It’s late-March. But the streets and trees are bare. And a different mood fills our day. Though usually spirits are light and our laughs are loud—today the heart is heavy. Because the hoops and nets are as gone as all our sound traditions. And the crowds do not cheer.
If I sound pretentious, it’s because my sports brain is on delay. There’s no hockey. No soccer. No basketball. And no baseball within sight. In fact, this very moment was meant to be baseball’s opening day—when Spring begins anew and the soul remains eternal. Instead, every city feels worse than Mudville on a losing day. Still, there are avenues to kick this numbness down. In 2009, ESPN announced it would produce and air 30 separate sports topical documentaries made by an array of acclaimed directors to celebrate the network’s 30th anniversary. The series would be called 30 for 30.
Currently, there are 157 episodes of ESPN’s 30 for 30 that have been released over a decade-plus, and are currently streaming via ESPN+. What you’re about to read is a ranking of the series’ Top 10. Rest assured, Without Bias, Benji, Survive and Advance, The Price of Gold, and Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies were all considered and barely missed the final order. Instead, there’s a wide swath of stories here hitting all the essential sports: baseball, soccer, basketball, football, and boxing. And if there’s any pattern, it’s only the presence of strong narratives and films that were either aesthetically unique or ambitious in their scope.
ESPN’s 30 for 30 is a strong series, and has attracted more than a few noteworthy and award-winning directors. But it’s also given voice to forgotten stories and figures, and further aided in understanding the seismic events of the past three-plus decades by peering through the lens of sports. Make no mistake, there is a crisis we’re living through right now, and sports certainly feel inconsequential compared to our current events. The need for safety is real. Nevertheless, as these stories will reveal, games have a way of healing even when the road looks bleakest, and the 10 works listed below all constitute an assemblage of narratives relating to tragedy, justice, and truth.
Hopefully, this tides you over until sports begin anew.
Catching Hell (2011)
From Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot” in the 1932 World Series to decades of losing, the Chicago Cubs are a baseball team with a history of infamous heartbreaks—and the friendly confines of Wrigley Field serves as a some-time crucible. However, one event still brings shame. During Game 6 of the 2003 National League Champion Series against the Florida Marlins, the Cubs were five outs away from the World Series, when a fly ball hit down the left field line toward Moises Alou came into play. The ball would be deflected. The Cubs would collapse. The man at the center of ruin would be the unlucky and forsaken Steve Bartman. Alex Gibney’s Catching Hell details the scary events that took place at the not-so Friendly Confines that night.
Although Gibney’s film charts Bartman’s ordeal, the documentary actually serves as an examination of fandom and scapegoating. That is, Gibney is far more interested in what Bartman represents to Cubs fans. But intriguingly, some of the video taken from the stands and during the game are from cell phone cameras — one of the first events recalled through the technology. The real-time unfolding of vitriol and anger against Bartman adds greater commotion to the improbable events, and demonstrates the misbegotten personal offense many fans took toward. Like a bad dream in Cubs lore, the game still feels surreal. But Gibney brings us back to that day, with honesty, in relief.
The Best That Never Was (2010)
“What if” is more than a question; it’s sometimes a legacy. In 1981, the high school football star Marcus Dupree was what scouts like to call “can’t miss.” Fated for superstardom, the Philadelphia, Mississippi native endured a high-stakes recruiting battle between the University of Oklahoma and Texas. Nevertheless, his path was beset by worrying recruiting practices and shady advisers. Jonathan Hock’s The Best That Never Was is the calamity of unrequited potential.
While the film slightly examines race, especially Dupree’s symbolism to his community and family, the doc’s most intriguing sequences occur around the young star’s disastrous downfall. Enticed and seduced, Dupree becomes a victim of conniving adults and his own pride. But who could blame him? An 18-year old local celebrity with the college sports world literally at his feet, he traversed through injuries till he finds himself out of football. His tale then transformed from an unfulfilled dream to a test of strength. A comeback, Dupree’s story serves as a warning with regards to the vulnerability of 18-year old athletes in the face of larger, more powerful forces, and the mistakes of youth.
The Band That Wouldn’t Die (2009)
On March 29th, 1984, under the guise of Bob Irsay’s unhinged ownership, moving trucks outlined the white-muddy snow of Baltimore, and the Colts moved away. What remained when the NFL franchise departed was a band. Only the second episode to premiere under ESPN’s 30 for 30 banner, Barry Levinson’s The Band that Wouldn’t Die remains an emblematic explanation of how sports builds a sense of community, shared experience, and generational celebration and anguish. This story revolves around a marching band for the Baltimore Colts, a team who after the 1957 Championship game the modern NFL is still indebted to today.
Even so, the Colts’ Irsay and the NFL saw things differently. To them, the team served only as the property of his family. Levinson captures the investment fans hold in their sports idols by depicting this noble marching band with aching reverence. Cross-cutting between Super 8 home footage of the bygone era of 1960’s Colts football, the musicians hold back tears as they describe the night the team left, all while the beautiful and harmonious notes of their fight song reverberate outward. The Band that Wouldn’t Die is a simple story brought lovingly to life.
The Two Escobars (2010)
In Colombia, fútbol is king. But during the 90’s, the drug trade and cartel kingpins reigned. Between the two divergent worlds were two Escobars: the fútbol superstar Andrés and the narcos boss Pablo. Both were natives of Medellin, but their spheres converged when Pablo and other drug traffickers assumed ownership of the country’s teams. While the violence inflicted by the ensuing drug war escalated, the quality of play by Andrés and the National team also increased. Nevertheless, by the conclusion of 1994, both were deceased. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s layered documentary The Two Escobars is rigorously researched and poignantly constructed.
Dependent upon interviews with relatives and friends of both Andrés and Pablo, the two are painted in strikingly similar yet vastly different lights. Both were regarded as heroes by some: the former for his fútbol prowess and the latter for his investments in his impoverished community. However, while Andrés is described as an innocent victim of circumstance and timing—from scoring his own goal during the 1994 FIFA World Cup to his murder—Pablo is a bloodthirsty goon (a statement of fact). Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s film is a time capsule of the unease and danger felt among a team and a country. It’s also a fitting tribute to the talent and life of Andrés.
The Announcement (2012)
I struggled between either including the three-part series Celtics/Lakers: The Best of Enemies or The Announcement. Each holds Earvin “Magic” Johnson as the central protagonist. However, the pull and importance of Nelson George’s The Announcement is undeniable. With a championship career, a star in the city of stars, Magic Johnson lived invisibly. He partied hard and he won hard. But in 1991, after a physical exam, the All-Star was informed that he had tested positive for the HIV virus. At the time, a death sentence.
Only one person could’ve narrated Magic’s story with a sizable level of ease, depth, and awareness. Magic. He takes viewers from the moment he entered the league to his current role as an activist in the fight against HIV/AIDs. While the central moment—the press conference breaking his diagnosis travels with the same weight of its initial impact, it’s his resiliency and will to continue on with life that makes his story all the more inspiring. Magic changed hearts and minds when he shared his tragedy, yet saved just as many just by his living and educating.