ESPN 30 for 30: Ranking Every Film from the Hit Series

Austin SchindelAnalyst IISeptember 26, 2011

ESPN 30 for 30: Ranking Every Film from the Hit Series

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    What if I told you that 30 filmmakers were able to capture 30 years of sports with 30 different unique stories?

    ESPN's critically acclaimed "30 for 30" documentary series did just that. By retelling the stories of the past, we earn an appreciation for how we got from where we were to where we are now.

    These stories made us laugh, cry, and pumped our adrenaline like the games themselves. It left us saying, "Wow, I never knew that," and "I'll never forget where I was when I saw that happen."

    ESPN is set to release several more of these documentary films, each telling a tale of sports past.

    These are the stories that define a sports generation and this is how we rank them.

Honorable Mention: "The Fab Five"

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    Though this is not part of the 30 for 30 series, "The Fab Five" chronicles the emergence of five freshmen from the University of Michigan that changed college basketball forever.

    Their culture, skills, and dress code were like nothing we had ever seen. Their critics were loud and proud, and could only be silenced with wins.

    Sometimes, even that isn't enough.

30. "Marion Jones: Press Pause"

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    Director: John Singleton

    There is always a price to be paid for cheating; Marion Jones learned that lesson harder than anyone.

    For all of those who have been part of the performance enhancing drug era, she was one of the few that was forced to do hard jail time.

    This is her story from trouble to redemption.

    Of all the documentaries, this might be my least favorite, though still worth the watch.


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    Directors: Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern, with Hannah Storm

    Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were bitter rivals on the court, and close friends off. Their friendship formed based on a mutual respect for one another and a fierce competitiveness that was rarely matched in women's sports. 

    This is the story of the two women, told by them, side by side. If you like this era of women's tennis, then you'll love this documentary.

    If you don't, then better luck next time.


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    Directors: NASCAR Media Group and Rory Karpf

    Tim Richmond was not your average racecar driver. For starters, he wasn't Southern, and he wasn't like everybody else.

    He was his own person, and was great doing it. But, he was not able to beat the one thing greater and stronger than any other human being at the time: AIDS. 

    For those who remember Richmond and enjoy NASCAR, this is a great historical look at the battles that took place between drivers at that time and the counter culture the flamboyant driver brought.

27. "Straight Outta LA"

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    Director: Ice Cube

    "Straight Outta LA" is not your typical story of a young man falling in love with a football team. On the contrary, it has a cultural edge that compares the Raiders with the hardships of growing up in south central Los Angeles.

    Rap was bursting on the scene and the Raiders were the team that brought the hard-hitting style that meshed with the way people were feeling...violent.

    Ice Cube takes us on a journey back to the people of the era, the social landscape and, simply put, the way that things worked back in the day.

26. "The Birth of Big Air"

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    Directors: Jeff Tremaine, Johnny Knoxville, and Spike Jonze

    Some people like to go fast, and some people like to go slow, but rarely do you meet a person that wants to go higher.

    Mat Hoffman was that man, and as the godfather of BMX, he has done more for the sport and more to his body than anyone on the planet.

    If you like the X-Games, you'll love "The Birth of Big Air." If not, then they don't care anyway.

25. "Muhammad and Larry"

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    Director: Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan

    This is the tale of a boxer who was done but couldn't come to grips with his mortality.

    Muhammad Ali cannot express his life in the same detail that his former trainers and doctors can, and therefore, we needed a documentary to tell us everything that was never said.

    There are many scenes that are difficult to watch. You can hear the slowed speech from Muhammad Ali. You could see the punches, one after another, bashing into his head and his body.

    Ali went too far by fighting his old friend and sparing partner, Larry Holmes, and suffered the ultimate fate. This is the story of how we got from the greatest to the speechless, from the people that were there to see it firsthand.

24. "Little Big Men"

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    Director: Al Szymanski

    Little League is supposed to be a fun activity for youngsters trying to emulate their favorite baseball stars. But what happens when the game gets too big for even the best?

