Ten Best of ESPN’s 30 For 30 Series
If you are not watching ESPN’s film series 30 for 30, you are missing quite possibly one of the best non-fiction series on television. It is one of the few quality programs on the modern network, and each edition is must see television.
Originally conceived by Bill Simmons, 30 for 30 allows serious film makers to tackle sports subjects. Originally, there were only supposed to be 30 of the shows (each covering a year in the history of ESPN) which aired in 2010. However, ESPN went back to the concept. First, they did ESPN Films Presents and have now revived the 30 for 30 concept for a full season.
The latest entry Elway to Marino (premiered last night) is the 50th 30 for 30 production, which is a good time to look back at the series. For those who may not have been watching, this is an introduction and some recommendations. For those who are ardent viewers, feel free to debate the choices for the ten best of ESPN’s 30 for 30 in our comments section below.
10. Roll Tide / War Eagle
Roll Tide / War Eagle examined the contentious and complicated relationship between the University of Alabama and Auburn University. The episode showed the best of the schools co-existing (Auburn fans coming to help out after a tornado in Tuscaloosa) and the worst of the rivalry (a deranged Alabama fan poisoning trees in response to a loss). The show not only talked about football but how the passion for football affected lives in the state of Alabama. Every decision that went into this show was contentious right down to the decision to put Roll Tide before War Eagle even though it was alphabetical.
9. The Legend of Jimmy The Greek
30 for 30 is good when it discusses triumph. 30 for 30 tends to rise to the level of art when it discusses tragedy. The Legend of Jimmy The Greek told the story of Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos, better known as Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. It may be not well-remembered now, but in the 1980s CBS Sports’ NFL Today was much bigger than shows like Sportscenter in its hey day.
The Greek made his money and reputation by betting on sports. However, after racist comments, Jimmy would learn that his longest shot was betting on himself. The Legend of Jimmy the Greek presents the rise and fall of a man who can only really be described as Dickensian. Like the Kenny Rogers song The Gambler, the best that the Greek could end up hoping for was to die in his sleep.
8. Into The Wind
The story of cancer survivor Terry Fox, who attempted to run across Canada on one leg, reads like a fairy tale. Unfortunately, a lot of people tend to forget that real fairy tales tend to not have happy endings. Terry Fox managed to over achieve and inspire. In an ideal world, he would have also managed to finish his run as well as live to an old age.
In real life, fairy tales came from the Brothers Grimm and not from Disney. Fox relapsed during his run and passed away shortly after. What we have left is a compelling portrait of a man whose determination took his life, as well as making him a compelling story to this day. One of the saddest parts of watching Into The Wind was my daughter asking ‘When are they going to show Terry Fox today?”
7. King’s Ransom
Hockey, as any hockey sports fan will tell you, winds up being like the step child of sports reporting, especially on ESPN these days. Routinely, hockey stories are some of the most compelling in sports. However, just as routinely, they are either not mentioned or severely under reported in the United States. That is what made 30 for 30‘s opening salvo so very special.
By examining the step by step process of the seismic trade of Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, 30 for 30 established itself as a different type of show with a different type of gravitas. In truth, not since the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles had there been a move this heart wrenching for the home city. 30 for 30 was able to capture that and in the process captured our attention.
6. Jordan Rides The Bus
Jordan Rides the Bus actually recast in some ways how a sports story can be told. The brilliance of Jordan Rides the Bus is that it doesn’t really tell you a baseball story. The best baseball stories actually don’t. Jordan Rides the Bus plays out like a real life Field of Dreams right down to the association with the Chicago White Sox. Jordan Rides The Bus is about a son going to any length (including severely humbling himself) in order to re-connect with the ghost of his father. The themes of baseball and life are intertwined in a powerfully dramatic way here.
If you have ever lost a father, you know that often there is a hope that they had for you. More often than not, that hope went unfulfilled while they were alive. Jordan Rides the Bus takes us not only through Michael Jordan leaving the NBA for minor league baseball, but to the heart of a son doing whatever he can to reconcile with his father’s death.
5. Tim Richmond : To The Limit
In the end, To The Limit is a story as old as Achilles. What if someone came to you and told you that you would get everything you wanted out of life, but that you would die young? Privately, would you take it? Would you take lasting fame even if your own life was fleeting? Tim Richmond lived, loved, partied, and literally did everything in the fast lane. In the end, a probably all time NASCAR legend was taken down by the horror of AIDS. To The Limit is the story of a life that was simultaneously lived in full as it also quickly ran out of gas. However, the question remains how many of us would do the same if just given the opportunity?
4. The Marinovich Project
Todd Marinovich was raised by his father with only one purpose in mind. Todd Marinvovich trained from birth in order to become an NFL quarterback. The downside is that it took the loss of football in Marinovich’s life for him to learn how to become a human being. The Marinovich Project plays out like sports related science fiction.
Marinovich’s father researched the latest training and conditioning techniques learned from a lifetime of physical fitness to build up his son. In the process, Marinovich’s father was willing to sacrifice any portion of his life (including his marriage.) In the end, Todd Marinovich did star at the University of Southern California at quarterback and would go on to play for the then Los Angeles Raiders. The Marinovich Project is a captivating train wreck which tells the story of a real life Victor Frankenstein and his Monster.
3. Once Brothers
Once Brothers is, in a lot of ways, much like a real life playing out of Disney’s The Fox and the Hound. Basketball made Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic as close as brothers. However, the fall of Yugoslavia and the Serb/Croat war put them on different sides of a centuries old geo-political fight.
Once Brothers shows how war can tear apart lives even of non-combatants. Unfortunately, with Petrovic’s death in a traffic accident, it was a tear that would remain torn in this life. It is a situation that clearly haunts Vlade Divac to this day. After seeing Divac’s emotional trip to Petrovic’s grave, the old wounds will haunt you as well.
2. The Band That Wouldn’t Die
The Band That Wouldn’t Die tells the story of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band after the Colts left for Indianapolis. If you have ever been part of a marching band or ever been part of any organization really, the resilient group will absolutely bring tears to your eyes. The Band stayed together uninterrupted until football came back to Baltimore, 12 years later.
The Band That Wouldn’t Die is a testament to spirit as well as a city that never stopped believing. The Band That Wouldn’t Die reminds of Aragorn’s response when Gimli says “Then all has been in vain. The Fellowship has failed.” Aragorn says “Not if we hold true to each other.” Watching the Colts Band hold true to each other until they became the Ravens Band is a lesson that almost every one needs to be reminded of at some point and time in their lives.
1. Survive And Advance
If you ever need an emotional jolt or lift in your life, then we sincerely hope that you have Survive and Advance on DVR. The story of Jim Valvano’s rise with the North Carolina State Wolfpack to an improbable NCAA Final Four victory, all the way to Valvano losing his fight with cancer will inspire you. Listening to Valvano say “Every single day in every walk of life, ordinary people do extra-ordinary things” is guaranteed to send a nearly electric shock up your spine.
If you watch Survive and Advance, you will likely be moved to tears by emotion, you will laugh, and you will think. Incidentally, these are the three things that Valvano said were needed in order to have a full day. It is the number one of the series not only because Survive And Advance is well done, but also because the story resonates decades later.