I have been watching ESPN's 30 for 30 sports documentary series since it started back in 2010 and, while I haven't seen all of them, I have seem a majority of them (and still have several on my DVR that I need to watch). For the most part, everything I've seen has been good, and many of them are simply excellent, either casting a new perspective on something familiar or telling us about something that we didn't know much about. Last Thursday, I watched The '85 Bears, which prompted me to take stock in what I thought were my favorite documentaries in the 30 for 30 series. With that, here are my ten favorite 30 for 30s, along with a list of all the other ones I've seen (so you don't yell at me for not including Bad Boys or some other one on my list).
Others seen (in chronological order): Kings Ransom; Without Bias; The Legend of Jimmy the Greek; Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks; Guru of Go; Run Ricky Run; Straight Outta L.A.; June 17th, 1994; The Two Escobars; Unmatched; Fernando Nation; 9.79*; Benji; Ghosts of Ole Miss; This Is What They Want; Bernie and Ernie; The Price of Gold; Requiem for the Big East; Hillsborough; Maradona '86; The Opposition; Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy; Barbosa: The Man Who Made All of Brazil Cry; White, Blue and White; Playing for the Mob; The Day The Series Stopped; Brian and The Boz; Rand University; I Hate Christian Laettner; Trojan War; The Prince of Pennsylvania; Four Falls of Buffalo
10. Free Spirits
This one was about the Spirits of St. Louis of the ABA. I didn't know a lot about the ABA or its merger with the NBA before I saw this documentary, and it was pretty interesting. Most interesting, of course, is the sweetheart deal that the owners of the Spirits made with the NBA as part of the 1976 ABA/NBA merger –- which did NOT include the Spirits. In exchange for agreeing to shut their franchise down, the owners of the Spirits and the NBA agreed that the owners of the Spirits would receive 1/7 of share of the TV revenues from the ABA teams that did join the NBA, in perpetuity. Of course, at the time, the NBA had no idea how big TV revenues would become, and this deal has made the former owners of the Spirits hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 40 years.
9. The Best That Never Was
This had been on my DVR for a while, and I finally watched it last month. It is about Marcus Dupree, one of the most heralded high school running backs of all-time, who went to Oklahoma, and was a second-team All American as a freshman. In his sophomore season, he quit after five games and decided to transfer to Southern Miss (which was closer to his home). When he realized he would have to sit out the entire next season due to NCAA transfer rules, he ended up signing with the New Orleans Breakers of the USFL in 1984 (since the NFL had a rule at the time that a player had to have graduated from college to go to the NFL). In his second season in the USFL, he suffered a devastating knee injury and retired from the USFL. I kind of recognized the name Marcus Dupree, but figured that was going to be the end of the story –- a sad tale of what could have been. But then, after sitting around for five years in his small hometown in Mississippi, Dupree decided to get back into shape and try out for the NFL. He ended up making the Rams' roster in 1990 and playing for almost two seasons, which is pretty amazing, and it was clear from the documentary that Dupree isn't upset about his lot in life because he fulfilled his dream of playing in the NFL.
8. Survive and Advance
As an NCAA basketball enthusiast, there is something special about the 1983 NC State team that won the NCAA championship as a 6-seed on that last-second air ball thrown up by Dereck Whittenburg before being caught and slammed home by Lorenzo Charles for one of the biggest upsets in NCAA title game history. Survive and Advance is about that NC State basketball team, coached by Jim Valvano, who, in the madness after Charles dunked home the winning basket, was running around the court just looking for someone to hug. The documentary was a great retelling of the story of how they got there and what happened afterward, mostly from the former players.
7. Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
If you need another reason to hate Donald Trump, watch this documentary. In the mid '80s, the USFL was trying to challenge the NFL, by playing football in the NFL's offseason and signing some of college football's biggest stars before the NFL could. Future NFL Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White, and Gary Zimmerman all got their start in the USFL, not to mention other future NFL stars Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, Bobby Hebert, Craig James, Anthony Carter, and Mike Rozier. Trump owned the New Jersey Generals, and he wanted to move the USFL's schedule to the fall and winter to directly challenge the NFL, in hopes that the NFL would then want to merge with the USFL, which would presumably result in huge returns for the USFL owners. Pushed by Trump, the USFL sued the NFL for antitrust violations, and the USFL won, but was only awarded $1, which basically required the USFL to shut down.
