Ten Must-Watch 30 for 30 Documentaries
After looking through ESPN’s catalogue, I thought it would be fun to recommend some of their documentaries to the uSports audience. Now, this is by no means a ranking of the best 30 for 30 films — perhaps that is a list for another day. It is simply a selection of ten movies from the 30 for 30 collection (including ESPN Films) that are great and should be seen by all sports fans.
30 for 30 Films
One of the staples of the Volume I releases, The U follows the rise and fall of Miami University’s football program. Directed by long time collaborators Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman (Cocaine Cowboys), it covers everything from the Howard Schnellenberger era to Dennis Erickson’s reign in the early 90s. Most of the enjoyment from The U has to come from the color commentary of the former players, with even NFL greats like Michael Irvin, Jimmy Johnson and Bernie Kosar talking about the larger than life on and off the field antics.
Big Shot tells the larger than life story of John Spano: a notorious con man who talked his way into nearly purchasing the New York Islanders in 1996. In fact, he was so close to gaining full control of the team, despite the lack of funds, that he was looked at as a savior by the fans. His empty promises were supposed to bring the team back from the oblivion of the late 80s and early 90s. Directed by Long Island local Kevin Connolly (Entourage), the audience feels the love and devotion the director has for New York’s forgotten team. It’s simply a crazy story that needs to be appreciated by all.
The Two Escobars
A tale of war, drugs, politics and soccer, The Two Escobars blends the story of notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and Columbian soccer captain Andres Escobar. Quite possibly the best in the series, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist tells an engaging tale of how Pablo’s rule directly allowed the Columbian soccer team to flourish. The documentary story arch is established through the rise of the drug dealer, the height of the national team, and the eventual fall, which indirectly resulted in the killing of Andres.
Probably the biggest cautionary tale in the 30 for 30 library, Without Bias follows the ‘what if’ story of Len Bias — an athlete that could have been one of the NBA’s biggest stars. The Maryland superstar, who was one of the hottest commodities to come out of the 1986 draft, was selected by the Boston Celtics second overall. But days after the draft, Len decided to return to Maryland, where one fatal mistake led to “a sure thing becoming a what if.”
Brian and the Boz
For sports fans that did not grow up in the 80s, we always hear that ‘The Boz’ is the greatest college linebacker to play the game. But he’s also known as one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history. So Brian and the Boz chronicles this athletes time at Oklahoma and brief stint in the pros, showing how much of a sensation the linebacker truly was. The player created a brand for himself, but at the same time, he had to live up to the craziness he created. Through the steroids, the suspensions, the haircuts, and the controversy, there is no doubt that ‘The Boz’ is the most interesting player to come out of college football in the last century, which makes the present day interview of the now humble Brian Bosworth thoroughly engaging.
Elway to Marino
Perhaps the most famous quarterback draft until 2004, the 1983 draft is remembered for six QBs being drafted in the first round — which to this day still remains a record. And as the title suggests, it starts with John Elway, who did not want to go to Baltimore, and ends with Dan Marino, the Pittsburgh player whose character was called into question multiple times. Best of all, it is told through the private notes of Marvin Demoff — the agent for both Elway and Marino heading into the draft — which makes the audience feel like they are getting an inside scoop on what many believe to be greatest draft class in the history of the NFL.
The Real Rocky
Have you ever wondered about the real story behind the classic Sylvester Stallone character? Well, you are in for a great surprise. It’s certainly not the strongest of the bunch, but The Real Rocky tells the touching story of Chuck Wepner — the working class boxer who nearly went the distance against Muhammad Ali.
If you thought the stories in The U were excessive, than you have not seen Pony Express. This documentary from Volume I follows the Southern Methodist University football team, who was the first and only football program to receive the death penalty, which ultimately closed the program from 1985-1988. To this day, SMU’s death penalty is still the harshest penalty doled out by the NCAA. They failed to return to bowl game until 2009, making this tale of excess, money and college football one of the best in the series.
The Marinovich Project
The story of the athlete once called the ‘Bionic Kid,’ Todd Marinovich was bred to be a quarterback from a very early age. His father, ex-Raider Marv Marinovich, put him through a strict regiment that made Todd a high school sensation, but at the cost of his childhood. So when Todd went off to USC, his life began to spiral out of control. His newfound freedom resulted in heavy partying and drug use. Everyone says he was the best player to come out of 1991 draft — some claim even better than Brett Favre — but it was not long before the pressure got to him. The Marinovich Project is a riveting tale that shows how a father and son relationship could affect a person for the rest of his life.
Requiem For the Big East
Perhaps the greatest conference in the history of college basketball, the tale of the Big East is front and center in this 30 for 30 documentary. The story starts at the last Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, right before the conference split and name change, and from there tells of the inception and how it rose to prominence in the 80s and 90s. Best of all, it is fitting that this documentary premiered on ESPN because the Big East is a direct catalyst for the networks explosion in the 80s. The then small Connecticut company had exclusive rights to the conference’s games, making both the programs and the channel national sensations.