For the past 30 years, ESPN has been the golden standard for 24/7 sports coverage on cable television. Long before instant updates that come to your smartphone, ESPN provided continuing coverage for all major sporting events, breaking news and scores, and a behind the scenes look with players and coaches. With such success, ESPN.com columnist and Grantland.com founder, Bill Simmons, pushed the network to feature filmmakers that wanted to retell the untold side of some of sports’ largest moments.
The result was the beginning of the 30 for 30 film series. To date, it has had over 80 episodes; ranging from sport shorts that last under 30 minutes to longer documentaries that are almost two hours long. Since being aired in 2009, the groundbreaking sports documentary series has won several key awards, including the 2010 Peabody Award for distinguished achievement and public service done by a television or radio station and the 2010 International Documentary Association’s “Distinguished Continuing Series” award.
With celebrity directors such as Ice Cube, NBA superstar Steve Nash, and Morgan Spurlock, the 30 for 30 series has caught the attention of millions of fans and film enthusiasts around the world. Here is a list of the most talked about 30 for 30 films and their impact on sports beyond the field of play.
10. The U- December 12, 2009
Directed by Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys), The U takes viewers back the 1980s Miami where drugs, hip-hop, and cultural tension reached an all-time high. As violence in the city reached epic proportions stemming from cocaine wars and race riots, the University of Miami football team became a microcosm of the issues that faced the city. After head coach Howard Schnellenberger went into the ghettos and recruited some of the toughest and most athletic football players in the state, America was able to see the evolution of the sport unfold every Saturday on their TVs. With the team’s swagger and in your face mentality, the football team won national championships in 1983, 1987, 1989, and 1991; bringing about an entirely new brand of football that was virtually unstoppable.
9. Into the Wind- September 28, 2010
As one of the most emotional films from the 30 for 30 series, Into the Wind is one of those films that highlights an event that may have fallen through the cracks of history. Directed by fellow Canadian and first time film director, Steve Nash, Terry Fox’s quest to run across Canada is profiled and tugs at the strings of your heart. After fighting bone cancer and losing his right leg six inches above the knee, Fox set out to literally run coast to coast across Canada at just 21 years old. After raising thousands for cancer research, Fox had to abruptly end his journey after 143 days once tumors had reclaimed his body. If you love an underdog story, this one’s for you.
8. Unguarded- November 8, 2011
There have been many great directors to have been featured by 30 for 30, but not many have had the chance to direct three of the highest rated films of the series. From director Jonathan Hock, who also directed Survive and Advance and The Best That Never Was, comes the story of Chris Herren. A standout basketball player from Fall River, Massachusetts, Herren went on to play at Boston College before dropping out. He then wound up at Fresno State to play for coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian and was eventually drafted by the Boston Celtics, his hometown team. Unguarded reveals the struggles Herren faced with drugs and alcohol and his numerous run ins with the law and several failed drug tests along the way. The emotional roller coaster of following Herren from a small town in Massachusetts to eventually ending up playing for his dream team is raw and goes to show how far teams are willing to reach for pure talent.
7. The Marinovich Project- December 10, 2011
Did you know any parents while you were growing up who would do anything to make their son or daughter the best they could be? The Marinovich Project shows the complex relationship between Todd Marinovich and his father, a former NFL lineman and strength and conditioning coach. With his father putting him through thousands of workouts and tracking every calorie and rep, Todd became known as “Robo QB” out of high school and went on to be a Heisman Trophy candidate at USC. After being drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1991, Todd had finally succumbed to the pressure from his father and his struggle with drugs reached full-blown addict levels. The Marinovich Project tells the story of a dark downward spiral that is further proof that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and will present a gut check to many parents that feel the need to control all aspects of their young athlete’s life.
6. Survive and Advance- March 17, 2013
If you’ve ever watched ESPN during college basketball season, you are probably pretty familiar with the late Jim Valvano. As Jonathan Hock’s latest contribution to the series, Survive and Advance tells the story of the 1983 North Carolina State Men’s Basketball team. Led by Coach V, the film chronicles the team’s unlikely run through the postseason en route to a massive upset in the national championship game. Beating the likes of North Carolina’s Michael Jordan and Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the film shows the emotion behind a monumental upset, as well as the decline of Coach V and his battle with cancer. Again, if you like underdogs, this one is for you.
5. The Fab Five- March 13, 2011
Just as the Miami Hurricanes changed the face of college football in the 1980s, the University of Michigan’s “Fab Five” in 1991 helped college basketball evolve into what we know today. The story is centered around the recruitment, playing, and controversy of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson. The interviews during the film are pure as snow, with Jimmy King showing his great disdain for Christian Laettner and Ray Jackson discussing how he always felt left out of the group. The film also discusses Chris Webber’s role in a pay for play scandal and the damage the Fab Five left the Michigan program after revolutionizing the college game and bringing baggy shorts and black shoes and socks mainstream.
4. Once Brothers- October 12, 2010
As the case is with many sports in today’s tumultuous political climate, sometimes sports can help bridge the gap between nations. However, sports can also be another innocent victim in the game of high stakes politics; which is exactly what happened to Croatian Drazen Petrovic and Serbian Vlade Divac, teammates of the Yugoslavian National Basketball team. Although they were not brothers by blood, the film highlights how close they actually were and how far they drifted apart as a result of the Yugoslav Wars. Sadly, Petrovic died in 1993 before they could make amends and the film really focuses on Divac’s regret that he was never able to reconcile with his lost brother. If you’ve ever felt that you have drifted away from any of your good friends or like political documentaries, this is a near perfect example how heart wrenching politics can be for those stuck in the middle.
3. Without Bias- November 3, 2009
As you probably know, cocaine was a huge problem for the United States in the 1980s and unfortunately, even the casual drug user was not spared from tragedy. On June 17, 1986, Len Bias was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the NBA Draft as the second overall pick; 36 hours later he was pronounced dead as a result of a cocaine overdose. The Len Bias story chronicles the events from his famed career at the University of Maryland, as well as the assumption that Bias was a recreational drug user and nothing more. There are still many questions that are left behind to this day, and the director (Kirk Fraser), does a excellent job interviewing his friends, family, teammates, and NBA General Managers to find out how could Bias could have been at the next level.
2. June 17, 1994- June 16, 2010
June 17, 1994 has to be one of the better films from the series purely from a filmaking perspective. In a careful fashion, Brett Morgen takes viewers through the various sporting events of the day, including the opening of the World Cup, the NBA Finals, Arnold Palmer’s final round at the U.S. Open, and the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup parade. Not to be outdone, the film goes on to show the impact of the O.J. Simpson police chase, which happened to overshadow all of these events that same day. In a very artistic way, Morgen does not use a narrator and he only used news footage of that fateful day in which the 24 hour news media and spectatorship went hand and hand for the first time ever.
1. The Two Escobars- June 22, 2010
As the drug wars of the 1980s tore apart Columbia, the country’s Men’s National futbol team was quickly becoming one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport. The Two Escobars is the story of Pablo Escobar, the drug cartel big shot, and the life of Andres Escobar, a defenseman for the Columbia National team. Less than 10 days after scoring on his own net against the United States, Andres was gunned down in Columbia with over 12 bullet holes in his body. Some say that Pablo Escobar was the reason for the meteoric rise of the national team’s success on the global scale, due to the amount of money and influence he could have had on the sport. Others say that Andres’ death was just a coincidence and despite the loss of thousands of dollars from that game, it was an isolated incident. By interviewing cartel hitmen and shot callers from the underworld, The Two Escobars is hands down one of the best sports documentaries in recent memory and has received the most praise by fans across continents.