ESPN debuted on September 7th, 1979 and to commemorate this milestone, columnist Bill Simmons had the idea to get filmmakers to make documentaries depicting athletes or events, big or small, that maybe didn’t receive the coverage they deserved. World renowned filmmakers like Barry Levinson, the Maysle brothers, Peter Berg, Ron Shelton and Brett Morgen all contributed and there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch which made making this list more difficult then I thought going in.
To me, what makes an episode great instead of good is that they give you new information or a new perspective that you didn’t have going in. For example, for as much as I enjoyed “The Real Rocky,” about boxer Chuck Wepner, I didn’t feel there was any new knowledge and that Wepner’s time in prison was glossed over.
For the purposes of this list, only the full length installments were eligible although a lot of the “shorts,” particularly “The Irrelevant Giant” and “The Great Imposter” are well worth checking out at grantland.com. Obviously, this list is subjective and having seen all of them, they’re all good but the following are great. Here’s the top ten best “30 For 30” documentaries:
10. “Muhammad and Larry” by Albert and David Maylses
The footage for this film was originally shot for a proposed documentary about the heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes. The fight was a horrible mismatch and anyone who thought Ali had a chance going in was delusional. In 1980, a lot of people were delusional. The film frequently cuts between 1980 to the present day to great effect. Particularly jarring was how out of shape Ali was. Later, “The Greatest” blamed it on consumption of the thyroid regulating drug, Thyrolar. No matter the reason, he had no business being in the ring.
The other story in this film is that of Heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, who had the misfortune of following Ali’s reign in the public’s consciousness. It’s well documented that Larry Holmes felt he never got his just due and he didn’t. And while I can’t say for sure how strongly he still feels about that, the documentary shows Larry Holmes today as a successful entrepreneur and family man. It’s particularly poignant when Diane Holmes is angry on Larry’s behalf about having never been invited to appear on “The Tonight Show.”
9. “Straight Out Of L.A.” by Ice Cube
This one’s about the Oakland Raiders sojourn in Los Angeles from 1982 to 1994 which dovetailed nicely with the advent of gangsta rap and how the team was embraced by that community. Particularly interesting was the Super Bowl championship in the 1983 season and the coming of Bo Jackson in 1987. There’s also some good interviews with former players and rappers.
8. “Catching Hell” by Alex Gibney
On October 14th, 2003, Cubs fan Steve Bartman caught a foul ball that Cubs outfielder, Moises Alou, would’ve caught. It would’ve been the second out, putting the Cubs four outs away from a trip to the World Series. Instead, the Cubs surrendered eight runs and the rest is history.
The film talks to people who were around Bartman and Cubs security. It shows what happened to Bartman that night and the realization he had about how his life would never be the same. The film is handicapped by the fact that they couldn’t get Bartman to talk to them but it does point out how Bartman never tried to profit from the incident. It also shows that for all the bitching Cub fans still exhibit when talking about Bartman, the reality is that a good team wouldn’t have given up eight runs that night and lost the next night 8 to 3.
Strangely, Bill Buckner is also a part of the film. I say “strangely” because Buckner’s miscue in 1986 really isn’t the same as Bartman’s incident. First, Buckner was a player who shouldn’t have been in the game at that point because he was usually replaced in the later innings by Dave Stapleton. Second, if the ball hadn’t gone through Buckner’s legs, Mookie Wilson would have likely been safe anyway. It was a nice touch showing footage of a visibly moved Buckner coming back to Fenway to throw out the first pitch to huge applause in 2007.
7. “Free Spirits” by Daniel H. Forer
This film covered one of the greatest little told story in sports, the Spirits of St. Louis from the ABA. They were only were around for two years but their impact is still being felt today. Flashy players like Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, Maurice Lucas and Moses Malone made the game exciting by favoring high flying play and amazing dunks. The team’s announcer was Bob Costas, who still recalls those years fondly.
Perhaps the greatest deal in the history of sports was done by the Spirits owners, Ozzie and Danial Silna. For agreeing not to be absorbed into the NBA in the merger, the brothers would receive one seventh of all TV revenue by the four teams that made it into the association in perpetuity. Today the Silnas have received an estimated $300 million and in January of 2014, it was announced that the NBA would be buying out the brothers for an additional five hundred million. Not bad for two years work.
