As I mentioned in my most recent Movie Weekend That Was, I’ve quietly been watching a lot of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries. ESPN has spackled together an impressive series of documentary films about sports, often directed by accomplished directors like Barry Levinson, John Singleton, Morgan Spurlock, and Ron Shelton. And they cover everything from classic American sports like football and baseball to more global sports like soccer, and everything in between. Since the bulk of the series is streaming, I wouldn’t be doing my job unless I gave a recommendation for a starting point. Here are my ten favorite 30 for 30 films.
You Don’t Know Bo
Thematically, I think You Don’t Know Bo is the strongest of the 30 for 30 series. It focuses on 1980s and 90s superstar Bo Jackson, who performed legendary feats as both a baseball and football player before succumbing to a hip injury in his prime. The documentary plays up the legend of Bo Jackson, fixating on his unbelievable feats and athletic versatility. That alone is fascinating enough. But the real punchline is when the film shifts to Bo’s current life, where- even with a damaged hip and leading the life of an American everyman, he still accomplishes wild, legendary feats (shooting a bow and arrow WITH HIS FEET), far from the burning lights and boisterous throngs. The morale of the story would seem to be, “Once a legend, always a legend.”
The Legend of Jimmy the Greek
This is another 30 for 30 with a strong theme. The Legend of Jimmy the Greek revolves around former sports betting personality named Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, whose whole life was at once a gamble and a Greek tragedy. Kudos to director Fritz Mitchell for driving the metaphor home. Snyder took high-risk chances throughout his life despite many setbacks along the way, and eventually climbed to the top of the mountain for a gambler- a recurring gig as America’s trusted betting advisor. He appeared on TV sets every Sunday before the NFL kicked off. Snyder made gambling socially acceptable with very unsubtle tips on CBS’ NFL Today show. Along the way, he quarreled with co-stars Brent Musburger and Phyllis George. Ultimately, Snyder’s career came tumbling down in a terribly misguided moment when he waxed poetic about the superiority of the African-American athlete because of superior breeding during slavery.
Straight Outta L.A.
What makes Straight Outta L.A. stand out is that it’s as much a sociology documentary as it is about the Los Angeles Raiders. That it was directed by Ice Cube, a central figure in that cultural shift, doesn’t hurt. Before the Oakland Raiders moved to Los Angeles in 1982, the city of Los Angeles had a flaky sports history that revolved almost entirely around Dodgers baseball and the college success of USC in football and UCLA in basketball. Then the biggest outlaw in sports- the Raiders- came to town during their heyday in the NFL. Los Angeles’ African-American community instantly connected with the team, and a city had a new sports identity almost overnight. Rap group N.W.A. (including Cube) embraced the black and silver and it burst outside of L.A., all the way into the national consciousness. I’ve always felt like there’s a great book to be written about civic identity and local sports teams, and Straight Outta L.A. proves it.
Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks
In the mid-1990s, the NBA was an ascendent sport. And during a brief three-year span when Michael Jordan left to pursue a career in baseball, the window for NBA supremacy was wide open. Enter Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers, and Spike Lee and the New York Knicks. The two teams got together to produce some of the most dramatic playoff series in NBA- maybe even sports- history, and they served as perfect foils for one another. Miller was the fun-loving showboat, representing an area- Indiana- that’s modest and deprecating. The Pacers’ opponent, the New York Knicks, were a hard-nosed, lunch pail bunch- the antithesis of Miller. And they represented an area- New York- that’s big and bold and brash. If nothing else, Winning Time is worth the price of admission for Miller’s shenanigans with Spike Lee (a diehard Knicks fan) from his perch along the sidelines.