    Cody Webster took Kirkland, Washington from relative obscurity to Little League World Series champions. They beat the vaunted Taiwanese team who had won the competition year after year. But, with great success comes pressure and most importantly, people that want to bring you down.

    This is a story about a team that brought the country together, and the people that tore them apart.

23. "Fernando Nation"

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    Director: Cruz Angeles

    The documentary delves into the idea of kid from Mexico coming in and taking the city of Los Angeles by storm. There was a general disconnect between the team and the Latin American community, something that ownership was trying to mend.

    By bringing in Valenzuela, having him pitch on Opening Day, and watching him jump out to an 8-0 start to begin the season was something that nobody could have predicted.

    There was tons of buzz surrounding the team and it was all because of an unorthodox 19-year-old Mexican kid.

22. "The House of Steinnbrenner"

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    Director: Barbara Kopple

    "The House of Steinbrenner" is a bittersweet look at the tearing down of the old Yankee Stadium and the erecting of the new one. 

    It looks at the life of George Steinbrenner and what he has meant to the fans and the organization as a whole. It is an honest look at what people think about "The Boss" and how winning heals everything.

    Steinbrenner may be gone, but his legacy certainly lives on through the house that George built.

21. "One Night in Vegas"

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    Director: Reggie Rock Bythewood

    This story describes a night that many people know of, but not as much about.

    Tupac Shakur and Mike Tyson were both moguls at the top of their respective fields. Beyond their industries, they were also friends. Their similar upbringings and tough attitudes made them subjects of criticism from many people, while others stood by and praised their bodies of work.

    This detailed account of the night Shakur was shot will wow anyone who watches.

20. "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson"

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    Director: Steve James (Hoop Dreams)

    I had very high hopes for this documentary, as it was diving into one of the most controversial athletes of our time.

    Unfortunately, I found that it did not live up to the hype. 

    The story surrounds the court trial that star athlete Allen Iverson was involved in after a bowling alley brawl.

    What I thought would be a story all about Iverson ended up being about the racial divide in the city and what the court trial did to the rift. There was not a lot of fluidity in the story and therefore left me wanting more. 

    It is a good story, but could have used more of a sports angle.

19. "Into the Wind"

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    Directors: Steve Nash and Ezra Holland

    There is something be to said for those people who raise money for cancer research. Then there is Terry Fox, who ran a marathon a day, until his body physically shut down.

    NBA MVP Steve Nash and filmmaker Ezra Holland look at what Fox did to galvanize a nation and bring awareness in a whole new way.

18. "The Legend of Jimmy the Greek"

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    Director: Fritz Mitchell

    Jimmy the Greek was like nothing we had ever seen in the sports world when he burst onto the scene: a gambler from Vegas with a quick wit and a way of nudging at betting without ever saying the word.

    This documentary was interesting to say the least, and the novelty of the topic for a younger generation really got the viewer's attention.

    It hit all of the main points of his life, from people who both loved him and abhorred him. This brought the legend of Jimmy the Greek to life.


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    Directors: Clifford Bestall, Lori McCreary, and Morgan Freeman

    If you have seen the movie Invictus then you have a good idea of the story of South Africa after apartheid.

    Nelson Mandela was the new president and the country was hanging on by a thread. He rallied around the rugby World Cup team, playing in their home country for a new group of supporters.

    By doing this, they unified South Africa and were successful in achieving Mandela's goals of unity through sport. This is a wonderful story, though you may not want to watch both the movie and the documentary. 

16. "Jordan Rides the Bus"

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    Director: Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump, Blue Chips, Tin Cup)

    Playing baseball was what Michael Jordan wanted to do, and hey, nobody was going to stop him.

    But, even he had to expect that playing a new sport was not going to remove him from the limelight...even if it was minor league baseball.

    "Jordan Rides the Bus" takes a look at what that short-lived portion of Jordan's life was like and how the sports world dealt with the change.

15. "Silly Little Game"

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    Directors: Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen

    After a long Sunday watching football and worrying about your fantasy team, you may wonder: where did it all come from?

