Play it Again Sam: the Sam Schoenfeld Story (Directed Matthew Berkowitz, produced by Rough Hewn Entertainment, 2011).
Matthew Berkowitz and Rough Hewn Entertainment bring a moving archive to fans and historians of the game in their film documentary Play it Again Sam: the Sam Schoenfeld Story (2011). Constructed from a wealth of newspaper coverage, family home movies, photos, and interviews with people who interacted with Sam on a variety of levels, Play it Again Sam is a striking example of how intensive research can be brought together in the celebration of a hero. One of the greatest difficulties of making a documentary like this, particularly when dealing with sports figures, must be choosing what surviving media material to emphasize and how best to arrange the information in a narrative that viewers can easily follow. That has to be balanced against the need to present a full picture of the phases in a career sportsperson’s life as well as the many spheres in which they have influenced others.
In Play it again Sam, we are first introduced to the many voices and impressions of Sam still passed on by surviving friends, relatives, and other professionals. This creates a kind of cascade of information in which little shards of Sam’s personality and life work come to light. The strongest impression that draws the “cascade” of personal interview clips to a close is that Sam is a “genuine legend”. This raises a question for the rest of the documentary to answer. In what ways was Sam so particularly “authentic”? How was he the “real thing” to the extent that over 50 years after his death, people still speak about him with devotion and awe?
To answer that, Berkowitz takes us back to the very beginning, to Sam’s childhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as the son of a butcher who had a natural attraction to informal sports but impressed teachers immediately at the high school level. What’s unusual in this story is not just Sam’s skill at a very new sport, but his drive to go to college and become a physical education teacher in the early 1920’s, certainly not a typical goal. Newspaper clippings and photographs contrast Sam’s remarkable records of success at his first college with the impact of the depression and the substrata of “Jewish kids” winning scholarships and making a name for themselves in this “urban sport”. Historians and academics fill in the social details for us, linking basketball to the “immigrant experience”, a reinforcement of the team-sport ethos whereby a community ascends together toward their goals.
Sam’s influence on basketball gradually emerges in a steady trajectory after gaining the limelight as a star player at Columbia University, reminding us strongly that this is a New York story and that, in this early period, basketball was still really a New York game. In a career-defining moment, the first national radio broadcast of a basketball game in the USA actually featured Columbia, and Schoenfeld, in a successful championship match. Sam’s life during this period was not all about the game, however, but also about supporting his growing family. In the coming years, he would take on a number of “enterprises”, many of which left a lasting mark on the game, and on the lives of young people. From coaching to investing in restaurants and “officiating” at games, Sam worked tirelessly to foster success and used his “genuine” nature to make life-long friends.
Despite Sam’s stellar performances on the court, he refused employment as a professional player in order to remain closer to his family, and it is perhaps as a coach, official, and father that he shone the most. Berkowitz and Rough Hewn present a particularly strong record of this period in Sam’s life, including much of his unofficial life through family home movies and interviews. His “diversified career” included the successful founding of health and fitness based camps for young people and a very active role as an official referee during an era when refereeing was a fairly new discipline. In fact, Sam helped to found the first officially recognized and organized body of referees and guided them through rough patches in interacting with media and fans. Sam’s impressive “voice” for the honesty and integrity of the sport, including direct responses to a denigration of referees gained him even greater respect in a role where he was already often greeted like a star.
Berkowitz makes it clear that in many ways, Sam’s career parallels the rise of basketball from a back-alley diversion to a respected and recognized national sport, and that Sam Schoenfeld’s own seriousness, and his respect for the game, provided the passion, goals, and guidelines that basketball needed to progress. As a teacher, Sam instilled these values in many major players, and particularly raised the prestige of referee work, inspiring several of his students to “officiate” for the NBA.
The consistent message of so many contributing “voices” in the documentary that are skillfully woven together in this account, is that Sam was indeed an authentic legend: someone who lived by example and held himself to the standards that he expected to see in others.
The evidence for this was most clearly seen in Sam’s remarkably crowded funeral after he died from rapidly progressing cancer at the young age of 49. Berkowitz again brings in many accounts of the funeral to present a kind of collage of the unique experience. The procession was “tremendous”, and police barricades were needed, as players, colleagues, and friends insisted on showing their affection and respect en masse for one of the biggest influences on basketball’s development in New York.
In-depth interviews with Schoenfeld’s sons bring the story out of the public sphere, where it has plenty to inform it, and into the personal sphere. Viewers get a unique perspective, laced with touching honesty, about how Sam’s tireless schedule impacted family life, and the ways in which losing him so suddenly cast them all adrift. While he encouraged one son in artistic endeavor, and another to pursue medicine, a third who followed in his father’s footsteps felt that Sam was almost entirely “absent” from games and practices due to his demanding career. After losing Sam, his wife and children faced “turbulent times” and struggled with finding their roles in life. Family videos touchingly convey a feeling of Sam’s inner life, and happier times, reminding viewers of the motivation behind much of his work: to be an example to the younger generation.
Sam’s story would not be complete without a look at his ongoing impact, from the awards established in his name to his 2009 induction into the New York Basketball Hall of Fame. Berkowitz includes a scrolling list of the winners of these awards, emphasizing the continuity of Sam’s life with the current sport he shaped so deeply. Throughout the documentary, the use of period music, excellent editing, and an appealing overlay of still shots create a fluid learning experience. Even for those who think they know the Sam Schoenfeld story, there are bound to be several moments of remarkable insight into both the man and his game due to Berkowitz’s wide-spread interviewing and careful documentation. The viewer comes to hear Sam’s voice more clearly through the voices of the many, many people who were inspired by his example, and that may be the most “genuine” portrait of a legend that filmmakers can construct.
Play it Again Sam uses a light touch on the archival material it presents, but a careful and exacting approach to organizing its story-telling in a meaningful way. It’s a beautiful tribute to the early days of a beloved sport and it sensitively explores a major hero’s life and career while acknowledging the justifiably legendary aspects of his legacy.
–by Hannah Means-Shannon, aka Hannah Menzies on Facebook and Twitter