BOSTON – On an off-day of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Finals, a small group of media and film buffs gathered for a special screening of “WILLIE,” a new documentary on the life and times of Willie O’Ree.
Far too many sports fans react the same exact way when presented with the name of Willie O’Ree. While they know Jackie Robinson was the first major league baseball player to break the color barrier when he suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and they might know a combination of Earl Lloyd, Sweetwater Clifton and Chuck Cooper were the first black players in the NBA, very few know that O’Ree was the first player of color to play in the NHL.
O’Ree was called up to play two games for the Boston Bruins in 1958 and later (1960-61) played 43 games for the Bruins in the NHL. O’Ree also played a whopping 785 games for the WHL, mostly with the San Diego Gulls.
He has been honored with the Order of Merit in Canada and at The Tradition here in Boston, amongst other honors and milestones noted in the film. In fact, when O’Ree was recognized at the 2011 event here at The New England Sports Museum (now located within the TD Garden), and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman attended the affair, it was the first time this writer had heard of Willie O’Ree.
Shame on me.
In writing a review of a documentary just off the editing line, it’s commonplace to delve right in and spew the facts gleaned from the film. This review will be quite different and by reading it, you’ll quickly realize the impact that seeing WILLIE made on me.
First, the basics: The documentary was fabulous and you should do everything in your power to see it, once the producers navigate its way to the distributor of their choice. That might take time, be it months or longer. Be patient. WILLIE is well worth the wait.
That’s how good “WILLIE” is and will be. Our small group was the first to see the film in the United States of America.
A few things that I will NOT tell you about the documentary:
It is NOT your typical sports documentary. If you’re thinking 30-for-30, forget it. WILLIE is far deeper and more meaningful. It is much more a story of inspiration and human emotion and relationships than it is a sports story.
I will NOT tell you much more about WILLIE, as I don’t want to spoil an amazing ride, a ride that takes you back and forth in time. The film doesn’t just plow through the story in chronological order. It doesn’t go from Point A to Point B to Point C. After you see it, you’ll understand why.
The other tidbit I will share is that everything within WILLIE has been well thought-out, and that includes the staging of the interviews conducted within the film and other subtelties. Credit producer Bryant McBride who then gives full credit to documentary film producer Laurence Mathieu-Leger. The simplicity is the key. the presentation? Impeccable.
One fact: McBride sought-out O’Ree when the former worked at the NHL league office in the mid-1990s, and that’s how this incredible, important and amazingly poignant story came about here in 2019 and it may be 2020 before you can see it.
I’m not going to tell you anymore. I’d love to, I really would.
I have a notebook filled with incredible quotes and anecdotes. I asked questions of the film-makers and received answers that made me shake my head in wonderment. I could go on-and-on-and-on. It was that good.
I could write a few spoilers. I could tease a few great moments. I could share the incredible answers to the questions I asked. I could tell you where WILLIE was born, even how he got the name (O’Ree) and how he weaved his way through his incredible journey – all the way to the NHL.
Nope. … I won’t.
I don’t want to spoil it for you.
You don’t have to be a sports fan. You don’t have to be an ice hockey fan. When you get the chance, GO to SEE WILLIE.
HERE Now, The NOTES: The LA Clippers were fined $50,000 on Friday for violating the NBA’s anti-tampering rule because of the comments of coach Doc Rivers comparing Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard to all-time NBA great Michael Jordan. …Leonard, who led the Toronto Raptors to the NBA Finals, is slated to become a free agent after the season, and the Clippers are one of the teams expected to seek his services. … Rivers made the comments Tuesday when he appeared on an NBA Finals preview show on ESPN. … “(Leonard) is the most like Jordan that we’ve seen,” Rivers said. “There’s a lot of great players. LeBron (James) is phenomenal, KD (Kevin Durant) is phenomenal. Not that (Leonard) is Jordan or anything like that, but he’s the most like him. Big hands, post game, can finish. Great leaper, great defender, in-between game. If you beat him to the spot he bumps you off, and then you add his 3-point shooting.” … Seems strange for the NBA and ESPN to recruit an active head coach to be on a show previewing The NBA Finals, and featuring two of its best teams with its talented roster of players, then expect that coach NOT to comment on the players preparing to play in the very game the show is previewing? … NBA Coaches Association President Rick Carlisle has a beef. … The NBA named its Vice President and Managing Director for Africa, Amadou Gallo Fall as the new President of the Basketball Africa League (BAL), a new professional league featuring 12 club teams from across the continent of Africa. … Fall will assume his role as BAL President immediately while assisting in the transition and search for a new Managing Director of the NBA in Africa. … The new pro hoops league is scheduled to begin play next year. … “Amadou’s efforts to grow basketball and the NBA’s business across Africa have been extraordinary, and he is an ideal choice to lead the Basketball Africa League,” said NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Mark Tatum. “This historic initiative will not only further enhance the game in Africa but also provide new opportunities in media, technology and infrastructure on the continent.” … The announcement about the NBA and FIBA’s launch of the BAL, which marks the NBA’s first collaboration to operate a pro basketball league outside of North America, was made at the NBA All-Star 2019 Africa Luncheon in Charlotte on Saturday, Feb. 16th. … Fall is now “on the clock.”
