Bill Simmons could never be accused of lacking ambition. The former Page 2 writer, now Grantland head, turned ESPN's 30th anniversary into doco revolution when he devised a plan to produce 30 films on unique sporting stories that had occurred since the network's inception. One good, let alone great, documentary is a tremendous achievement so Simmons’ plan for such a high volume of quality content did seem overly ambitious at the time. But the result was as enlightening as it was thrilling, giving the form new life and helping kick off the new golden era of the sports documentary (and it's only getting better).
All films are not equal and 30 for 30 was no different, but the series had a little bit of everything and the shining examples could well turn some non-sporting viewers into bandwagon bandits. If you can't become a fan after seeing these ten titles, you never will...
10. Once Brothers
Vlade Divac and Dražen Petrović were among the first class of European stars to excel in the NBA and the league has been the better for it since. When the fellow Yugoslavians found their country divided in the early '90s, their friendship followed suit after an unfortunate incident only seconds after winning the European championship together. Petrović sadly died not long after in a car crash and here Vlade retraces their steps and laments what could've been. A melancholy film, but thrilling all the same, and for some fans, it'll give Divac a dimension beyond his ignominy as the father of flopping in the NBA. Long live Petrović.
9. Into the Wind
Terry Fox goes beyond sport, and into a whole other sphere of emotional connection. Only days after losing a leg to cancer, 18-year-old Fox decided he'd run across Canada to raise money for fellow sufferers, eventually putting his body on the line to run over 3,000 miles (at one point, he did 26 miles per day). NBAer Steve Nash and Ezra Holland examine how the stubborn teenager went from lonely open roads to full-blown parades as he captured the nation's heart forever. And when the fame became too much, Fox always pushed it back to the cause. One suspects he would've enjoyed this film – there's nary a halo in sight.
8. The U
The 'don't hate us cause we're good' football teams from The University of Miami tore through the competition in the '80s and '90s to become four-time national champions. What made them really famous, though, was their ceaseless gloating and very public relationship to the notorious Luther Campbell from 2 Live Crew, who promoted them, partied with them and even paid out 'hit fees' for nailing high-ranked opponents. Cocaine Cowboys director Billy Corben captures their story with perfect levity, refusing to tut-tut any of the showboating and overall arrogance, and never losing sight that The Hurricanes were responsible for one of the most extraordinary periods in college sports history.
7. Run Ricky Run
Most fans understand when players succumb to the demands of a professional sporting career but few commiserate with those who walk away from the game in their prime. So there was little sympathy when former Heisman winner Ricky Williams bailed on his NFL career in bizarre fashion and, like an Onion headline come to life, backpacked across Australia. The story soon turned to what was really at stake: a young man's mental health. Friend/director Sean Pamphilon catches Williams at his home as he freelances his inner thoughts and fears and why he ultimately threw in the towel (twice). Makes for a good double-bill with The Best That Never Was.
6. The Band That Wouldn't Die
Team relocation is a nasty business and no-one knows that better than fans of big American sports. Baltimore boy and Diner-lover Barry Levinson looks at the wake of the football team's departure to Indiana at the hands of owner Robert Irsing by focusing on the beloved band that refused to lie down and concede defeat. Led by president John Ziemann, the marching band admirably carried on throughout the years and helped fellow crestfallen citizens fill the hole as best they could. The kicker is that Baltimore eventually got another team by doing the dirty on Cleveland, thanks to Art Modell, himself the Irsing of his town. Ah, the circle of sport.
5. Muhammad & Larry
The question of "How you beat a legend?" is answered squarely by Albert Maysles in his account of the infamous Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes fight in 1980. The answer, of course, is they beat themselves, and here Ali is in full flight with delusions of glory days gone by. Sporting a nifty little mo' (he called himself 'dark Gable') and a slurred speech pattern, Ali's age was evident yet he was convinced to fight once more by his cavalcade of trainers, believers and glorified gold diggers. Ali always had an angle – not this time, and not ever again. Like Burt Sugar says, "Ali didn't run out of miracles this night – there were none."
4. Winning Time
Hype and New York City go hand in hand, especially when it comes to basketball, but the brutal Knicks-Pacers playoffs battles during the '90s were legit. Before the NBA softened contact rules and open lanes were an invitation to injury, Reggie Miller and Patrick Ewing led their respective teams in six tough series, the highlight being Miller's eight points in 8.9 seconds in '95. Former PR-king and Peabody winner Dan Klores (Black Magic) underscores the action with opera, and it works beautifully, thanks to an endless array of fascinating characters, on and off the court. Probably the most fun film of the lot.
3. No Crossover
Hoop Dreams director Steve James returns to his hometown of Hampton, Virginia and the open wound of Allen Iverson's role in a bowling alley brawl between black and white teenagers back in Feb '93. Then a high school phenom in both basketball and football, Iverson was temporarily gaoled—despite his involvement never having been fully determined. James doesn't have direct access to him but, as always, he hits the heart of the issue, specifically the town's deep racial divisions and the jealousy over Iverson's dominance of the local rival school. A Hall of Fame-like NBA career followed, though, for those who've watched him over the years, it seems Iverson will never be problem-free.
2. June 17th, 1994
The series' major goal was to spotlight stories that hadn't been told before – Brett Morgan went a different route entirely. He examined O.J. Simpson's infamous highway getaway in a completely new way by telling it solely through television footage, as if flipping through the channels on the day itself. The result is remarkable, especially for how Morgan synchronises the audio from a police detective following the chase to the other TV programming in real-time. The immensity of the moment cannot be downplayed – the news took precedence over major events of that day, like the World Cup and the NBA Finals, and arguably planted the seed for the TMZ generation. It's still thrilling (and insane) after all these years.
1. The Two Escobars
Sport, crime and socio-economics merge seamlessly in the story of Columbia's 'Narco soccer' league and its World Cup campaign of '94. Co-directors/brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist underline the two very different but intertwined careers of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar and nice guy/football defender Andres Escobar. While a boon for the players and national pride in general, Narco soccer led to its inevitable conclusion when Escobar was murdered for booting an own goal against the U.S. Audience awareness of this well-publicised tragedy only makes the lead-up all-the-more exciting. The crowning achievement of the series and one of the best films of last few years, period.
Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns’ provocative documentary is a “devastating portrait of contemporary social inequality" - The New Yorker.
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