Welcome to The Wright Stuff, our weekly column following the career of Raptors point guard Delon Wright. Since we can’t influence his training or anything on the court, we’ll recommend films that reflect his past week and hopefully inspire a leap forward. It’ll be part film breakdown, part essay, and part whatever loose piece of wisdom we can shake from the experience.
It was hard watching the Raptors lose that game to the Thunder. It was hard to watch the refs get involved, hard to watch Delon Wright miss a key lay-up, hard to watch the whole thing come to an end with such an unsatisfying crashing halt (or, yes, abrasive buzzer). Toronto was not going to win 24 straight to end the season; they were definitely going to lose more games this season. But still... damn.
It was doubly hard to watch because, well, Wright has been putting up some serious numbers in his role this past week. That should count for something. He filled in for Kyle Lowry in the starting lineup against Dallas and had a Lowry-esque stat line, then did what he could against the Thunder. He was everywhere against the Magic, and then held the line against the Cavaliers.
That it wasn’t enough against the Thunder or the Cavaliers was unfortunate. That we now have to acknowledge that the Raptors ended up going 2-2 for the week is also a bummer. That all of it — the individual performances, the collective team effort — may not be enough to win it all anyway is, well, it’s downright ominous.
Is it strange that Sugar is clearly the best sports movie of this century but is almost never discussed as such? Maybe not, given that labelling it as a sports movie feels limiting. I mean this with no condescension to the genre, but Sugar cannot be contained by such a narrow label, even though it is about sports and an athlete. As written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the film regards a game, yes, but it also examines the much larger and more imposing game beyond the game.
Sugar is the story of Miguel Santos, known as Sugar, a young man from the Dominican Republic who has dreams of becoming a major league baseball player — a starting pitcher, in fact. In his mind’s eye, he already is one, so confident is he in his abilities. He’d have to be to believe he could go from here (rural DR), all the way to there (MLB). We first meet Sugar at a massive training facility in the DR, where he learns important words in English like “fly ball” and “home run.” We meet his family, who also have high hopes in his ability (and a desire to receive some of the minor league money he’ll soon be making to ply his trade). Far away from salary caps and arbitration, this is the real baseball economy. And as we quickly learn: it is an international operation.
Sugar soon finds himself in Iowa, playing for a team called the Swing. To say he’s isolated and alone while there is an understatement. Though surrounded by teammates from Central America and the Caribbean, Iowa is a predominantly white place, filled with people speaking a language he does not understand. There are scenes that play this dislocation for laughs — as when Sugar insists on eating French toast because it’s the only thing he knows how to order. But there are just as many scenes that show how misunderstandings, misplaced anger, and, of course, racism can play out. The long march to the majors can be a hard life.
Eventually things take a turn for Sugar in ways we don’t expect, and the film just keeps following along in his journey. That he may not become a superstar pitching ace is not something we think at the film’s outset; just as it may never have occurred to him that he would fail in his quest. Perhaps this is why Sugar is both the best sports movie, and not like a sports movie at all: the hero doesn’t necessarily win out, the lessons learned don’t necessarily happen on the field, and when reality settles in, the loss feels far more existential — and ambiguous.
The path of a professional basketball player is different, but only by a matter of degrees (and, in most cases, geography). Delon Wright didn’t have to journey to a faraway land to get noticed by NBA scouts while in college (only Utah). And in fact, they knew about him even earlier than that, owing to the professional pedigree that had been established by his older brother. Wright had to work for it, of course, but the path forward was clear.
But now Delon is in the NBA, and is thriving in his role for the Raptors. That’s where things get interesting, when we try to get a bead on where he could be going, what he could be doing, and how this will all work out in Toronto or elsewhere, on into the future. In the short term, there are immediate goals — stay healthy, get to the playoffs, excel, try for the Finals, maybe win a championship. But none of these things are certain. And if, say, only the first three happen, will the season have been a failed one for Wright and the Raps?
Look, here’s the thing with Sugar and Sugar: he and the film just wander off the map. The narrative sets up the terms in which it will operate — the coming-of-age story, the journey to America, the sports movie genre — and then it disappears into a different direction. What the film doesn’t quite do is say that this new heading is bad, per se. It just is. As the movie makes clear, it is a path walked by many others over any number of years; it will continue to happen. Not everyone gets to win the big game, and it’s best not to paint that as some kind of tragedy.