That, broadly speaking, is the idea that haunts both documentaries. The conundrum of Walton’s and Chamberlain’s careers is that they were marked by success — college and professional championships, statistical domination (in Chamberlain’s case), reputations for unmatched athletic skills — and defined by disappointment. Neither won as often or as easily as he should have, in Walton’s case because of injury and in Chamberlain’s because of the dominance during the 1960s of the rival Boston Celtics and their center, Bill Russell, enshrined in sports mythology as the hard-working Everyman to Chamberlain’s sex-and-statistics-obsessed egotist.
“Goliath,” directed by Rob Ford and Christopher Dillon, is a more workmanlike and conventional project than “Luckiest Guy.” But across three episodes it makes a persuasive case for Chamberlain as a generous, sensitive soul who was both blessed and constrained by his stature and his extraordinary all-around athletic ability.
It does its sports-documentary duty, laying out Chamberlain’s triumphs and more frequent setbacks on the court. But it is more interested in the trails he blazed as a Black cultural figure and self-determining professional athlete, and it favors writers, pundits and scholars over basketball players in its interviews. (The scarcity of images from Chamberlain’s younger days in the 1940s and ’50s is compensated for with 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-conscious stutterers who learned to endure, and perform under, the most intense scrutiny. Chamberlain may have been more flamboyant, but Walton, in “Luckiest Guy,” is just as conscious of his affect — there’s an ostentatiousness, and no small amount of ego, in the way he performs modesty. (James also challenges Walton’s lifelong, generally debunked claim to be only 6 feet 11 inches tall.)
The veteran sports fan might see another commonality: As good as they are, neither “The Luckiest Guy in the World” nor “Goliath” is as exciting to watch as “The Last Dance.” This is a bit of a conundrum, because both Chamberlain and Walton are, quite arguably, more complex, interesting and moving figures than Michael Jordan. But Michael Jordan is a nearly 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.