Starting in 2009, for ESPN’s 30th Anniversary, they commission 30 filmmakers to helm 30 documentaries featuring some of the most memorable and significant sports stories that happened during those 30 years. The series was called 30 for 30, and featured some of the best documentaries of 2009 and 2010. Among them were films that won Emmy’s, were featured in film festival lineups across the country, and was overall one of the most critically acclaimed original productions ESPN ever created.
There isn’t a weak film in the set. Period. This set is a must own for any sports fan, and is an even more essential set for fans of documentaries. Sports documentaries are some of the greatest documentaries that can be made because sports stories are the closest real life gets to truly cinematic moments. Some of these are films that will make you laugh, most of them are films that will make you cry, but if you’re a sports fan, these are surely moments you’ll remember. You’ll even make some new memories from stories you’ll see for the first time.
Below are the official synopses of the first 15 films, in the order they were released on television. For the second part of this review, including a list of special features for each film, please go to our sister site SportsInvasion.net
Directed by Peter Berg
On August 9, 1988, the NHL was forever changed with the single stroke of a pen. The Edmonton Oilers, fresh off their fourth Stanley Cup victory in five years, signed a deal that sent Wayne Gretzky, a Canadian national treasure and the greatest hockey player ever to play the game, to the Los Angeles Kings in a multi-player, multi-million dollar deal. As bewildered Oiler fans struggled to make sense of the unthinkable, fans in Los Angeles were rushing to purchase season tickets at a rate so fast it overwhelmed the Kings box office. Overnight, a franchise largely overlooked in its 21-year existence was suddenly playing to sellout crowds and standing ovations, and a league often relegated to “little brother” status exploded from 21 teams to 30 in less than a decade. Acclaimed director Peter Berg presents the captivating story of the trade that knocked the wind out of an entire country, and placed a star-studded city right at the humble feet of a 27-year-old kid, known simply as “The Great One.”
The Band That Wouldn’t Die
Directed by Barry Levinson
In late March of 1984, a moving company secretly packed up the Baltimore Colts’ belongings and its fleet of vans snuck off in the darkness of the early morning. Leaving a city of deeply devoted fans in shock and disbelief. What caused owner Robert Irsay to turn his back on a town that was as closely linked to its team as any in the NFL? Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barry Levinson (“Diner”, “The Natural”), himself a long-standing Baltimore Colts fanatic, will probe that question in light of the changing relationship of sports to community. Through the eyes of members of the Colts Marching Band, Levinson will illustrate how a fan base copes with losing the team that it loves.
Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
Directed by Mike Tollin
In 1983 the upstart United States Football League (USFL) had the audacity to challenge the almighty NFL. The new league did the unthinkable by playing in the spring and plucked three straight Heisman Trophy winners away from the NFL. The 12-team USFL played before crowds that averaged 25,000, and started off with respectable TV ratings. But with success came expansion and new owners, including a certain high profile and impatient real estate baron whose vision was at odds with the league’s founders. Soon, the USFL was reduced to waging a desperate anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, which yielded an ironic verdict that effectively forced the league out of business. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, Academy Award-nominated and Peabody Award-winning director Mike Tollin, himself once a USFL employee, will showcase the remarkable influence of those three years on football history and attempt to answer the question, “Who Killed the USFL?”
Muhammad and Larry
Directed by Albert Maysles
In October of 1980 Muhammad Ali was preparing to fight for an unprecedented fourth heavyweight title against his friend and former sparring partner Larry Holmes. To say that the great Ali was in the twilight of his career would be generous; most of his admiring fans, friends and fight scribes considered his bravado delusional. What was left for him to prove? In the weeks of training before the fight, documentarians Albert and David Maysles took an intimate look at Ali trying to convince the world and perhaps himself, that he was still “The Greatest.” At the same time, they documented the mild-mannered and undervalued champion Holmes as he confidently prepared to put an end to the career of a man for whom he had an abiding and deep affection. In the raw moments after Ali’s humbling in this one-sided fight, it was not fully comprehended what the Maysles brothers had actually captured on film and, due to unexpected circumstances, the Maysles footage never received a public screening or airing. However, in the intervening years, the magnitude of this footage is now clear. An era ended when the braggadocio and confidence were stripped away in the ring, and the world’s greatest hero was revealed to be a man. Here for the first time is the unseen filmed build up to that fight, accompanied by freshly shot interviews by Albert Maysles with members from both the Ali and Holmes camps, as well as others who were prime witnesses to this poignant foolhardy attempt at courage.
