When ESPN announced they were moving into the documentary world to celebrate their 30th anniversary in 2009, some were skeptical that it would work. After all, ESPN was dedicated to sports and their specialties were live events, their nightly highlight show SportsCentre, or debate shows such as Pardon The Interruption, Around The Horn and First Take.
But there were some that believed it could work. ESPN’s news magazine show Outside The Lines had done some excellent stories and even showed some investigative journalism skills.
Melding the line of sports and entertainment, 30 for 30 brought Hollywood directors to the sports world to uncover some of the hidden stories that most didn’t know. It became a hit. Here are the 10 best that I’ve seen so far.
Two notes. One, I’ve not seen every documentary so chances are one that you really like isn’t on here. Don’t fret. I may not have seen it yet. Also, I’m not including OJ Made in America. I’ve only seen bits and pieces but not the whole thing. I want to see it and I will view it in a future date.
10. Straight Outta LA. Director: Ice Cube
First aired in 2010, Straight Outta LA talks about the relationship between the Los Angeles Raiders and the burgeoning gansta rap scene that was happening in the City of Angels in the 1980s. Most know that Ice Cube (who famously wore a Raider hat in promotion photos and music videos) was a founding member of N.W.A who were at the forefront of the hip-hop scene in South Central Los Angeles. The Raiders played their home games at the LA Coliseum which wasn’t that far from Compton, the home of gangsta rap.
Cube directed and with help from Snoop Dogg, told a fascinating tale of football, music and a splash of street life that showed the grittier side of Los Angeles, far removed from the glamour of Hollywood.
Former Raider greats Howie Long and Marcus Allen were also interviewed. But the highlight was Cube doing a sit down chat with Al Davis, the maverick owner of the Raiders. It’s surreal to see two men who came from different backgrounds but have similar attitudes have an intelligent conversation about the Raiders time in Southern California. A worthwhile and entertaining film.
9. Broke. Directed by Billy Corden.
A fascinating yet somewhat different film from the rest of the 30 for 30 docs. Broke tells the story of athletes who had it all yet were left penniless either from overspending on expensive items, drug and alcohol abuse or bad investments. It’s a cautionary tale told by the athletes themselves in a stark, yet revealing way that was nicely held together by director Billy Corden who you will see later in this list.
Athletes such as Bernie Kosar, Andre Rison, Cliff Floyd and former MLB players association president Marvin Miller are featured prominently The film did draw criticism for painting athletes as spoiled and not too bright but the lesson here is it can happen to anyone who falls into sudden wealth. First aired in 2012.
8. Nature Boy. Directed by Rory Karpf.
We all know that pro wrestling is predetermined. The action inside the ring has been planned backstage by the participants. But what happens after the matches are over? The story of Ric Flair, the 17-time world heavyweight champion, is chronicled in heartbreaking fashion. From a plane crash that nearly killed him in 1975 to main eventing sold out shows around the world, Flair looked and lived the part of success. Styling and profiling, Flair was the man where ever he went.
But when the show was over, Flair had to deal with insecurities such as his strained relationship with his father, his three broken marriages and being an absentee father to his children.
Flair is considered the greatest in-ring performer in wrestling history but this documentary showed a different side. A beat down, broken man. It’s a riveting film. First aired in 2017.
7. Requiem For The Big East. Directed by Ezra Edleman
The Big East conference and ESPN was a marriage made in heaven. In the 1980s, college basketball was a big deal and the Big East conference was at its epicentre. With games being televised regularly on ESPN, including prime time games, the Big East was the power conference of college basketball.
With interviews spliced with game action, Requiem For The Big East tells the tale of the rise and fall of one of the most influential leagues in college basketball. The highlight is interviews with John Thompson and Jim Boeheim who talk about the intensity of the Georgetown vs Syracuse rivalry which was at one time, the most heated rivalry in the NCAA. First aired in 2014.
