ESPN 30 for 30: Free Spirits (2013)

Directed by Daniel H. Forer

The ABA, or American Basketball Association, was a very different league than the NBA, the professional basketball league we know and love today in America. The ABA was more gimmicky. Features bigger, and bolder personalities. And often times these personalities were encouraged, unlike everything in current professional sports, which seems to take every effort to stop fun in sports (re: touchdown celebrations in football). The ABA eventually folded, or rather merged with the NBA. However, a handful of teams were left in the dust, not making the cut alongside teams like the Nets, Pacers, Spurs and Nuggets. One of those teams were the Spirits of St. Louis, a talented team that featured its own cast of characters, its own brand of basketball.

However, the Spirits of St. Louis never truly folded. True, they were one of the teams to not make the cut when the NBA came calling, which forced the team to no longer compete in basketball games, to no longer employ players or coaches, but the Spirits of St. Louis live on today, and in a very lucrative manner. The owners, Ozzie and Dan Silna, made sure of that. In an unheard of bargaining agreement for the time, the Silna’s agreed to fold, but under one condition. They would receive a piece of the NBA television revenue each season, “in perpetuity”. At the time, television revenue was next to nothing for the NBA, but what the Silna’s did was assure they wouldn’t have to work ever again, as they were hungry to be NBA owners, but the league did not choose their team. The term “in perpetuity” essentially means the Silna’s receive millions of dollars each year, forever. To date, the agreement has netted them over $250 million, just for agreeing the Spirits would not be included in the merger.

The shame of the film is how much it seems to want to downplay this incredible fact. Definitely the best deal in sports history, if not all of sports history, director Daniel H. Forer ignores it all the way until the very end of the film, inserting it as some kind of cherry on top of his film. I get why he wanted to do that, to let the viewer in on the personality of the team, the circumstances of the ABA and the Silna’s, but dropping the bombshell at the very end seems very much like an unearned finale to a rather lukewarm documentary. Forced to include it for its significance, but really it should be the star, not some footnote at the end of the film. I want to know more about this deal, and perhaps a tad less about the team itself.

The team was certainly full of personalities, and some truly great players. Marvin Barnes was the star of team, on and off the court. He lived the life of a playboy, but his talent on the court made him one of the stars of the NBA, and a truly great player. However, his behavior off the court left him much less marketable when the NBA came calling. Such an interesting thing to watch Barnes recount times when he was high while playing, times when he was doing drugs on the bench during games. Yes, the ABA was a different beast. But Barnes could turn it on any time he wanted and dominate the floor and the game. What we see of the team is often underachievement, especially after they gained such stars as Moses Malone when other teams were forced to fold.

It’s a neat idea for a film, and certainly has its interesting moments that put today’s sports into perspective, moments that show the evolution not only of the game of basketball, but also the business of it. Really, this film would have benefited if it has focused more on the business of sports, but Forer decides instead to deliver a rather nostalgic reminiscence on the times of basketball in the ABA. This is fine, except I didn’t experience the ABA, and the content was not near enough to make me feel connected or nostalgic about it. Perhaps ABA fans will get a kick out of the film, but for me, not even the fact that Bob Costas got his start in announcing as the Spirits play by play radio guy is enough to hold my attention.

** – Poor


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