Directed by Kirk Fraser
More than two decades after his tragic cocaine overdose, the late Len Bias still leaves more questions than answers. When Bias dropped dead two days after the 1986 NBA Draft, he forever altered our perception of casual drug use and became the tipping point of America’s drug crisis in the mid-80’s. Future generations continue to face the harsh punishment of drug policies that were influenced by the public outcry after his heartbreaking death. Instead of becoming an NBA star, he became a one-man deterrent, the athlete who reminded everyone just how dangerous drug use can be. Amazingly, questions still linger about his death nearly a quarter-century later. How good could he have been in the pro ranks? Has he become underrated or overrated as the years pass? How could a University of Maryland superstar and Boston Celtics lottery pick be derailed by a cocaine binge? Was Bias a one-time user as we were led to believe, or was there a pattern of recreational use that led to his fatal last night? Did he fall in with the wrong crowd? In the most ambitious, comprehensive and uncompromising account of Bias’ life and death ever captured on film, up-and-coming director Kirk Fraser utilizes dozens of interviews with Bias’ closest teammates, friends and family in an effort to determine exactly what happened on that fateful night. Maybe it wasn’t as much of a fluke as we thought.
The Legend of Jimmy The Greek
Directed by Fritz Mitchell
“The NFL Today” on CBS was one of the preeminent sports programs on television in the early 1980s. It was a perfect combination of reporting, analysis, predictions, humor and talent. But there was no personality on the show more popular than Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. Born in Steubenville, Ohio, to Greek immigrants, Jimmy overcame childhood tragedy, moved to Las Vegas, and eventually became the biggest name in the world of sports handicapping. When CBS added him as an “analyst” on “The NFL Today,” “The Greek” not only further increased his stature as a sort of national folk hero, but he also gained an air of respectability never before associated with gamblers. Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Fritz Mitchell, who broke in as an intern on “The NFL Today,” will examine Snyder’s impact on the growth of sports gambling, while also taking a fresh look at The Greek’s tragic downfall.
Directed by Billy Corben
Throughout the 1980s, Miami, Florida, was at the center of a racial and cultural shift taking place throughout the country. Overwhelmed by riots and tensions, Miami was a city in flux, and the University of Miami football team served as a microcosm for this evolution. The image of the predominantly white university was forever changed when coach Howard Schnellenberger scoured some of the toughest ghettos in Florida to recruit mostly black players for his team. With a newly branded swagger, inspired and fueled by the quickly growing local Miami hip hop culture, these Hurricanes took on larger-than-life personalities and won four national titles between 1983 and 1991. Filmmaker Billy Corben, a Miami native and University of Miami alum, will tell the story of how these “Bad Boys” of football changed the attitude of the game they played, and how this serene campus was transformed into “The U.”
Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks
Directed by Dan Klores
Reggie Miller single-handedly crushed the hearts of Knick fans multiple times. But it was the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals that solidified Miller as Public Enemy #1 in New York City. With moments to go in Game 1, and facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit of 105-99, Miller scored eight points in 8.9 seconds to give his Indiana Pacers an astonishing victory. This career-defining performance, combined with his give-and-take with Knicks fan Spike Lee, made Miller and the Knicks a highlight of the 1995 NBA playoffs. Peabody Award-winning director Dan Klores will explore how Miller proudly built his legend as “The Garden’s Greatest Villain”.
Guru of Go
Directed by Bill Couturié
By the mid-1980s Paul Westhead had worn out his welcome in the NBA. The best offer he could find came from an obscure small college with little history of basketball. In the same city where he had won an NBA championship with Magic and Kareem, Westhead was determined to perfect his non-stop run-and-gun offensive system at Loyola Marymount. His shoot-first offense appeared doomed to fail until Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, two talented players from Westhead’s hometown of Philadelphia, arrived gift-wrapped at his doorstep. With Gathers and Kimble leading a record scoring charge, Westhead’s system suddenly dazzled the world of college basketball and turned conventional thinking on its head. But then, early in the 1989-90 season, Gathers collapsed during a game and was diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat. Determined to play, Gathers returned three games later, but less than three months later, he tragically died on the court. Working with both Westhead and Kimble, Oscar-winning director Bill Couturié will tell a fast-paced and emotionally moving story of innovation, triumph and tragedy.