Survive and Advance
This is without a doubt my favorite of the 30 for 30 documentaries. There have been a lot of great underdog stories in sports movie history. Hoosiers and Rudy both instantly come to mind. But no underdog in sports movie history can match the tale of the 1982-1983 North Carolina St. Wolfpack, who won the 1983 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship against long odds, and against their own personal Goliath- a Houston Cougars team featuring two future NBA Hall of Famers. NC State’s rise to the national championship alone is worth the documentary. But the really heart-wrenching part is what happened afterwards. Their charismatic coach, Jim Valvano, eventually ran afoul of NCAA rules, lost his job… and then got cancer. He lived just long enough to return to NC State for the 10-year anniversary of his epic squad’s rise to glory. Not long thereafter, he gave this speech at the ESPYs. I dare you not to tear up a little bit:
Just as Los Angeles’ African-American community embraced the Raiders, the Latino community in L.A. embraced the Dodgers through much of the 1980s. And it all came about because of one shapely (if round is a shape) left-handed pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela. The backstory is fascinating. When the Dodgers brought baseball to Los Angeles in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they alienated a lot of the city’s Latino population by forcing residents to relocate so they could build Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. It made for tough sledding for the Dodgers in that particular market… until 1981, when Valenzuela- a native Mexican- burst onto the scene as a Major League wunderkind. His resounding success gave birth to a phenomenon known only as “Fernando Mania.” It went national and for much of the decade, Valenzuela was the (very round) face of the Dodgers both locally and around the U.S. It’s all a great story, but the best part of Fernando Nation is the mad, genuine love affair that baseball fans had with Valenzuela.
In stark contrast to a city united by a baseball hero like Fernando Valenzuela lies a city torn apart by a baseball goat- Chicago resident Steve Bartman. Bartman famously prevented Moises Alou of the Chicago Cubs from catching a foul ball during game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. The Cubs were five outs away from going to their first World Series since 1945, and the franchise hadn’t won a World Series since 1906.* First, Catching Hell focuses on Bartman’s tremendous ordeal following his gaffe, as he was pelted with cups of beer, hatred, and threats. Then, the documentary shifts to his escape from Wrigley Field after the game, a trek fraught with peril. And finally, Catching Hell lands on Bartman’s D.B. Cooper-like disappearance from the public eye, and Chicago’s slow, grudging acceptance of the role Bartman’s mistake had in the Cubs’ tortured history. Compared to many of these others, the Bartman documentary is recent history. I’ll never forget where I was when that moment happened and it was amazing to see a Chicago ghost brought back to life before my very eyes.
*They still haven’t won one, which I’m contractually obligated to point out as a diehard fan of the Cubs’ rival, the St. Louis Cardinals.
Elway to Marino
Children throughout the 1980s glommed onto the success of two NFL quarterbacks- John Elway and Dan Marino. Amazingly, both were taken in the same NFL draft, and both arrived at their respective locations through very different routes. Elway was the California golden boy, a surefire #1 overall selection. Marino was the hard-driven son of steely Pennsylvania, a supreme talent whose draft stock fell and fell until he became one of the best value picks in NFL history. As it turns out, they were both represented by Marvin Demoff, who is the real star of the film. Demoff kept detailed notes about both players in the days leading up to that draft and recounts the story in a way that makes the tale palpable. Ultimately, it makes Elway and Marino both more human than they ever were during their NFL glory days.
The Fab Five
The “fab” in The Fab Five is the poignance of the story of the University of Michigan’s five-headed monster basketball recruiting class in 1991. There’s plenty to be said about their on-court success, which included two trips to the NCAA Final Four. One of those was an unprecedented Final Four when they were all freshmen. But the guts of the documentary is the attention paid to the way the five players’ personas were exploited for financial gain by Nike, the University of Michigan, and anyone who could grab a piece of their success. As NCAA athletes- technically, amateurs- they weren’t allowed to profit from their basketball success until they were no longer enrolled at Michigan. It’s a very hot topic right now in discussions about the NCAA. The timing of the documentary couldn’t have been better.
The Band That Wouldn’t Die
In its purest form, The Band That Wouldn’t Die is what sports fandom is all about- fierce, undying loyalty to ideals, memories, and civic pride. In the cold, snowy morning hours of a March night in 1984, the Baltimore Colts threw everything they owned into a Mayflower moving van and took off for Indianapolis. In the process, they left a heartbroken city with a hole in their soul. But before leaving, the team’s official marching band- their marching band (!)– found a way to keep all of their instruments and various clothing. And they never gave up hope that the NFL would return to Baltimore. Somewhere along the line, their sad tale- continuing to perform at football games all over the country- gained national exposure. That Baltimore’s love of football never died eventually caught the eye of the higher-ups in the NFL, and the whole story ends with the NFL awarding a new franchise (the Ravens) to the city. Without the fierce hope of a small group, the spark might have died. It’s really a tremendous story.