6. Pony Exce$$
It is hard to believe that Southern Methodist University had one of the best college football programs of the early '80s, posting the highest winning percentage in D-1A between 1980 and 1984. With a backfield consisting of future NFL Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and Craig James, the Mustangs were deemed the "Pony Express." But there was a reason for all of this success. For nearly a decade, players were getting paid by boosters, assistant coaches, and university officials, and the university knew about it. In 1985, SMU was placed on probation by the NCAA, but that didn't stop the flow of cash to players and recruits. In 1987, SMU was busted again, which resulted in the famed "death penalty" –- the only football program that has received the punishment from the NCAA. Under the death penalty, SMU's 1987 football season was canceled. They were allowed to play only away games in 1988, but had such a problem fielding a team (because basically all of their scholarship players had been granted releases and transferred) that they canceled the 1988 season, too. Their scholarships and size of their coaching staff was restricted for several years, and they were banned from bowls and live TV for several years. SMU's football program has never recovered.
5. Big Shot
Who knew that some random dude almost bought the New York Islanders, even though he didn't have anywhere close to the amount of money needed to buy a professional sports team? Until I saw this, I certainly didn't know. But that's exactly what happened in 1996, as some guy from Dallas named John Spano, who basically convinced the NHL, the Islanders' owner, and Fleet Bank that he had a ton of money and wanted to buy the Islanders. What I found to be so amazing is how close he came to actually succeeding, as he was close to restructuring a stadium deal that would have provided the Islanders with a cash influx and would have allowed Spano to make the necessary payment to the old owner. If that had happened, perhaps we never would have known that Spano was a fraud.
4. Once Brothers
Once Brothers was about NBA stars Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, who played together on the Yugoslavian national team from 1986 to 1990 (along with many other future NBA players) and were really good friends. However, in the early '90s, as the Iron Curtain fell, Yugoslavia was torn apart by war, pitting Serbians and Croatians against each other. Divac (a Serb) and Petrovic (a Croat) had a falling out as a result of the war, although both went on to play in the NBA. Petrovic died in a car accident in 1993, before he and Divac had a chance to reconcile. The documentary is narrated by Divac, and I thought it was really well done and emotionally compelling.
3. You Don't Know Bo
Bo Jackson is potentially the greatest athlete of my lifetime. The guy was amazing, and were it not for a total fluke tackle that ended up popping his hip out of joint, he could have been the first Hall of Famer in the NFL and MLB. The documentary was great, not only because it showed how great he was, but it also highlighted his comeback in baseball after hip replacement surgery, when he hit a home run in his first at bat back (as a member of the White Sox). And we also see that he is now an insanely good bow hunter.
2. The U
Until last week, this was hands down my favorite 30 for 30. Detailing the rise of the University of Miami football team in the late '70s and '80s, The U was two hours of swagger. I grew up watching Miami, since they were often on national TV, and their teams in the '80s were always good and had an attitude unlike any other college football team. And, of course, there were the touchdown celebrations, which drew the ire of opposing teams and fans. To paraphrase one of the former Hurricanes in the documentary, if you don't want to see us dance, then don't let us score. This one was by far my favorite 30 for 30 until...
1. The '85 Bears
Granted, I'm very biased, but I have now watched this twice, and it is really good. I moved to the Chicago area in August 1985, a few months before turning eight. The '85 Bears were my introduction to football, and I can safely say that the '85 Bears were the reason I fell in love with football. The documentary was done really well, from they way the story is told to the pace of the documentary to the musical score. It's not hard to make the greatest football team of all-time look good, but this documentary showed that the members of that team were human, driven, and often times pretty damned funny. I also really liked that there was virtually no mention of the Super Bowl Shuffle.