    "Silly Little Game" is the origin of rotisserie league baseball—aka "fantasy baseball"—and how the phenomenon grew beyond anyone's wildest imagination.

    You hear the story from the people that started the game and its humble beginnings. Kurland and Jansen did a silly little concept and turned it into a very solid story.

14. "Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?"

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    Director: Mike Tollin (Radio, Coach Carter, Varsity Blues and The Bronx is Burning)

    What Donald Trump builds, Donald Trump can take away.

    How can a league with stars like Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White and Herschel Walker fold as quickly as it did? Well greed of course.

    This was the an in depth look at how the USFL went from everyone's favorite spring league to an antitrust lawsuit the netted the league $3.76 in damages (not million—just three dollars and seventy-six cents).

    If you don't like Trump, then you'll live this documentary. Who killed the USFL? Depends who you ask.

13. Four Days in October

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    Directed by: Major League Baseball Productions

    If there was ever a documentary that nobody could watch from New York and everyone lined up to get in Boston, this would be it.

    "Four Days in October" comes as no surprise to anyone. The Red Sox came back from being down 3-0 in the series to beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, shocking the world. 

    I do not understand how any Yankee fan could sit down and watch this, but then again, I did, and I'm a better fan for it.

12. "The Best That Never Was"

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    Director: Jonathan Hock

    Some say that he was the best college running back they had ever seen. Other say he is the best football player too.

    The general consensus is that he was "The Best That Never Was."

    Marcus Dupree was a high school phenom that chose to play his college football at the University of Oklahoma after a long and grueling recruiting process.

    This decision was quickly regretted, leading to Dupree vanishing from campus, leaving school, and joining the USFL. Injuries curtailed his career and prevented him from being the greatest.

    This is a great view of a life so many athletes have led.

11. "Run Ricky Run"

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    Directors: Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni

    How can someone just up and retire in the middle of their prime?

    People asked this question about Ricky Williams time and time again, with no real answer. This documentary wanted to get to the bottom of it and into the psyche of a man who did something most people don't have the guts to do: walk away. 

    If nothing else, you learn a lot. I would say going in to the documentary, you would be at an advantage knowing a little about the situation and have an interest in the topic. Otherwise, it may seem a bit trite and boring.

    Ricky Williams is a fascinating athlete that lets you into his foxhole for the first time in a true and honest way.

10. "Kings Ransom"

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    Director: Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights—movie and show)

    This is a roller coaster ride for any hockey fan. What happens when the greatest hockey player of all time is traded from his homeland to the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles. 

    Peter Berg dives in to the story head on and gives an in-depth account of what it was like for the city of Edmonton after losing their sacred son and prized possession. We get to see the story behind the people involved in the trade and the toll that it took on each and every one of them.

    I can see this type of documentary being made about Lebron James and "The Decision" years from now—a tale about the golden child's departure from home.

    Overall, it was a great story and well-done documentary.

9. "Guru of Go"

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    Director: Bill Couturié

    The system was highly criticized for its all offense, full court defense style, but coach Paul Westhead didn't care what critics had to say... he was the guru of go.

    In order to do what they did, they needed stars Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble to run the show. Gathers, who led the nation in scoring and rebounding, played at a blistering pace that made him one of the nation's most popular players.

    The only thing in his way was his heart, which failed during a WCC tournament game. As fast as his life was on the court, his abnormal heart condition caught up to him, leading to his premature death.

    This documentary captures a very bizarre moment in a life that was too short. The best part was personified through teammate Bo Kimble's left-handed foul shot (he is right-handed) to honor his fallen teammate.

8. "The Band That Wouldn't Die"

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    Director: Barry Levinson (The Natural)

    When people think about the overnight move of the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis, images of the Mayflower moving truck come to mind. These images are lasting and timeless.

    "The Band That Wouldn't Die" is not about the team that moved, but what was left behind. The marching band was the heart and soul of the city after the team was long gone, acting as ambassadors for the team they didn't have.