Would you rather play NCAA college basketball or take a trip Down Under to play? RJ Hampton, the No. 5 prospect in ESPN’s Top 100 Class of 2019, this week signed a contract with the New Zealand Breakers of the Australian National Basketball League (NBL), he announced on ESPN’s Get Up on Tuesday. … Hampton is the first top-notch American player prospect to willingly forgo college ball and school to play international basketball, unlike players such as Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson, who signed overseas because of concerns regarding their academic or amateur standing. … Going way back, Danny Ferry and Brian Shaw both played international pro ball, to avoid playing in the NBA cities which drafted them.
Matthew Hong, CEO of Turner Sports and head honcho for Bleacher Report, decided he’d step down from his post. Said Hong on his own social media posting: … “Last week I announced I’ll be departing Turner Sports after an amazing 11+ years. I’ll miss the people at Turner Sports and Bleacher Report – and the properties and partners in our portfolio – immensely. That said, everything is in great hands and poised for continued growth going forward. A huge thank you for letting me be a part of such a wonderful team and such a great ride. … He continued with a personal note: “On a personal level, I’m excited about the next few months, most of all the opportunity to recharge mentally and physically. My kids should expect lots of unsolicited coaching from the stands, and my wife may start to second guess all of this once I start crashing her classes at the gym. I also plan to travel to catch up with old friends and extended family; look forward to seeing many of you!” … Winnipeg is finalizing a deal to host a preseason game between the Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders in August, the NFL’s first-ever appearance in the city and its first in Canada since 2013. The game at IG Field, home of the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, would occur during the third week of the preseason (Aug. 22-26). Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the J.E.T.S. play the Pack? … Santa Anita had its third horse racing death in nine days and its 26th since Christmas Day when a gelding pulled up during a race last Saturday and was euthanized on May 26th. A stunning total of twenty-six horses have died in racing or training at the Southern California track since Dec. 26. … Off-season for the NFL brings concern in many ways. In Dallas, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones expects star running back Ezekiel Elliott to avoid league discipline despite a recent incident involving security guards at a Las Vegas music festival. … Elliott briefly was placed in handcuffs and detained by police, but he was not arrested. A video showing part of the incident was released by the gossip website TMZ. … Jones downplayed the incident as he praised Elliott, who drew positive headlines earlier this offseason when he paid for the funeral of a teenage football player who was killed by a stray bullet in East St. Louis, Illinois. Elliott grew up on the Missouri side of the river and maintains close ties to the St. Louis area. … “I think that the main thing is that I don’t see anything that needs supporting,” Jones said. “In terms of his status with us, (it) has not been impacted in any way. And frankly, I know how conscientious he has been in the offseason, and that’s good enough. No, I don’t see that having any consequences for us.” … Meanwhile, former NFL cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones announced his retirement from the league after 12 seasons. … “I stand tall and proud as I announce that this beautiful life-changing ride that I have been on in the National Football League has come to an end, I’m officially hanging my cleats up, with no regrets!” Jones wrote in a statement released Friday by his agent, Peter Schaffer. … Jones, 35, has a history of arrests and was plagued by legal issues throughout his career. The NFL suspended him for the 2007 season following a shooting at a Las Vegas strip club that left a man paralyzed. A member of Jones’ entourage was identified as the shooter. … The Tennessee Titans had selected Jones with the No. 6 overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, and he played in 30 games over his first two seasons. He also played for the Dallas Cowboys (2008), Cincinnati Bengals (2010-17) and Denver Broncos (2018). … In closing this week, one of the really good guys in the sports industry was named to one of the truly great jobs in the sports tv world. Michael McCarthy, former head of the MSG Network and senior exec with the St. Louis Blues and Milwaukee Bucks, was named General Manager of The Marquee Sports Network in Chicago with the responsibility to get the network up and running and televising the Chicago Cubs for next season (2020). With McCarthy in charge, every single sports exec, TV person, talent, you name it – that’s ever come in contact with him is now … a CUBS fan.
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