No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson
Directed by Steve James
On Valentine’s Day 1993, 17-year-old Bethel High School basketball star Allen Iverson was bowling in Hampton, Va., with five high school friends. It was supposed to be an ordinary evening, but it became a night that defined Iverson’s young life. A quarrel soon erupted into a brawl pitting Iverson’s young black friends against a group of white patrons. The fallout from the fight and the handling of the subsequent trial landed the teenager—considered by some the nation’s best high school athlete—in jail and sharply divided the city along racial lines. Oscar nominee Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) returns to his hometown of Hampton, where he once played basketball, to take a personal look at this still-disputed incident and examine its impact on Iverson and the shared community.
Silly Little Game
Fantasy Sports is estimated to be a $4 billion dollar industry that boasts over 30 million participants and a league for almost every sport imaginable. But for all this success, the story of the game’s inception is little known. The modern fantasy leagues can be traced back to a group of writers and academics who met at La Rotisserie Francaise in New York City to form a baseball league of their own: The Rotisserie League. The game quickly grew in popularity, and with the growing use and attractiveness of the Internet, the “founding fathers” never foresaw how their creation would take off and ultimately leave them behind. Innovative filmmakers Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen will chronicle the early development and ultimate explosion of Rotisserie Baseball, and shine a light on its mostly unnoticed innovators.
Run Ricky Run
Ricky Williams does not conform to America’s definition of the modern athlete. In 2004, with rumors of another positive marijuana test looming, the Miami Dolphins running back traded adulation and a mansion in South Florida for anonymity and a $7 a night tent in Australia. His decision created a media frenzy that dismantled his reputation and branded him as a quitter. But while most in the media thought Williams was ruining his life by leaving football, Ricky thought he was saving it. Through personal footage recorded with Williams during his year away from football and beyond, filmmaker and traveling companion Sean Pamphilon will give this misunderstood athlete the opportunity to tell his intriguing story in his own words.
The 16th Man
Directed by Clifford Bestall
Rugby has long been viewed in South Africa as a game for the white population, and the country’s success in the sport has been a true source of Afrikaner pride. When the 50-year-old policies and entrenched injustices of apartheid were finally overthrown in 1994, Nelson Mandela’s new government began rebuilding a nation badly in need of racial unity. So the world was watching when South Africa played host to the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Though they had only one non-white player, the South African Springboks gained supporters of all colors as they made an improbable run into the final match where they beat the heavily favored New Zealand team. When Mandela himself marched to the center of the pitch cloaked in a Springbok jersey and shook hands with the captain of the South African team, two nations became one. Oscar winner Morgan Freeman and director Cliff Bestall will tell the emotional story of that cornerstone moment and what it meant to South Africa’s healing process.
Straight Outta L.A.
Directed by Ice Cube
In 1982 Raiders owner Al Davis beat the NFL in court and moved his team from Oakland to Los Angeles. With a squad as colorful as its owner, the Raiders captivated a large number of black and Hispanic fans in L.A. at a time when gang warfare, immigration and the real estate boom were rapidly changing the city. The L.A. Raiders morphed into a worldwide brand as the team’s colors, swagger and anti-establishment ethos became linked with the hip-hop scene that was permeating South Central Los Angeles. Rapper-turned-filmmaker Ice Cube was not only witness to this evolution, he was also a part of it. As a member of the notorious rap group N.W.A, Ice Cube helped make the silver and black culturally significant to a new generation and demographic. Still a die-hard Raiders fan, Cube will explore the unlikely marriage between the NFL’s rebel franchise and America’s glamour city and show how pro football’s outlaw team became the toast of La La Land.
June 17, 1994
Directed by Brett Morgen
Do you remember where you were on June 17, 1994? Thanks to a wide array of unrelated, coast-to-coast occurrences, this Friday has come to be known for its firsts, lasts, triumphs and tragedy. Arnold Palmer played his last round at a U.S. Open, in Oakmont, Pa., the FIFA World Cup kicked off in Chicago, the Rangers celebrated on Broadway, Patrick Ewing desperately pursued a long evasive championship in the Garden and Donald Fehr stared down the baseball owners. And yet, all of that was a prelude to O.J. Simpson leading America on a slow speed chase in a white Ford Bronco around Los Angeles. Oscar-nominated and Peabody Award-winning director Brett Morgen will artistically weave these moments and others to create a unique and reflective look at a day that no sports fan could forget.