Why do sports matter? Is it because they comprise a $145 billion dollar global industry? Because 120 million Americans alone tune in to the Super Bowl, where advertising costs $4.5 million every thirty seconds. Do sports matter simply because of their central role in our culture and society? After all, as said the 2015 film Concussion, “The NFL owns a day of the week. The church used to own it; now the NFL does.”
From preschool soccer to the World Series, the games we participate in and the teams we support inevitably echo the narrative underlying all of history: our innate longing for glory and community, our self gratifying idolatry, and our need of a true Hero (to vindicate and glorify his followers).
Sports matter because the truly great stories connect the dots between the games we love and the one great Story.
Without further adieu, the top ten of ESPN’s amazing 30 for 30 Films—out of some 100+ documentaries made in the last decade. Tired of searching around aimlessly on Netflix? You’re welcome.
No. 10: Jordan Rides the Bus
If you were a basketball fan in the 1990’s—especially if that was your formative, adolescent, basketball-obsessed decade—you know that Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls ruled the world. You no doubt have memories of His Airness: floating a buzzer-beater over Craig Ehlo and the Cavs (the leaping fist pump), setting a Finals record for three’s against the Blazers (the shrug), being carried off the court by Scottie in Utah (the flu game), and shoving off Byron Russell to hit… (the shot).
But how well do you remember his father’s murder in 1994 and two season experiment with minor league baseball? Jordan Rides the Bus (2010; directed by Ron Shelton) suggests that this was not the dumbest thing MJ ever did—quite the opposite. Michael had just lost the closest person in the world to him, in a very sudden and mysterious murder, and had the bravery to simply walk away from the game he owned. He didn’t want to be Air Jordan anymore. So, he gave up the new sneakers, the constant media coverage, and the private jets. He wanted to be a normal guy again, to just grieve his father and get back to his roots.
In this splendid doc, the first 30 for 30 I ever watched, Shelton shows the humility of the greatest, wealthiest athlete of all time being totally mortal—working long hours, striking out, and riding the bus.
No. 9: The Best That Never Was / Youngstown Boys
These two splendid films typify the 30 for 30 model: spotlight the rise and fall of a hero, build your compassion for the plight of the young athlete, reveal the deep racial divides within sport, and leave you longing for what could have been. The Best That Never Was and Youngstown Boys belong together because of their tragic similarities.
In Never Was, the story of Oklahoma U running back Marcus Dupree identifies the pressures of being a once-in-a-lifetime athlete surrounded by money and power hungry adults in a lucrative industry. In Youngstown, local/native running back Maurice Clarett and local/native coach Jim Tressel meet for one glorious season at Ohio State, before Clarett’s eligibility is revoked and his life spirals downward. Both will have you engrossed for the hour and reaching for the box of tissues.
No 8: No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson
No Crossover fits the 30 for 30 aforementioned blueprint to a T, except with higher stakes. Iverson (who was phenomenal at Georgetown, the NBA’s rookie of the year, and one of the top five point guards of all time) was once a highly recognized two-sport athlete in Hampton, Va.
Iverson was charged with an assault in ’93 and lost his senior year of high school. Not because he definitely did anything: because he was the only recognizable young black male in a bowling alley altercation. This film explores how quickly a teenage athlete can go from local hero to scapegoat and afterthought—and back again.
No. 7: The Fab 5
It still astounds me that Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson were all freshmen on the same Michigan team. The best team of freshmen ever (sorry, Kentucky fans) made it all the way to the Final Four, only to be undermined by an ill-timed timeout (which is thoroughly dissected in the doc) and ultimately defeated at the hands of the NCAA.
The opening scene of The Fab 5 is one of the best: the cameraman walks you through the dark hallways underneath the Wolverines’ famed arena, past years of old tapes and equipment, and settles in on a small object on an ordinary shelf. There, boxed up like archaic evidence from an unsolved homicide, lies the team’s Final Four banner. Goosebumps.
No. 6: The Price of Gold
The power of 30/30 is in their ability to tell us a story we already know—generally, that is—in such a way that we have that feeling, “There’s no way this could have really happened. Except that it did!”
The Price of Gold reminds us of the insanity that was the 1994 Olympics. Tonya Harding’s first-ever-for-a-woman triple axel put her on the map, but it was golden girl Nancy Kerrigan who owned America’s figure skating adoration. This doc gives us insight into both women as their rivalry intensifies to the iceside attack on Kerrigan in ’94. Harding is featured prominently throughout the documentary, defending her case, but Kerrigan—the princess of the ice—is chillingly absent from the film. Somehow, this really did happen.
No. 5: Broke
You’ve probably heard the statistics, and dumb white middle-aged men love to quote them to feel better about themselves: 60 percent of NBA players are broke within five years of retirement; 78% of NFL players admit financial stress or bankruptcy within two years of retirement; and the list of athletes who’ve blown tens to hundreds of millions runs on—Curt Shilling, Andre Rison, Bernie Kosar, Keith McCants, etc.
But director Billy Corben (who has done numerous 30 for 30’s, including The U), gives us a deeper look in Broke. Pro athletes—often receiving millions around the age of 21 after a life with few resources and connections—immediately get surrounded by a complex posse of needs. Families members need help with their mortgages. Second cousins have medical bills. Former coaches and mentors offer to help manage funds. A friend of a friend has a great investment opportunity. How could you say no?
Plus the average pro athlete doesn’t get $250 million like A-Rod, he gets two or three million a year, and will only remain in the big leagues for 3-5 years, on average. While family members and old high school buddies see unlimited riches, each player must quickly give 10 percent to their agent, 3 percent to their attorney, at least 40 percent to taxes, and suddenly you’ve got only what an average middle-class worker makes over his lifetime—you’ve just gotten it in a year quick years.
