All serious sports fans have had the conversation many times over by now: Which “30 for 30” was the best one? We play the episodes like they’re trump cards.
Oh yeah, the Marcus Dupree one was great. But what about "The U," that one was the best they've done!
It’s a testament to ESPN’s documentary series, because it re-invented the genre. And when we talk about which one was best, there are many great ones to pick from. With it’s most ambitious venture of the series, “O.J.: Made in America,” having aired in full, it’s time to rank the “30 for 30” films.
For our purposes here, we’re only considering the full-length documentaries under the “30 for 30” and ESPN Films umbrella. There won’t be any “30 for 30 Shorts,” although “The Irrelevant Giant” and “Judging Jewell” were fantastic. Films for the SEC Network like “The Book of Manning” aren’t included. There are 84 documentaries considered then, with “O.J.: Made in America” counted as one documentary and not five separate episodes, and one of ESPN’s full-length “Soccer Stories” is also included in the discussion.
Most of the 84 documentaries were at least good or decent; there aren’t many duds in the series. Except for “Silly Little Game,” the one about the origins of fantasy baseball that has basically become to “30 for 30” what the infamously awful Columbus Day episode is to “The Sopranos.”
Before we get to the top 10, here’s Nos. 20-11, in order: “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” “Of Miracles and Men,” “Unguarded,” “The Legend of Jimmy the Greek,” “Big Shot,” “Tim Richmond: To the Limit,” “You Don’t Know Bo,” “Brian and The Boz,” “The U,” “Pony Excess.”
10. “June 17, 1994”
I give this one, chronicling the day of the famous Simpson Bronco chase, extra credit. Because the idea shouldn’t have worked — there are no new talking-head interviews, just old footage spliced together: the Bronco chase, Arnold Palmer’s last U.S. Open, the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup parade, the NBA Finals game between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets and other sports highlights from that day. It is a strange concept on paper, but the actual documentary was captivating.
9. “Playing for the Mob”
An underrated one. It examines the point-shaving controversy with Boston College’s college basketball team. The star of the doc is Henry Hill, of “Goodfellas” fame. Thoroughly entertaining.
8. “Elway to Marino”
This look at the 1983 NFL draft is great because agent Marvin Demoff, who represented John Elway and Dan Marino, kept his notes from that year and had some amazing secrets. The San Francisco 49ers briefly thought about trading Joe Montana? The Los Angeles Raiders believed their proposed trade for Elway’s draft rights was nixed by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle? Great stuff.
7. “Survive and Advance”
I generally like but don’t love the documentaries in this series that take well-known stories and rely on our nostalgia to carry the film. It was fun reliving the 1990s Orlando Magic or the 2000s USC football team, but those episodes weren’t groundbreaking or anything. Even though the 1983 N.C. State basketball team’s story is well worn, the emotion in the documentary — especially over the loss of coach Jim Valvano — made it memorable.
Chicago high school basketball star Ben Wilson’s death in 1984 still resonates today, because a young man was senselessly shot and killed before he could reach his dreams. It’s a sad tale, but the documentary was well done.
5. “Once Brothers”
The story of Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, their fractured friendship over war-torn Yugoslavia and Divac searching for answers after Petrovic’s death in a car accident was heartbreaking. It’s one of the most unforgettable documentaries in the series.
This one doesn’t get brought up enough. That’s a shame, because it was great. This was part of the “Soccer Stories” series from ESPN Films, and it documents the 1989 tragedy at Hillsborough Stadium, when overcrowding caused a crush of fans that killed 96 and injured hundreds more. That haunting story, and the ensuing fight for justice in the face of police misconduct, is tough to watch at times and ultimately a spectacular bit of filmmaking about a terrible tragedy. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re missing out. It’s the most emotional documentary in the series.
3. “The Best That Never Was”
The story of running back Marcus Dupree is fascinating. Dupree was perhaps the most sought-after high-school recruit ever (Willie Morris’ tremendous book, “The Courting of Marcus Dupree,” is on a short list of greatest sports books) who only briefly lived up to that billing. Dupree’s football career and his life afterward made for a great tale.
2. “The Two Escobars”
The story of Colombian soccer captain Andres Escobar and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, and how their tales intersected, made for an amazing documentary. The footage, interviews and story itself are incredible, and for a long time I didn’t think ESPN could produce a documentary to beat it.
1. “O.J.: Made in America”
This was the best documentary ESPN has done. It would be an uphill battle to argue otherwise. It’s eligible for an Oscar and I hope it wins, because I can’t imagine there will be a better documentary this year. While it benefited from having nearly eight hours to tell its story, that length also carries a challenge. It’s not easy to fill more than seven-and-a-half hours with interesting material. Aside from the first episode, which I thought was a bit slow as it laid a lot of groundwork for the rest of the miniseries, the series packed a punch almost the entire time. That’s tough. The documentary covered every possible angle, had many shocking and incredible moments, and ultimately delivered on the hype that preceded it.
Is it the greatest sports documentary, period? With respect to “When We Were Kings,” “Baseball” and the other great sports documentaries, we’re really talking about “O.J.: Made it America” vs. “Hoop Dreams.” And I’m still picking “Hoop Dreams” as the greatest ever.
Most of us lived through the Simpson story when it happened, or heard a lot about it before watching the “O.J.: Made in America” documentary. Viewers were drawn in by the story itself before the first episode started. It wasn’t a hard sell. The producers of “Hoop Dreams” had an entirely different challenge. They asked viewers to follow the tale of two practically unknown high-school players, and trust that we’d be captivated by their tale. And we were. We still know the names Arthur Agee and William Gates. The Simpson documentary was great, and the best ESPN has done, but it’s still not “Hoop Dreams.”
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