Doc Discussion: 'Miracle 3,' AKA how an unprecedented tornado tore through the 2008 SEC Tournament
Over the course of the last week, I thought a lot about how everyone is going to get through this period of no sports. Yes, there are more important things at play, and that’s not to say that I’m downplaying those things. But given what we do here at SDS, it’s been on my mind.
Thankfully, though, we can access tons and tons of sports documentaries.
That’s how I’m planning on spending these next few months during my social distancing. Whether that means I’m watching some for the first time or re-watching some of my favorites, I know that’s going to be a go-to during this strange time in our country’s history.
As a result, I thought I’d share some thoughts on that on a weekly basis. My goal with this weekly staple — as long as we’re without sports — is to review a sports documentary that I watched. Some will be on Netflix, some will be through ESPN+, some will be on YouTube or some will be things I record on TV. The goal is to review a sports documentary on a weekly basis. I’ll tell you what I liked about them, what I didn’t like about them and some other tidbits along the way.
There’s 1 rule, though.
If ESPN’s highly-anticipated Michael Jordan documentary comes out early, that gets my full attention. We all want and need that to happen. That was my childhood growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 1990s.
But until then, I’ll review some of the defining sports documentaries. No, they don’t always have to be SEC-related, and yes, I’d prefer that they’re good. This first one that I reviewed, fortunately, is both of those things.
If you haven’t seen SEC Storied’s “Miracle 3,” go do so right now. You can buy it for $1.99 on YouTube. Is an hour of your entertainment worth $2? Absolutely.
Why did I choose this doc?
A couple of reasons.
For starters, it’s super relevant given what turned out to be a canceled weekend of conference tournaments and ultimately a canceled NCAA Tournament. There was talk that when 2020 SEC Tournament was going to be played without fans, it was going to be reminiscent of the 2008 SEC Tournament, which concluded in front of limited fans at Georgia Tech following the unprecedented tornado that ripped through downtown Atlanta during the SEC quarterfinals.
Much like we had wild, unforeseen circumstances change the course of the 2020 season, the same was true 12 years earlier. But the big difference was in 2008, they still finished the tournament. And because they did that, Georgia went on a run as unlikely as any you’ll ever see.
On The Saturday Down South Podcast, we did an “It Just Meant More” episode in which we recapped one of the more bizarre SEC moments of the 21st century. You should totally listen to that, too.
Why else did I choose this? As I often say on our podcast, I wasn’t born and raised in the South. I wasn’t as immersed in this story as I should have been as a high school senior who loved March Madness more than any sporting event that existed (including the conference tournaments). I don’t remember as much as others do about 2008 just because I didn’t even hear about it until probably that Sunday of championship weekend.
Forgive my ignorance.
3 things I liked about it
1. The structure had me hooked
I went into this thinking that the majority of this was going to be focused on Georgia. In a way, it’d be like the ESPN “30 for 30: Survive and Advance” on the 1983 NC State team with Jim Valvano. I expected it to be centered around the makeup of this underdog Georgia team.
That wasn’t the case at all, and it was better for it. Instead, it opened with all the dynamics that went into what made “Miracle 3” such an appropriate title. As you know, that had nothing to do with Georgia. It had everything to do with the first tornado ever hitting downtown Atlanta, and how Mykal Riley’s 3-pointer might have saved thousands of lives.
I mean, it’s wild to think about. In that quarterfinal game between Mississippi State and Alabama, they broke down the end of that game so well. Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury recapped why he went so ballistic at the end of regulation. The Bulldogs led Alabama by 3 in the final seconds of regulation, so the goal was simple — foul whoever gets the inbound pass so that they can’t get off a game-tying 3-pointer.
It looked like MSU tried to do that. Did this look like a foul?
So that was a massive “what-if.” So was the fact that when Alabama inbounded the ball after that no-call, MSU players froze and let Riley get off a clean look. What if they had fouled then? We would have never seen this 3-point attempt that hit both sides of the rim and then bounced off the backboard and into the hoop. Because we get the live sound for that shot, I swear you can actually hear Alabama fans initially let out a sound of dismay when it rattled around the rim.
By the way, they showed us that in the first 6 minutes of the doc. That’s how you reel me in.
Just as it happened in real time, they played out how exactly it all went down after that. You’d get like “Saturday, 1:08 a.m.” and then they dug into the meeting with the athletic directors and conference officials that determined where/when/if they could finish the tournament. Or “Saturday, 4:01 a.m.” and then they showed how the conference tournament employees worked all-nighters to switch to Georgia Tech in roughly 8 hours of real time.
From the blank stares on peoples’ faces as the roof of the Georgia Dome looked like it was ready to collapse to the decision made late that night to eventually continue the game and move the rest of the tournament to Georgia Tech, it felt like we were re-living that weekend as it happened. Eventually, they got to the Georgia angle and why the Dawgs were the most unlikely team to emerge from the atypical circumstances.
That was really the only way to tell a story that had so many twists and turns like this one. Tell me the minute-by-minute story when it’s this crazy.
2. Man, did they interview to a lot of people
Dozens. Like, they had everyone from the Georgia bus driver to random fans who were at the game. They had no shortage of talking heads, which I prefer to having someone in the narrator’s role to fill the cracks. A well-reported documentary should be able to tell the story with interviews and footage, which this wasn’t lacking.
Speaking of that Georgia bus driver, I loved that little nugget that he dropped in there. Apparently, before Saturday’s game, the guy had a heart attack. That prompted Georgia coach Dennis Felton to tell the team that they needed to win the tournament for him.