As with all 30-for-30’s, you’ll start out with one assumption and finish as a more understanding, empathetic person.
No. 4: Catching Hell
If this story doesn’t make you sick to your stomach, you’ve got bowels of steel. After seven innings of Game Six of the NLCS at Wrigley Field, with the Cubs just a few outs from getting the hundred-year curse off their backs, things began to unfold. Leading 3-0, Bernie Mac altered the seventh-inning stretch song from “root, root, root for the Cubbies” to “root for the champs,” and skeptical Cubs fans immediately felt a disturbance in the force. With no one on base and one out, that’s when it happened.
Cubs fan Steve Bartman, surrounded by dozens of Cubs fans reaching out as well, caught a foul ball away from Moises Alou. What unfolded next is one of those “You’d never believe it unless it really happened” moments.
The batter reached base on a walk, Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez let a routine grounder and double-play ball through his legs, and the Marlins went on to score eight straight runs, win the game, and then win Game Seven the following silent night at Wrigley. Catching Hell is a near perfect film—although it’s about 20 minutes too long and a bit repetitive—adding interviews with Boston scapegoat Bill Buckner and layering mystery after mystery about where and who Steve Bartman is today. I won’t ruin any more for you. Just watch the thing. And be prepared not to sleep for a few hours afterward.
How is this thing not number one?
No. 3: Survive and Advance
If you’re looking for a good man cry, this bud’s for you.
In 1983, the NC State Wolfpack put together an unheard of run through the ACC and Big Dance that made the NCAA postseason what it is today: March Madness. After an average season, these underdogs won nine do-or-die games in a row, with seven involving a comeback in the final 60 seconds. On the road to their amazing National Championship, State beat Michael Jordan’s Tar Heels, Ralph Sampson’s Virginia, and Olajuwon and Drexler’s Phi Slama Jama Houston.
But it’s not the amazing run that makes this a top three 30 for 30 of all time. It’s the sub-text. Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano, he of the classic image of his post-buzzer beater run around the court looking for someone to hug, would later announce that he had bone cancer. His 1993 ESPY’s speech (“Never give up; don’t ever give up!”) has been immortalized among the great speeches of all time, and his Jimmy V Foundation has become one of the biggest sources of cancer research funding in the world.
Survive and Advance is, like all good storytelling, about more than the game. It’s about the bond of brotherhood, the will to survive and advance against all the odds, and our need of a Hope beyond the grave.
No. 2: June 17th, 1994
This, I can almost be sure of it, is the best 30/30 you’ve never seen. Jessie and I picked it out one nondescript evening and ended up glued to the television for 51 complete minutes.
“I completely forgot what a big deal this was. This really happened. THIS REALLY HAPPENED?!?”
June 17th, 1994 promised to be a sports day for the ages: legendary golfer Arnold Palmer would play his last round of the US Open; the FIFA World Cup would kick off in Chicago; the Rangers would celebrate their Stanley Cup in downtown New York; and Ewing’s Knicks would face off against Olajuwon’s Rockets in Madison Square Garden. It was one of those days where you wake up and tell your wife, “Baby, I love you, but I need to watch 12 hours of TV today,” and she doesn’t even argue, she just looks at the lineup and says, “Yes, you have to. Godspeed, sir.”
But what should have been the best day of channel surfing in all of ’94 became the most infamous interruption in American pop culture history. All of these games—all of life, it seemed—went on hold as OJ Simpson, wanted for double murder, skipped his court appearance and instead was found speeding around Los Angeles freeways with a gun. The scenes in June 17th, 1994 are surreal—the number of squad cars following OJ, the thousands of fans waving from overpasses and side streets, the final confrontation in the front yard after dark.
Award-winning director Brett Morgen gives us a sporadic, channel-surfing experience of this day in what is the most unbelievable and artistic sports documentary ever made. In his discussion of the film, Morgen said, “Everything that’s great about sports and everything that’s dirty about sports, everything we celebrate and everything we shy away from, happened on that one day.”
No. 1: You Don’t Know Bo
Go ahead and call me biased: Yes, I grew up in Kansas City in the 90’s, the heart of Bo Jackson territory in the peak of Bo Jackson’s prime. (He even hit an inside the park home run at my birthday party.)
But while June 17th, 1994 is the most gripping and technically perfect 30 for 30, You Don’t Know Bo is the one you’ll want to watch every single time it’s on ESPN2.
And that’s because Bo Jackson was not a human being. He was a myth, a legend, a video game character in real life.
He jumped over a Volkswagen.
He did a backflip in the ocean with the water up to his waist.
He hit a home run more than 500 feet in high school.
He ran up a wall.
He was the number one pick in the NFL Draft, but refused to sign because he didn’t trust the team owner.
So he tried baseball, and on his first at bat, he hit a ground ball to 2nd base and beat the throw.
He was the only NFL Pro-Bowler and MLB All-Star in the same season—and he was the All-Star Game MVP.
His legs were so strong, he ripped his hip out of his socket.
After having his hip replaced, he became the first athlete to ever return to the pro’s, hitting a home run in his first at-bat for the White Sox.
How do you pull this all together into a one-hour doc? You run with the legends, tell the stories, fill in the missing pieces with creative cartoons, and sit down with the man himself.
It just doesn’t get any better than this.
That’s it, folks. The UNDISPUTED top ten! Feel free to suggest one that I missed in the comments section, and I totally won’t dissect it as a far inferior flick.