I’m not a sports guy. Never have been. As a spectator, I’ve always felt my time was better spent watching films than sports. Despite this (or rather, because of it) I do love a good sports documentary, and ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has certainly made some excellent ones. I’ve managed to watch every released 30 for 30, and here are my 10 favorite. Please note that this list includes films distributed under the ESPN Films Presents banner as well. Also, with the exception of Survive and Advance, every film listed here is currently available on Netflix Instant.
The Two Escobars
Dir. by Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist
I’m highlighting The Two Escobars as an honorable mention because it is commonly regarded as the most popular 30 for 30. The film chronicles how the rise and fall of Colombian soccer mirrored the success and demise of drug cartel Pablo Escobar. Coincidentally, The Two Escobars was the first 30 for 30 I ever watched, and watching it again, it’s clear that it is one of the most accomplished films in the series. A great place for 30 for 30 rookies to begin.
10. Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks
Dir. by Dan Klores
I cannot explain the immense satisfaction I get from watching Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller talk shit to die hard Knicks fan Spike Lee during ‘90s era Pacers/Knicks games. It’s so fun to watch two huge personalities almost come to blows over a game. And their after-the-fact candor is particularly refreshing.
9. The Fab Five
Dir. by Jason Hehir
The 1990s Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball team was a force of nature. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson all started on the team as freshmen, making for one of most unstoppable teams in the history of college basketball. But beyond detailing the players’ innate talent, Hehir shows how the Fab Five acted as a movement, literally changing the way the game was perceived. A fantastic riches to rags tale of doomed stardom.
8. Survive and Advance
Dir. by Jonathan Hock
How the hell can a college basketball team with a season record of 17 wins and 10 losses win the national championship? I’m not sure, but that is exactly what the 1982-83 North Carolina State Wolfpack men’s basketball team sought to do. Narratively guided by enthusiastic head couch Jim Valvano, Survive and Advance captures an improbable road to victory, including the many last-second game winners that got them there.
7. The Marinovich Project
Dir. by Andrew Stephan and John Dorsey
From the moment his son Todd was born, Marv Marinovich crafted Todd into a football/Robocop hybrid. Every single aspect of Todd’s life was controlled, all for the purpose of creating a God of football. And he did. Todd Marinovich was a hell of a quarterback – a star at USC who was eventually drafted by the Raiders. But the moment Todd experienced college freedom, he chose to rebel. The result is a devastating story of the life long effects of debilitating parental control.
6. Once Brothers
Dir. by Michael Tolajian
Once Brothers tells the story of the tumultuous relationship between Vlade Divac and Dražen Petrović. Both men soared on the Yugoslavia national basketball team, allowing them to be drafted into the NBA. Divac become a star with the Lakers, and Petrović a benchwarmer with the Trail Blazers. Despite their differing success in the NBA, they remained loyal friends. But when war broke out in their native land, Divac (from Serbia) and Petrović (from Croatia) quickly grew apart, and never made amends. A heartbreaking tale of the stubbornness that consumes a fractured friendship.
5. Catching Hell
Dir. Alex Gibney
October 14, 2003. Game six of the National League Championship Series, with the Chicago Cubs leading the Florida Marlins 3 games to 2. In the eighth inning, a Marlin hits a foul ball high and to the left. Alou jumps to make the catch, but the ball is picked off by Steve Bartman, a Cubs fan eager to nab a World Series foul ball. Alou lands on the ground and screams at Bartman, enraged. Most everyone else in the stadium would soon follow suit. Within days, the entire town of Chicago was gunning for Bartman.
Oscar winner Alex Gibney takes an infamous moment in contemporary sports and explores every single aspect of it. Was Bartman really at fault? Did Alou really have a chance at catching the ball? Or are we, as a society hell bent on quick justice, to blame?
4. Without Bias
Dir. by Kirk Fraser
Len Bias was a star basketball player at Maryland who, in 1986, was the second overall NBA draft pick. Two days after he signed with the Boston Celtics, Bias died of a cocaine overdose, shocking his teammates, his family, and the nation. Many sports journalists have hailed Bias as the finest player to never make it to the pro level. Archival footage helps establish this point, as it beautifully showcases Bias’ magical talent. The death of Len Bias should be where Without Bias ends. But, tragically, there’s more to the story, and Fraser never hints at shying away.
3. No Crossover: The Trail of Allen Iverson
Dir. by Steve James
No Crossover is one of the most infuriating films I’ve ever seen about race in America. Steve James (a master documentarian best known for making Hoop Dreams), retraces the steps of how basketball prospect Allen Iverson went from being a beloved high school star, to the victim of racial injustice in his hometown Hampton, Virginia. I’m not saying Iverson didn’t play a part in the bowling alley brawl that lead to his arrest, but James expertly shows how racial prejudice can swiftly lead to a brash judicial outcome.
2. June 17, 1994
Dir. by Brett Morgen
Cinematically speaking, June 17, 1994 is by far the best 30 for 30 ever made. The date in question was a coincidentally monumental day for sports. The U.S. began hosting the World Cup, Arnold Palmer played his last round in the U.S. Open, the Rangers celebrated their Stanley Cup win, the Knicks and Rockets competed in the NBA Finals, and, most significantly, O.J. Simpson led his white Ford Bronco in a massive police chase across Los Angeles.
Instead of offering any sort of cohesive narrative to these events, Morgen ingeniously lets the footage do the talking. The entirety of June 17, 1994 consists of footage of the events, edited together seamlessly. No narration, no music, no reenactments. Just one day, as it happened. I’ve never seen anything like June 17, 1994, and I remained utterly fascinated by it.
Dir. by Coodie and Chike
The first time I watched Benji marks one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had watching a television program. The film, which debuted at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, is a poignant and gut wrenching retelling of the brief life of Benjamin Wilson. Wilson was a star basketball player from the south side of Chicago who was destined for greatness. Just watching him play the game brings a smile to my face. The suave, graceful way he handled and passed the ball, the confidence with which he shot – it was all so profound.
I honestly don’t have an interest in rehashing Wilson’s fate in this post, but just know that the manner in which filmmakers Coodie and Chike handle this story is nothing short of remarkable. While I watched Benji, I thought of Trayvon Martin. I thought of Oscar Grant. I thought that I’d never know what it’s like to be them, but that movies like Benji do a damn fine job of helping the rest of us understand.