6. “Four Days In October” by Major League Baseball Productions
Granted, I’m biased as a Yankee hater but this film is great no matter who you root for. It’s about the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Red Sox were down three games to none and came back to win in one of the most improbable comebacks in sports history. One of the things this movie does exceptionally well was put this rivalry in historic context without going overboard.
Another thing I found fascinating was how confident the Red Sox players truly were. They were down three games to none but you never would’ve known it by the demeanor in the club house. Lenny Clarke and Bill Simmons, huge Sox fans, are shot at a bar reliving the series and how important it was for them. It was nice to see smug Yankees fans nervous going into game 7 and they had a right to be, because they were spanked ten to three. Boston ended up sweeping St. Louis to win their first World Series since 1918 and it seemed almost anti-climatic compared to beating the Yankees.
5. “Broke” by Billy Corben
Athletes go broke in strangely similar ways. Here’s what not to do: open a bar or restaurant, invest in your friend Ray Ray’s record company, maintain an entourage of at least 50, get involved with a member of TLC, etc. This film is chuck with smart tips like this. It is staggering to see how these rich athletes pissed it all away.
Highlights for me included seeing Herman Edwards talk about financial planning like the head coach he once was, mainly by yelling. I also enjoyed seeing Andre Rison in repeated segments without ever removing his shades.
4. “King’s Ransom” by Peter Berg
The first one of the series and one of my favorites. It’s about the mega deal that got Wayne Gretzky traded from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal this was at the time. If not for it happening, there might not be teams in Anaheim, Phoenix and San Jose.
“King’s Ransom” shows you what Wayne Gretzky was feeling when this was going on. Turns out he had some serious second thoughts because he had played at Edmonton his entire NHL career and was used to winning every year, something that could not be assured playing for the Kings. In the end, it worked out okay for all involved and it’s always fun to see a team owner burned in effigy. Berg does a great job getting Gretzky to talk about what was going through his mind and how he feels about it all today.
3. “Big Shot” by Kevin Connolly
Our second hockey story in a row and one of the more intriguing stories in sports history about how a man, John Spano, was able to buy a major sports franchise while having almost no money to speak of and how the house of cards finally came tumbling down.
How John Spano was able to fool smart people for so long largely comes down to people wanting to believe, simply because the Islanders franchise had been in trouble and needed new ownership for years. Along comes this white knight and no one really panics when he wires five thousand instead of five million because Spano claimed it was a clerical error.
In the end, it was Long Island Newsday that brought him down when it should’ve been the NHL, if they had done their due diligence. Connolly does a good job interviewing Spano and showing Spano’s state of mind when it all came crashing down.
2. “Requiem For the Big East” by Ezra Edelman
As someone who grew up near Seton Hall and graduated from Syracuse, I was predisposed to like this film and I really did. The Big East started play in 1979, the same year as ESPN, and they both succeeded further then anyone thought possible. While we don’t know what ESPN’s peak will be, it had to be 1985 for the Big East because three out of the four Final Four teams were from the conference.
This documentary shows the roots for the conference’s start, namely that by banding together, the member teams would have a better shot of getting on television, thus creating more revenue streams. The Big East Tournament eventually became one of the highlights in every New York sports year and amazing rivalries like Syracuse and Georgetown, Georgetown and St. John’s, etc. blossomed.
There’s great interviews given by coaches Jim Boeheim, John Thompson, Rollie Massimino, P.J. Carlisimo, etc. and other important players in the conference’s history. My only regret is that Syracuse will no longer be part of the Big East’s continuing story but it was a lot of fun while it lasted and this film shows that and more.
1. “Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL?” by Mike Tollin
As someone who is fascinated by failed sports leagues, I loved this movie. What’s so great is that the director, Mike Tollin, worked for USFL films, so he really knows the subject inside and out. Most of the people interviewed blamed Donald Trump for causing the league’s failure by demanding to play in the fall against the NFL. Shockingly, The Donald doesn’t share this view and he’s not completely wrong.
If I had one small criticism it would be placing too much blame on Mr. Trump. The truth is that the league was bleeding money and had poor ownership in the L.A., San Antonio and Chicago franchises. But it was really nice to see players like Jim Kelly and Steve Young talk with pride about their years in the league. I also enjoyed seeing the famous three dollar check the NFL had to fork over to the USFL for losing the court case. All and all a really fun trip down memory lane.