This, in general, is the idea that haunts both documentaries. The conundrum in Walton and Chamberlain’s careers is that they have been marked by success—collegiate and professional championships, statistical dominance (in Chamberlain’s case), and reputation for unparalleled athletic skill—and defined by disappointment. Neither won as often or as easily as they should have, in Walton’s case due to injury and in Chamberlain’s case due to the dominance of the rival Boston Celtics during the 1960s and their center, Bill Russell, enshrined in sports legends as a hard-working everyman. To the sex-obsessed, statistic-obsessed egoist in Chamberlain.
Directed by Rob Ford and Christopher Dillon, “Goliath” is a more action-oriented and conventional project than “The Lucky Guy.” But across three episodes, he makes a compelling case for Chamberlain as a generous, sensitive soul who was blessed and constrained by his stature and extraordinary all-around athletic ability.
She does her homework sports documentaries, outlining Chamberlain’s most frequent triumphs and setbacks on the field. But she is more interested in the paths he has launched as a black cultural figure and professional athlete of self-determination, and she favors writers, critics, and scholars over basketball players in her interviews. (The paucity of images from Chamberlain’s younger days in the 1940s and 1950s is offset by puppet shadow scenes reminiscent of Kara Walker’s work.)
Watching the series side by side, the differences between the two men are less interesting than the common sense that emerges. Both faltered in their self-consciousness and learned to endure and perform under the most intense scrutiny. Chamberlain might have been more flamboyant, but Walton, in “The Luckiest Guy,” is acutely aware of his influence—there’s swagger, not a modicum of ego, in the way he performs humility. (James also challenges Walton’s lifetime claim, which has been generally debunked as being only 6 ft 11 in.)
A seasoned sports fan might see another common denominator: As good as they are, neither The Luckiest Man in the World nor Goliath is sexy when watching The Last Dance. This is a bit of a puzzle, because both Chamberlain and Elton are, arguably, more complex, interesting, and influential characters than Michael Jordan. But Michael Jordan is an almost unparalleled winner. And while winning isn’t the only thing, it is, for better or worse, the most compelling thing about the subject of a sports documentary.