The Guru of Go

(Note: Part of ESPN’s 30 f0r 30 series of films)

Could you imagine a football team playing a season without punting?    Or a basketball offense with all one on one dribbling?  The idea of a tiny school, unable to compete with large programs staring them in the face – having to devise a way around it.  Smaller colleges and high schools have been incubators for some seriously alternative thinking – there is the low risk and lower according fear of a coach getting fired.  These alternative paradigms have introduced excitement into sports, especially the higher levels – where innovation and courage are generally frowned upon (indeed look at how much Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix teams were pilloried when they only were winning 60 games a year).  I am forever fascinated by them, from Paul Johnson’s work at Georgia Tech to even LaVell Edwards of the past at Brigham Young … alternative systems allow teams to overcome systemic disadvantage (i.e. recruiting) to legitimately “overachieve”.

As such, the 1990 Loyola Marymount University basketball team is a fascinating study.  First of all, there is the school itself, a small Jesuit Catholic school in Los Angeles, California – member of the tiny West Coast Conference.  Second, there was its coach, Paul Westhead – who had developed this running scoring system after being cast off from the NBA (even after winning the title in 1980 with the Lakers).  Third, there was the team itself, with USC transfers Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers – and the amazing dramatic arc of the 1990 season itself.  Really there is probably more than an hour’s material here – and as admirably as director Bill Couturie tries, The Guru of Go is ultimately held back from greatness by its inability to juggle these three major threads over the course of a one hour documentary.

One of the weaknesses is Couturie’s awkward device of separating chapters with Shakespeare quotes.  In between the chapters, we bounce between parallel stories line which both go from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.  The first is of Paul Westhead, who had come from Philadelphia, played for Jack Ramsay and crafted his own extreme up tempo notion of how basketball should be played.  He had coached the 1980 Lakers and then was famously run out of town after clashing with Magic Johnson.  After another NBA failure with the Chicago Bulls, Westhead went to Loyola Marymount as a place to have someone take a chance on him.  The second is the story of Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, friends from Philadelphia – Gathers becoming a legendary player in the city – growing up determined to lead their families out of the slums.  They were playing for community, and end up going to the University of Southern California.  Couturie ping pongs between these two threads, and their eventual intersection, but it is distracting, and we do not get to dive in depth on either of them.  Eventually, once Kimble and Gathers transfer to LMU, we focus on the 1990 season, with the spectacular highlights only a 122 point per game team can hang up.  And when Gathers drops dead, the documentary footage is staggering.  However, both stories – about the kids, and the coach – are both compelling enough for their own features.  Couturie is unable to juggle the two stories enough for that narrative engine to really get going.

Ultimately the movie has some amazing highlights and interviews of a fascinating little supernova in the history of college basketball.  However, it is hard not to feel like the pace was rushed, and that a lot was glossed over and both stories were thus a bit shortchanged.  It is a disappointment, especially given how compelling both figures are … its title suggest that it is about the zany basketball quest of Paul Westhead – but really the film can never fully settle on what it wants to be about.

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2 thoughts on “The Guru of Go

  1. I’ll probably write something on this too, but I agreed that there was too much to cover in an hour here. And the WNBA arc at the end was unnecessary, and I think a bit contrived. I’m sorry but the Phoenix Mercury were not running the “system” as described in the documentary.

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