That, broadly speaking, is the idea that haunts both documentaries. The enigma of Walton’s and Chamberlain’s careers is that they were marked by success (college and professional championships, statistical dominance (in Chamberlain’s case), reputations for unmatched athleticism) and defined by disappointment. Neither won as often or as easily as they should have, Walton’s due to injury and Chamberlain’s dominance during the 1960s by the rival Boston Celtics and their center, Bill Russell, enshrined in the 1960s. sports mythology as the ordinary worker. to the egotistical sex and statistics obsessed Chamberlain.
“Goliath,” directed by Rob Ford and Christopher Dillon, is a more professional and mainstream project than “Luckiest Guy.” But over the course of three episodes, he makes a persuasive case for Chamberlain as a generous and sensitive soul who was both blessed and limited by his stature and extraordinary athletic ability.
It does its sports documentary duty, featuring Chamberlain’s wins and most frequent setbacks on the court. But he’s more interested in the paths he blazed as a black cultural figure and self-determined professional athlete, and in his interviews he favors writers, pundits and academics over basketball players. (The paucity of footage of Chamberlain’s youth in the 1940s and 1950s is offset by shadow puppet scenes reminiscent of the work of Kara Walker.)
Watching the series side by side, the differences between the two men are less interesting than the sense of commonality that emerges. Both were self-aware stutterers who learned to endure and perform under the most intense scrutiny. Chamberlain may have been more flamboyant, but Walton, in “The Luckiest Guy,” is just as self-conscious about his affection: There’s ostentation and a great deal of ego in the way he acts modesty. (James also challenges Walton’s longtime, generally discredited claim that he is only 6 feet 11 inches tall.)
The veteran sports fan might see another common thread: As good as they are, neither “The Luckiest Guy in the World” nor “Goliath” is nearly as exciting to watch as “The Last Dance.” This is a bit of a puzzle, because both Chamberlain and Walton are arguably more complex, interesting and moving figures than Michael Jordan. But Michael Jordan is an almost peerless winner. And while winning isn’t the only thing, it is, for better or worse, the most compelling thing on the subject of a sports documentary.