Yes ESPN is a sports network. I know, we don’t really talk about sports here but this is a case where the sports world and the TV world collide. ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is some of the best sports journalism that has ever been produced. You can say what you want about ESPN, they are evil, they have turned sports in to a highlight reel, everyone has to have a catch-phrase, everyone has to have a back story, all of that is true. ESPN has done many things that are bad for sports. 30 for 30 is not one of them.
The brainchild of sports columnist and former Jimmy Kimmel Show writer Bill Simmons, 30 for 30 is a documentary series that tells stories of sports in incredible depth and detail. The genius of this series is that Simmons has directors of each episode tell a story that is meaningful to them or that they were connected to directly. The result is that we get 30 for 30 episodes produced and directed by some incredibly talented people from outside the sports world with production values not usually seen in sports TV production. I have been critical of ESPN before but in this case, all I can do is sing their praises. If you are a fan of sports, you are probably already watching these. If you aren’t a fan of sports, you should still watch them. The stories are timeless and so well told that you won’t even know you are watching sports.
Here are some of my favorites:
Without Bias – Directed by Kirk Fraser
I was 13 years old in 1986 and I was the kind of sports fan that only 13 year old boys can be. You have nothing but time to devote to sports and you are too young to understand that your idols really shouldn’t be your idols. The death of Len Bias was absolutely horrible and was a terrible shock to this 13 year old sports fan. I watched this episode alone late one night so that I could just be alone with my thoughts reliving this terrible event.
You Don’t Know Bo – Directed by Michael Bonfiglio
This goes back again to my childhood sports heroes. Bo Jackson is the best athlete I’ve ever seen and he is one of my all-time favorites. I only got to see him play after he came back from his hip surgery when he was with the White Sox but even in his less than 100% condition, he was still incredible. I saw him hit a HR at Comiskey Park that still hasn’t landed to this day.
Kings Ranson – Directed by Peter Berg
In 1988 the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. Today, this trade wouldn’t be a huge deal. Big name stars move all the time. In 1988 though, it shocked the sports world. The greatest player in the history of the NHL being sent to Los Angeles to play hockey? The story of this trade and the effect it had on hockey in LA and in Edmonton is told with incredible feeling by huge sports fan Peter Berg. This was the first documentary in the 30 for 30 series and what a start it was.
Small Potatoes – Who Killed the USFL? – Directed by Mike Tolin
The USFL was an upstart league trying to compete against the NFL back in 1983. The NFL was big but not yet the juggernaut that they have become today and the USFL was able to see some success. There are 4 players and 2 coaches who started in the USFL that went on to become NFL Hall of Famers. Remember Herschel Walker? He went to the USFL first instead of the NFL. The USFL had a chance. Then a guy named Donald Trump stepped in and murdered the USFL. Until I had watched this documentary, I had no idea the role he played in the demise of the league.
Catching Hell – Directed by Alex Gibney
I am a life-long Chicago Cubs fan. I thought for sure in 2003 that we were going to the World Series. It turned out that we go torturously close, but it was not to be. I’m not going to pretend to be one of those people who say that they never blamed Bartman (anyone who tells you that today is lying to you because no one in Chicago at that time didn’t blame Bartman at least partially). What we do here in Chicago is tend to focus on one thing. We blame Bartman for losing in ’03 rather than blaming Alex Gonzalez for booting a double play that would have ended the inning. We blame Leon Durham for ’84 when Lee Smith should have closed out the Padres in game 5. It’s what we do.
Those are some of my favorites. You can’t go wrong with any of them though as they are all perfect examples of sports journalism at it’s finest. What are your favorites from the series? Be sure to let me know.