA and Gooden in Tampa. Both had alcoholic fathers, and Strawberry's beat him. Both ended up in vicious cycles of substance abuse and run-ins with the law, and both spent time in jail.
Gooden is twice divorced, with seven kids along the way. The movie depicts so many drug suspensions and brushes with the law and trips to rehab it's hard to keep them straight.
Strawberry's track record is similarly troubled, he also had to survived two bouts of colon cancer. Now on his third marriage, to a woman he met in recovery, he has become a born-again Christian and runs two recovery centers for substance abuse.
Both documentaries are structured around a modern-day reunion: McEnroe and Borg return to the Wimbledon setting of their biggest showdowns, sweet and brotherly and nostalgic. The movie dispels any worries, they both seem happy in their current lives.
Strawberry and Gooden sit for a meal at a Queens diner. Their dynamic is brotherly too, but Strawberry is very much the big brother (he's two years older, even though he joined the Mets a year later). He's almost paternal as they rehash the past, straighten out some misconceptions, and try to make sense of where they've ended up. The contrast between them is pronounced: Strawberry is calm and gentle, Gooden jittery and gaunt.
Both the black athletes ended up spending time in jail and much deeper into addiction. Is this because of race? It's too complicated a question to answer here (or maybe anywhere).
In fact, another documentary pairing two rival athletes, Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals showed that sometimes expectations can be upended: it was the black player, Earvin Johnson, who came from a stable, middle class background, while the white Bird was much more of a hardscrabble survivor from difficult beginnings.
But seeing the Borg/McEnroe and Doc/Darryl movies back to back, I couldn't escape the feeling that the odds and the system were much more stacked against them and less likely to catch them when they fell.
Post script: During the film I was shocked to see one of the headlines depicting one of Gooden's setbacks shared history with another black athlete turned ESPN documentary subject.