This documentary was humanized well. We got to see the story of the tornado victim who lost his wife and his house in tragic fashion. If that didn’t get you choked up, you might be a robot. That added some much-needed perspective to remind people that no, this tornado didn’t just lead to an inconvenience for a college basketball tournament — how they switched venues that quickly was out-of-this-world impressive — and that lives were forever changed.
Some people needed a reminder of that, like say, this Kentucky fan who was NOT pleased that she was told her tickets weren’t good following the switch of venues:
That would’ve been even more impressive if they could’ve interviewed her.
3. The raw footage used was excellent
I’m not 100% sure how that works from a rights standpoint with the SEC Network getting access to footage from the likes of Raycom and CBS when it’s an SEC Tournament, but however it went down, it worked. There was no shortage of footage used from both networks to chronologically tell the story.
I loved getting to see how the cameras started to go fuzzy as the tornado conditions worsened during that Friday night quarterfinal game. It almost felt like you were watching the 1989 World Series before that earthquake hit. It gave off the impression that something was about to happen, and nobody really knew what that was. If you didn’t know any better, you would have thought that was some overproduced element that was added in while the doc was being made.
It probably helped that the TV producers for the tournament, who were a critical part of the story, had to get so much footage of the stadium so that they could properly convey the following Saturday “the Georgia Dome is in shambles and this is why we couldn’t play there.” That message definitely came across. Between the images of the swaying crane and the waterfall happening on the Georgia Dome stairs, it was perfectly clear just how serious the situation was.
That’s always going to paint a better picture than an interview or even still photos. If you didn’t remember just how intense it was (like myself), the raw footage they gathered certainly portrayed that.
A couple of things I didn’t like
1. I wanted more storytelling on why Georgia was such an underdog
It wasn’t until the 30-minute mark that we really started to dig into the Georgia storyline. In a 50-minute doc, that’s not a ton of time to convey why exactly the Dawgs were such an unlikely group. Yes, we were told about how Georgia had lost 10 of 12 games entering the tournament as the worst SEC team and that they were down to 9 scholarship players.
Could that have been time constraints? Sure. But it felt like they sort of scratched at the surface of that.
Like, we didn’t know that Felton lost 6 players in the previous 2 seasons and that he kicked 2 starters (Takais Brown and Mike Mercer) off the team before the season started. Oh, and Felton was essentially coaching for his job in the SEC Tournament. That sounds like the start for Norman Dale in “Hoosiers.” And there was no mention of the fact that Billy Humphrey, who was the hero in the SEC title game, was arrested twice during the season and suspended 4 games.
I mean, there are some pretty telling quotes in this story from ESPN’s Mark Schlabach from veterans like star player Sundiata Gaines and David Bliss basically saying “Felton made some major recruiting mistakes and that’s why we’re in the SEC basement right now.”
Yeah, that context would’ve been a welcome addition to playing up this underdog angle.
2. Always remember who is producing a doc
I’m not about to hate on SEC Network. They have tremendous original programming and I love, love, love “SEC Storied.” They put a ton of work in to make projects like this one a success.
My only frustration is that whenever you’re watching a doc that’s produced by a conference network or even a specific team, there’s a lack of edge to it. Meaning, the ACC Network was never going to produce the documentary on Michael Vick and his dogfighting scandal. The SEC Network is never going to make something on the wild days of Lane Kiffin titled “Tales of Joey Freshwater.”
How does that relate to “Miracle 3?” I’m glad you asked.
They left out those aforementioned details that Georgia had significant turmoil within the program. They didn’t make mention of the fact that the Dawgs lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament or that Felton was fired in the middle of next season.
It also might have been nice to hear somebody say “they had freaking scaffolding coming down from the Georgia Dome and they still elected to continue the game later that night. Why on Earth did the SEC do that?” But that wouldn’t have made the cut of an SEC Network documentary.
What I really needed more of was Billy Gillispie. They made mention that the Kentucky coach was upset to “have to play 2 games the same day,” which he obviously didn’t get to do because he couldn’t beat Georgia. But I would’ve loved his perspective on the whole deal. I’m not sure if he didn’t want to be interviewed or if SEC Network elected not to interview the upset coach who was fired after 2 seasons and battled alcohol issues.
How much did all of that matter in the grand scheme of things? I don’t know. Maybe even a private Hollywood producer would’ve left out some of those details and elected to keep the storyline confined to that wild conference tournament weekend.
I just always remember that when a conference is the one airing a doc like this, they’re never going to paint the league in anything but a positive light, and understandably so. They’re the ones signing the checks, so they get to make that creative decision.
My grade — 3 out of 4 stars
My favorite kind of doc is when I know the gist of the story going in but I learn a million and a half things by the time it’s over. That’s what “Miracle 3” was. I didn’t realize how scary that situation was on Friday night with 20,000 fans in the stands who could have been outside if not for Riley’s shot to force overtime, nor did I realize how much work went into moving the tournament.
Again, the detail was tremendous and the structure was easy to follow. They fit a lot into a 50-minute doc, which isn’t easy. You don’t just have to be a Georgia fan, or even an SEC fan to want to watch something like this. It’s equal parts human interest story and underdog sports story.
I felt like it could have been 20 minutes longer to dig into some of those aforementioned Georgia things. That would have added another element to show just how unprecedented this entire weekend was. I realize that would’ve highlighted some negative moments for the program, but we were talking about a last-place team who hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 6 years. It would’ve been even better to see more of that story told.
In the end, though, “Miracle 3” is worth your time. If you get SEC Network, you might be able to find it On Demand, or if you get ESPN-plus, I believe it’s part of the library of content that you can access. If you’re a cord-cutter, go the YouTube route and buy it for $1.99.
And if it doesn’t satisfy your need for more Gillispie content, do what I did after the doc ended — search his name on Twitter.