Three and a half stars
A former tennis player who was once ranked No. 1 in America talks about being so overwhelmed by anxiety that minutes before a 2012 U.S. Open match against Roger Federer, he withdrew.
We follow the journey of a legendary American athlete who shattered a world record in winning Olympic gold — but always felt like a fraud.
An NBA champion speaks of his role in the most infamous brawl in league history and how he struggled with mental health issues, including severe depression, throughout his career.
The five-part sports documentary series “Untold” premieres Tuesday on Netflix. Given the international headlines about Simone Biles’ brave and admirable decision to withdraw from a number of events at the Tokyo Olympic Games, citing mental health issues, the timing couldn’t be better. This is a collection of five stand-alone, 80-minute documentaries — and in four of those films, we see world-class athletes demonstrating remarkable strength and character as they speak about their various off-court, off-field challenges, from depression and anxiety, to surviving a horrifically abusive relationship.
Like the best of ESPN’s “30 for 30” docs, the “Untold” series is framed in the world of sports but goes far beyond that to tell the stories of some greatly talented and widely celebrated athletes who are also as flawed and vulnerable as the rest of us. The first indication of that is the opening title sequence, an elegantly staged passage set to the tune of “Your Sweet Love” by Lee Hazlewood, with the lyrics: “Stranger’s arms reach out to me, cause they know I’m so lonely . . . ” Yep, we’re not going to be hearing “Chelsea Dagger” or “Sweet Caroline” in this series.
The premiere episode is titled “Malice at the Palace” and takes us back to the dark night of Friday, Nov. 19, 2004, when the Pacers and Pistons squared off at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and all hell broke loose when a tussle on the court led to Ron Artest laying on the scorer’s table — at which point a fan threw a plastic cup filled with a drink at Artest, who responded by going into the stands, where he was eventually joined by a number of other players. It was pure madness and there was plenty of blame to go around — but “Malice at the Palace” does a journalistically sound job of putting events in perspective, with the help of never-before-seen security footage. And whereas Artest (later known as Metta World Peace), Jermaine O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Stephen Jackson and Ben Wallace all lament how things turned out, some of the idiot fans who were the true instigators of the melee never seem to take any kind of responsibility.
Arguably the most compelling entry in the series is “Breaking Point” (premiering Sept. 7), which tells the story of Mardy Fish, who was close friends with Andy Roddick when they were rising through the tennis ranks as teenagers (Fish even lived with Roddick’s family for a year). But while Roddick was ascending to the No. 1 ranking in the world, Fish labored on the fringes of the pro circuit, usually ranked somewhere in the 100s.
Some 10 years into his career, Fish reinvented himself, losing more than 20 pounds, changing his diet habits and suddenly becoming McEnroe-intense on the court. But at the 2012 U.S. Open, in the middle of a match, Fish had a major panic/anxiety attack. “All of a sudden, out of nowhere, just boom,” recounts Fish. “This is the first time it had happened on the court. The whole weight of the stress flooding in . . . I was all of a sudden, all alone.” Fish managed to finish the match. But just moments before Fish’s quarterfinal matchup against Federer, he bowed out. The good news is, with the help of a support system including his family and mental health professionals and his good friend Roddick, Fish is in a better place these days — though he acknowledges his issues are with him for life.
We all know Caitlyn Jenner’s story, but the “Untold” entry on Jenner’s life and career (on Aug. 24) is still a valuable and insightful biopic, with a treasure trove of highlight-reel and home video footage of a young, unknown Bruce Jenner training for the 1976 Olympic Games, followed by an extensive look at Jenner’s journey to transition. Another chapter, titled “Deal With the Devil” (Aug. 17), tells the story of boxer Christy Martin, who in the 1990s became the most famous female fighter in the world, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and even getting a spot on the undercard of a Mike Tyson bout. All that time, though, Martin was in an abusive relationship with her husband and trainer, Jim Martin, a loathsome monster who is serving extensive prison time for stabbing and shooting Christy in 2010. While Jim Martin rots in a Florida correctional facility, Christy now has a wife and trains fighters. She talks about having had the same dream of Jim chasing her for nine years but says, “I’m getting better . . . I’m gonna be OK. I AM OK.”
The most entertaining chapter in the series is “Crimes and Penalties” (Aug. 31), which tells the story of the Danbury Trashers, a minor-league expansion franchise owned by one Jimmy Galante, who was in the waste management business and was connected to the Genovese crime family. When Galante paid the $500,000 franchise fee to the United Hockey League, he named his 17-year-old son A.J. as president and general manager. (Yes, Jimmy’s son is named A.J., just like Tony’s son in “The Sopranos.”) Even though A.J. would be the first to admit he was a punk, the kid actually had a talent for assembling a collection of bruisers and brawlers straight out of “Slap Shot” — guys such as Brad “Wingnut” Wingfield, David “One Eye Willy” Beauregard and Rumun “The Nigerian Nightmare” Ndur. These guys would start fights three seconds into games, much to the delight of the Trashers’ rabid fan base — and with the approval of the team owner, who often paid the team with thick wads of cash stuffed into envelopes.
As you might suspect, things did not end well for the Trashers, but they live on in the hearts of the fans in Danbury, Connecticut, and their story just begs to told someday in a full-length feature film.