NASHVILLE, Tenn.-- Jon Alpert and Maryann DeLeo are veteran documentary filmmakers, whose projects have taken them across the globe and back, and into subject matters as hard-hitting as prison, rape, and drug abuse.
But nothing prepared them for the hassles of constructing "A Cinderella Season: The Lady Vols Fight Back", a 75-minute look at the Tennessee women's basketball team's 1996-97 season, which premieres at 7 p.m. Thursday m. on HBO.
"We've been to Third World countries where we've had an easier time, but this was worth it," said Alpert, who along with DeLeo is traveling with the Lady Vols this year to drum up publicity for their film.
The pair was given total and complete behind-the-scenes access by Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and her players, and they shot over 100 hours of film during an eight-month span.
The two filmmakers say the Tennessee people couldn't have been more gracious and accommodating, in allowing them to go places cameras don't normally go. The problems came from other places.
For instance, as the Lady Vols, who won the 1995-96 title, slogged through an uncharacteristically difficult regular season with a 10-6 record in January -- a year so tough that Summitt said she twice walked into former Tennessee men's coach Kevin O'Neill's office and said she was thinking about quitting -- HBO officials wanted Alpert and DeLeo to either re-focus the project on Tennessee All-America forward Chamique Holdsclaw, or scrap it entirely.
"We thought it was a great story, regardless of whether they won or lost. It was great human drama," said DeLeo.
The pair persisted and continued their work, only to be confronted in March by the bureaucracy that is the NCAA, which severely limited their access during the tournament, despite Tennessee's expressed consent.
In desperation, Alpert and DeLeo gave one of the team's student managers a crash course in how to film with their cameras, which worked out fine until the manager fainted in the locker room after the Lady Vols' win over Notre Dame in the national semifinals.
"When the 15-minute cooling-off period ended, we could hear the players yelling, 'Jon. Maryann. Come in here. We don't know how to work the camera,'" said Alpert.
The filmmakers eventually lost their press credentials at the Final Four when they attempted to film in a place that was supposedly out of bounds, but the movie got made, and became a story of perseverance and triumph, both for the team, which won the NCAA title with a record 10 losses, and for Alpert and DeLeo.
"When you see people achieve beyond their capacity, you can't help but be impressed," said Alpert. "They grabbed something really improbable, and when you see that happen, it's really a life-affirming thing."
For this weekend's men's Final Four, CBS will add former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley to its studio crew.
Bradley, who was a star at Princeton in the 1960s and later went on to play forward for the Knicks, will probably make his first appearance at halftime of Saturday's first game.
We say "probably" because Bradley, who is a consultant to CBS News, is currently in Argentina for an international relations tour and is expected back in the country later this week.
A ratings note: CBS reports that, through Sunday's game, the tournament is averaging a 6.2 rating, up 1 percent from the same point last year. Meanwhile, Channel 13, no doubt bolstered by the Sweet 16 appearance of Maryland, has found its 1998 rating to date, a 7.2/15, up 20 percent from last year's 6.0/13.
Of days gone by
While four teams battle for a level of recognition in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden tonight (ESPN, 7 p.m.), the seamier side of college basketball is explored tonight at 10 p.m. in a haunting HBO documentary, "City Dump."
The one-hour special, produced by Black Canyon Productions, which has turned out the excellent "When It Was A Game" baseball films, recalls a time when college basketball ruled New York.
Specifically, the show examines the point-shaving scandal that gripped the City College of New York teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and effectively ended big-time college basketball in the city for years.
Seven members of the team, which is the only squad to ever win the NCAA and NIT in the same season, were convicted of taking money from gamblers to affect point spreads.
The documentary examines the cultural impact of the scandal through the eyes of some of the participants and other students, including former CBS news reporter Marvin Kalb and former Marquette coach Al McGuire.
Apart from a rather unfortunate opening, in which actor Burt Young narrates an introduction that sounds more appropriate to a cheap '40s detective movie than a serious movie about a serious event, "City Dump" is a fine probe into the past that can tell us much about our future.
The ratings for the top 10 most-watched sporting events on broadcast television in Baltimore last weekend:
Event .. .. .. ..Day .. .. ..Ch. .. .. ..R/S
Md.-Ariz. .. .. .Thu. .. .. .13 .. . 15.7/30
UNC-Mich. St. .. Thu. .. .. .13 .. . 10.0/15
Duke-Ky. .. .. . Sun. .. .. .13 .. .. 9.7/17
UNC-UConn .. .. .Sat. .. .. .13 .. .. 8.6/16
UCLA-Ky. .. .. ..Fri. .. .. .13 .. .. 7.1/14
Duke-Syra. .. ...Fri. .. .. .13 .. .. 7.1/11
Arizona-Utah .. .Sat. .. .. .13 .. .. 6.8/14
R.I.-Stanford ...Sun. .. .. .13 .. .. 5.7/12
Golf .. .. .. ...Sun. .. .. .11 .. ... 4.9/9
Jazz-Knicks .. ..Sun. .. .. .11 .. ... 4.0/9
Pub Date: 3/24/98