THREE YEARS ago ESPN aired a series of commercials about the tiny Upper Peninsula logging town of Watersmeet, Mich., and its obsession with its high school basketball team, the Nimrods. (Think Fargo meets Hoosiers.) After each vignette ESPN asked, "Without sports, who would cheer for the Nimrods?" It was heady stuff for 60 seconds of TV, but the ads merely hinted at the townspeople's devotion to their team. Nimrod Nation, an eight-part documentary on the Sundance Channel (Mondays, 9 p.m.), tells the rest of the story.
Nimrod Nation is about high school sports, community and how one affects the other—hardly unexplored territory. On NBC, for example, Friday Night Lights depicts a tiny Texas town obsessed with high school football. Like FNL, Nimrod Nation features an antsy cheerleader ("I want to be in a half-decent place; I want to go to Wisconsin," she says), an overly ardent alum and a hotheaded player, the team's center, who's a chick magnet. In one episode of Nimrod a parent passionately implores the coach--athletic director to fund a bowling team for those few non-basketball-crazed students. Analmost identical scene involving girls' soccer unfolded four weeks ago on FNL.
Yet when cameras venture inside the Nimrods' locker room, they find nothing like the memorable "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" message often heard of FNL. Instead director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture), who also made the ESPN ads, shows coach George Peterson telling his players to close their eyes and then saying, "Think about the game ... and think we lost. Now open your eyes. How do you feel Like poo. But we have the opportunity not to feel like poo. The ball is in your hands." In another scene, after a loss, Peterson is shown sobbing in a bathroom stall.
Nimrod Nation is filled with raw, authentic moments like these, from players and coaches who talk in ways actors rarely articulate, with lots of ums and uhs and awkward, gut-wrenching silences. And some seemingly stereotypical characters turn out to be surprisingly complex. The cheerleader is dating a Native American player, which poses problems in the community. The overly loyal alum is not only living vicariously through the Nimrods but also pushing his kids to do the same. The center, meanwhile, is interested in more than just girls; he's also the student council president.
The show succeeds thanks to Morgen's light touch. He wisely decided against using a narrator, and his best shots are the ones that linger on a silent school hallway or a snowy Watersmeet landscape. Morgen doesn't spoon-feed morality tales; he pauses to let viewers extract their own, probably more ambiguous meaning about what they've just witnessed in Nimrod Nation.
THOSE WHO thought Bob Knight was mellowing at 67 should head over to The Dallas Morning News website (www.dallasnews.com). In October the Texas Tech basketball coach was twice accused of being part of dove hunting parties that fired pellets that hit bystanders. The paper snagged video of an encounter between Knight and the second accuser, James Simpson, who claimed that shotgun pellets landed in his yard and hit him in the back. Simpson videotaped the argument, in which Knight refuses to stop hunting so close to his house because—get this—Simpson cursed at Knight instead of asking him nicely to stop shooting at him. Police say they won't file criminal charges, and Knight said Simpson's assertion that the incident was intentional was "absolute [expletive]."
IT'S HARD for either side to claim the moral high ground in the dispute between the NFL and the country's leading cable operators, a yearlong spat between billion-dollar behemoths that has kept 53 million of America's 96.5 million cable households from seeing the NFL Network. (In a nutshell: The league wants to charge cable companies 70 cents per subscriber to carry the network, a fee big cable says would lead to rate hikes. Time Warner Cable, which like SI is owned by Time Warner, is one of the companies refusing to carry the NFL Network.) Last Thursday most NFL fans missed Tony Romo (above) leading the Cowboys to a 37--27 victory over the Packers in a battle of 10--1 teams and, barring a sudden settlement of the standoff, which is unlikely, those same millions also won't see the Dec. 29 season-ending Patriots-Giants showdown (among other games). Cowboys-Packers drew 6.3 million viewers, a figure that pales beside the number that watched the Nov. 26 Monday-night game between the Steelers and the Dolphins (12.5 million) but represents a stunning 14.6% of the households the NFL Network reaches. By contrast, the MNF game reached 10.4% of ESPN's total audience.
HOME OF THE NIMRODS
SUNDANCE CHANNEL (2, NIMROD)
COLD COMFORT The Watersmeet Township team means much to its community
JESSICA RINALDI/REUTERS (KNIGHT)
RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES (ROMO)