Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Top 10 ESPN 30 for 30s

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.

Honorable Mention
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.

1. Benji
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.


  1. I've seen the Without Bias doc but not the ones you mentioned as I really am interested in seeing all of them. I've only seen a few as my favorite so far is Fernandomania about Fernando Valenzuela. For me as someone of Hispanic descent, Valenzuela is a big deal. A chubby guy from a small Mexican town who becomes this unlikely god of sorts as he would prove to be one of the greatest players ever.

    If I ever have some extra, extra cash. I'd get the entire box set for my dad.

    There is a good doc on HBO right now simply called Sports in America which simply talks about sports' importance in America and how it brings people together and such.

    1. Oh man, I really need to rewatch Fernando Nation, I haven't seen that one since it first aired. I love that you have a personal connection with it.

      I'll have to look for Sports in America. That, to me, is the good thing about sports. The side of sports I don't understand is when fans bicker, fight, kill over a game. I'll never grasp that concept.

  2. It would be really interesting to have come at these from a non-sports fan perspective. I'm sort of jealous. The majority of these I knew all the pertinent information going in so it's like I knew the stories themselves already and was looking for.....I don't know if I was looking for something "new" exactly, but maybe something unique, something where they tied the stories into something larger.

    "June 17" is definitely my favorite. "9.79" would be my runner up. But I mean really, so many of them have value.

    1. I love 9.79. I'm so fascinated by concept of compulsive lying, and that doc is a great examination of people who do that.

      I too think it's pretty cool to watch these without being a sports fan. I never have any idea what is going to happen as I'm watching them. I mean... unless we're talking about boxing, I often know NOTHING about any sporting event. Nothing. When I saw Miracle, the end was a surprise to me.

  3. I have so much catching up to do with this series. My favourites are Benji and 9.79.

    1. I love that you like Benji. That one was so special. 9.79 nearly made my list. A fascinating doc.

  4. I've seen all of the ones you've listed except for your top 2 (hmmm). They are all wonderful watches. In fact, I haven't seen one I didn't like. If there was one you did not mention that had me absolutely nailed to my seat, it's "Unguarded," the story of NBA player Chris Herren. Great post!

    1. I LOVED Unguarded. Definitely a great one. Obviously, I highly recommend June 17, 1994 (such a technically audacious project) and Benji (utterly devastating).

  5. How did I miss Benji? I have seen almost all mentioned here except that, Marinovich Project and Survive and Advance.

    I watch a lot of sports but even then, I was new to most of these stories. So when they became available on Instant, I watched a lot of them in quick succession. I don't remember one I didn't much care for. I think I will dig for the rest of them soon, certainly three on this list I missed.

    1. I agree, of all the 30 for 30s, I can't remember ever really disliking one. Some are weaker than others, sure, but they all move really well. Hope you have a chance to check those three out soon!

  6. Catching Hell is the most tragic thing I've seen, being a cubs fan.

    It wasn't the World Series, it was the National League Championship game to go to the World Series.

    1. Petrovic also became a star, but his early death obviously hampered what could've been a legendary career. Dude was one of the best shooters of all time.

    2. Thanks for the catch (see what I did there!??!?!). But okay, this makes the public crucifixion of Bartman that much more insane to me. IF the Cubs had caught that ball and IF they had made four more outs and IF they had won that game, they STILL had to win the World Series to win it all? There are so many ifs and ors and buts in that equation for the Cubs to go all the way. Blaming a World Series loss on one hard-to-catch foul ball on one poor bastard... that just seems ridiculous.

    3. I honestly didn't know Petrović became a star. Once Brothers didn't really show me that. I know nothing about sports, only what these docs told me.

    4. Yeah when Petrovic started his career he didn't do much, but when he went to the Nets he took off.

      The Bartman thing was just a scapegoat. alex gonzalez had an error on a routine ball shortly after that would've easily ended the inning too.

      They haven't been the world series since 1945 i think, so it would've been a huge deal to go. they were up big and should've won but eh.

      i can't put the treatment into rational terms because it was completely irrational, terrible, embarrassing, among other things. i feel so badly for the guy.

    5. I mean seriously, this poor guy who just went up for the ball... I really felt bad for him too. I quite enjoyed Gibney's extended explanation of what a scapegoat actually is, and how this situation mirrored that Biblical story so accurately. Scary shit.

  7. I've seen at least parts of most of these. I happen across them on ESPN or ESPN2, usually after they have already started, and I end up watching them. Sometimes, like the recent Youngstown Boys, they immediately repeat it so I got to see the beginning of it after watching the end.

    I'd probably pick June 17th 1994 as my favorite.

    Do you have a complete list of the films in this series? I've usually noticed when I go to rate them on both Netflix and Letterboxd that many are missing the "30 for 30" designation so doing a general search for all of them in impossible.

    By the way, I had a sports documentary titled The Other Dream Team in my Top 10 of 2012. It's about the Lithuanian Olympic basketball team in 1992. If you haven't seen it I think it would be right up your alley, based on this post.

    1. I loved The Other Dream Team! In fact I... think I commented on your post, because I was so happy to see it listed in your Top 10. I could be wrong though.

      My friend back home had the box set, so I watched a lot with him since 2011. And yeah, I found that typing out their actual titles in Netflix works better. But still, most all of them are available on YouTube, if you don't have a problem watching them that way. I love these damn things.

  8. Cool list man. It's funny: I don't watch 30 for 30, but I'm a sports guy and often watch Sportscenter. I should check some of these out.

    1. Thanks dude. Oh man, as a sports fan, I think you'd love many of these. Truly.

  9. Love this post. I have the ESPN 30 for 30 box set sitting at home, but I have only seen maybe half of them at most. I'm glad you highlighted Winning Time, Once Brothers and June 17 though -- those three have been standouts for me as well. I'm going to have to watch Benji soon.

    1. Glad you dig the post! I'll be curious to hear what you think of Benji. That one gutted me.