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.
Muhammad and Larry (2009)
My dad—a year older than Muhammad Ali—grew up during the 40’s and 50’s. He looked upon the fighter as a hero. But while Ali’s incredible victories live on — the Rumble in the Jungle or The Thrilla in Manila—one was filed under “too painful to recall.” It was the 1980 Heavyweight Championship bout between Ali and Larry Holmes. In fact, when Bradley Kaplan and Albert Maysles’ 30 for 30 installment Muhammed and Larry premiered, my dad refused to watch it for fear of the buried memories that would return. To a point, he was right.
Every piece of footage from Ali’s training in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania hints at the disaster awaiting his fight with Holmes. The 38-year old fighter—lured back by a big payday—spoke slower, lacked his float, and lost his sting. Adorned with interviews with figures from his inner-circle, their unaccountability with regards to the fight permeates throughout the film. Moreover, the general mood in the footage intimates a bracing for the inevitable. Kaplan and Maysles offer a clear-eyed look at a legacy deferred, as Holmes laments his position in Ali’s shadow, and his role as villain.
Though painful, Muhammad and Larry unflinchingly follows the decline and end of a legend … and the creation of a villain.
No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (2010)
If any filmmaker were to release a great basketball documentary, it’d be Steve James. The Hoop Dreams filmmaker is a native of Hampton, Virginia—the same hometown of Allen Iverson. In 1993, the young Black high school basketball phenom became embroiled in a fight at a bowling alley between Black and white teens that witnessed the throwing of chairs by the Black participants. Iverson was accused of hitting a young white woman with a chair and his ensuing trial, which witnessed him sentenced to 15 years in prison, opened racial fissures and wounds left unattended for decades. James’ No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson recounts the local and national furor during the prosecution of the basketball star.
James’ work isn’t a judgment of Hampton nor Iverson nor the local Black community. Instead, it’s a personal journey detailing his relationship to race. He questions the assumptions of a community he once called home. He listens to the aggrieved Black locals. He records the city’s still incredulous white voices. All three combine to demonstrate the nearly unchanged tensions around the trial. Moreover, James thoughtfully empathizes with Iverson and the basketball phenom’s harrowing background. He does so without the NBA star providing any present-day interviews. Nevertheless, the picture he crafts never comes across as incomplete. Quite the opposite. It’s an eye-opening crossover between factions and generations, boos and cheers, and the legacy of a city and one of its former sons.
June 17th, 1994 (2010)
The most unique chapter in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is Brett Morgen’s June 17th, 1994. The documentary recalls several events—from the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup victory parade, to Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets, to Arnold Palmer’s final round at the U.S. Open, to a baseball game between the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners, to the World Cup’s Open Ceremony in Chicago, and, yes, to the chase for O.J. in his white bronco — that all occurred on the same day.
Rather than use talking heads, Morgen’s installment operates on the strength of archival footage that’s been seamlessly and thrillingly edited together by Andy Grieve. The result is a mixture of split screens, live news coverage, and off-air news footage reassembled to give the meta impression of a viewer flipping through channels in an effort to desperately keep up with the unraveling day — a turbulent timeline made ornate. In a series that can often be too formulaic, June 17th, 1994 sticks out as a needed change of pace.
Tragedy. Lies. Justice. These words fill every second of Daniel Gordon’s haunting film Hillsborough—a recounting of the deadly disaster that claimed 96 football fans’ lives on April 15th, 1989 at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. It’s a story, to borrow a phrase from the documentary, that serves as an example of “institutional complacency.” Gordon moves from the day of the football match to reports of the multiple headwinds at the center of a brewing storm. He employs CCTV footage from the event, whose monochromatic quality are ghostly echoes of the impending mayhem for both the crowd and police.
During the film’s second half, Gordon transitions to recording the chorus of testimonials delivered by the relatives of the victims. They defend their lost loved ones and decry the repugnant, corrupt, and callous behavior by higher-level officials. The entire affair—often demonstrating the class biases at play with regards to the governments’ handling of the ensuing investigation—is a series of revelations inviting warranted frustration and anger.
Sports are often explained as a tug of war between tragedy and triumph. But Hillsborough is an accurate presentation of the former, and more often than not, heartbreaking in every fashion.
O.J.: Made in America (2016)
ESPN’s 30 for 30’s most ambitious and best installment remains Ezra Edelman’s Oscar-winning documentary series O.J.: Made in America. The five episodes in this program do more than recount the downfall of an illustrious football Hall of Famer, or even the tragic loss of life. In Made in America, O.J. is not merely a murderous entity. He and the social upheaval surrounding his life and crimes are the product of generational racial strife and police brutality, which Edelman actualizes in his epic collage of breathtaking proportions.
Throughout its 467 minutes, Made in America sifts through the assassination of King, the pattern of police brutality by the LAPD, and the unjustified killing of Latasha Harlins. He also examines the symbolism behind O.J. A crossover star, O.J. attained a perch often left too high for most African Americans to reach. He, unlike many before him, lived long enough to attain an education, riches, and multiple careers in sports and acting. His trial became a battleground between Blacks too-often victimized and an apathetic white establishment.
Even so, Edelman takes great care to provide a complete biography and intimate portrait of both Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman — a poignant memorialization during every second. But most of all, he demonstrates through the landmark trial the varied losses of not just the immediate victims, but Black people as a whole. Edited like a thriller, O.J.: Made in America is 30 for 30’s greatest success on a sports, cultural, historical and psychological level. Not just because of its heated and fraught subject matter, but because of the scope and design, and the mirror the series holds up to each one of its viewers.