    The documentary had character and was one of the best at taking an idea and showing a truly unexplored angle.

7. "Without Bias"

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    Director: Kirk Fraser

    This is the story of one of the most tragic ends to a professional sports career. The documentary tells the tale of Len Bias from his early days at the University of Maryland up until his death.

    Beyond the vivid first hand accounts of his life, highlighting both his character and playing ability, the movie goes beyond Bias' life and brings to light the era of crack and cocaine in the mid-1980s. 

    This emotional story explains the aftermath of the star's death and how it affected drug policies in America. It is an extraordinary look at a confusing time many people wish never happened.

    The star-studded movie is one of the best documentaries in the series as it is both informative and entertaining.

6. "Once Brothers"

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    Directed by: NBA Entertainment

    War and basketball don't mix. No matter how good you are and where you play, you cannot escape the treacheries of war in your homeland. 

    Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac learned firsthand that when push comes to shove, people will take sides and friendships will be tested. In the early 1990s, an ethnic civil war pitted the brothers against one another in a conflict much larger than the both.

    This is a very smart documentary that opens up people's eyes to a conflict and subplot that is vivid and entertaining.

5. "Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks"

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    Director: Dan Klores (Black Magic)

    If you want to feel what a rivalry is and see what it looks like, "Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks" is the perfect story for you.

    Everyone remembers watching the Knicks and the Pacers fight it out for Eastern Conference supremacy throughout the mid-90s. 

    What is great about this documentary is the layers. First, you have Reggie Miller, the kid from UCLA who nobody from Indiana wanted. Then you have the rivalry, which few could match. Then there is Spike Lee.

    The back and forth between Miller and Lee during the playoffs was the most intense and direct player/fan interaction I have ever seen. This is one of the best documentaries of the series and a must-watch. 

4. "Pony Excess"

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    Director: Thaddeus D. Matula

    If you think that there are problems in college football today, then you must not know about SMU football in the 80s.

    Whenever you hear about the "death penalty" for a program, think SMU football. Whenever you hear the name David Stanley, think SMU football. Whenever you wonder who was the most corrupt program for a short period of time, think SMU football.

    This is the cautionary tale of what happens when cheating gets too big, and how a dirty program can turn from the best in the country to nonexistent overnight.

    I hope everyone gets a chance to see this documentary, to better understand how and why these programs do what they do.

3. "The Two Escobars"

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    Directors: Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist

    There may not be a more gripping sports documentary out there. It mixed politics, organized crime, drugs, and soccer all into one blur that soon no longer looked like sports.

    Pable and Andres Escobar, though not related by blood, were more connected than brothers. Pabloe ruled a criminal world run with an iron fist, and Andres was the captain of the Colombian soccer team, one of the best in the world.

    This documentary shows how their paths crossed and the journeys they took, both ending in premature death.

    This movie will grab you and not let go from start to finish. The story is fascinating and borders on fiction. This is a must-see.

2. "June 17th 1994"

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    Director: Brett Morgen

    This was a day that will live in infamy for more than just the Ford Bronco going down the freeway.

    The sports world was on fire. The New York Rangers were on their way to the Stanley Cup, the New York Knicks were in the NBA Finals, Arnold Palmer played his last round at a U.S. Open, and the World Cup was taking place in the United States.

    Above all of these events, O.J. Simpson captivated the nation in a very different way that he ever had before.

    This documentary excites, saddens and thrills the audience with nonstop action during one of the most important times in sports history.


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    Director: Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys)

    "The U" takes you on a ride. From the beginning days of Howard Schnellenberger to the today, there is no stone left unturned and no dance unshown.

    Love them or hate them, the University of Miami Hurricanes were going to let you know they were there. Everything from the documentary came directly from the mouths of the people that were present, with stories you could have never believed were true.

    Corben was able to bring the electricity of the game and a behind the scenes look that made this one of the best sports documentaries I have ever seen.

    These were the original kings of swagger and the best bad boys of all time.


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