6. You Don’t Know Bo. Directed by Michael Bonfiglio
Bo Jackson was one of my sporting idols. I first heard of him when he was rushing for a boatload of yards at Auburn. When Bo turned pro, he did it twice. In baseball and in football. Not only did Bo play both sports professionally, he excelled.
You don’t know Bo deals with the man behind the athlete. He was a superhero. Hitting monstrous home runs while with the Kansas City Royals while scoring touchdowns with the LA Raiders, Bo was more than an athlete, he was a marketing machine. He was the face of Nike before Michael Jordan.
While his athletic career was cut short due to a hip injury, Bo’s legacy remains to this day. First aired in 2012.
5. Muhammad And Larry. Directed by Albert Maysles
A fascinating look at the dichotomy between two great boxers leading up to their world heavyweight championship fight and what happened afterwards. We all know about the charismatic Ali but I really was taken aback about the cerebral Holmes and his post fight life. Holmes was unfairly painted as a villain throughout his career yet he gave back to his community and was a hero in his hometown in Easton, Pennsylvania.
It also delves into the big prize-fight and what happened to it. It used to be a heavyweight championship bout was a massive event. Today, it’s a footnote on most highlight shows. First viewed in 2009.
4. Pony Excess. Directed by Thaddeus D. Matula
The SMU Mustangs were once a college football powerhouse. How they got there was the real story. Greed, jealousy, backstabbing, nefarious deeds. It was straight out of Dallas, the prime time soap opera that was a ratings hit in the 1980s and it’s where SMU was located.
An entertaining look at the rise and fall of SMU football that features interviews with former star players Eric Dickerson and Craig James. But former Mustangs coach Ron Meyer is the star with his humour, charisma and a dose of charm.
The doc also mentions the sanctions SMU received after recruiting violations which were dubbed the death penalty and how no school has received the harsh punishment since. First aired in 2010.
3. Doc And Darryl. Directed by Judd Apatow
Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were integral members of the 1986 New York Mets team that won the World Series. Both players were thought to be future Hall of Famers. This is a story of unlimited potential that was never fully realized.
Both players struggled with drug abuse and the constant glare of the unforgiving New York media. Their lives and careers are charted through this doc with plenty of pain and heartbreak. Much of which was brought upon themselves.
There’s a little bit of humour supplied by Jon Stewart who is a die-hard Mets fan but for the most part, director Judd Apatow, who is more known to direct comedies, keeps the mood serious and at times somber. First aired in 2016.
2. The Best That Never Was. Directed by Jonathan Hock
The saddest 30 for 30. Marcus Dupree was a highly touted running back out of Philadelphia, Mississippi in the early 1980s. Every major college wanted him as their feature back. Dupree chose to go to Oklahoma. The story has plenty of twists and curves that no novelist could have imagined.
Director Jonathan Hock brilliantly captures Dupree’s mindset with shattering interviews about why Dupree couldn’t match the hype out of high school.
Barry Switzer is a perfect villain as he chides and mocks Dupree in interviews with Hock. I disliked Switzer when he coached Oklahoma. I despised him after watching this doc.
I could go forever about this 30 for 30 but for the people who haven’t seen it or don’t know the story of Marcus Dupree, I won’t reveal any spoilers. I just will strongly urge you to watch. First aired in 2010.
1. The U. Directed by Billy Corden
The best of the best. A stirring, hypnotic documentary that tells the story of the University of Miami, and its ascension in college football. Interviews with the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Bernie Kosar, Michael Irvin and many more give insight on what was happening at the University and the city of Miami in the 1980s . Difficult subjects such as race, culture and class are discussed and given a fresh perspective.
Irvin may have been the focal point in terms of player interviews but for me, it was the likes of Lamar Thomas, Randall Hill, Melvin Bratton and Steve Walsh that perfectly told the mood of the U. From a football standpoint, it’s fantastic as Miami’s rivalries with Florida State, Notre Dame and Nebraska are revisited. From a cultural standpoint, it’s absorbing. A must see. First aired in 2009.
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