The Return of 30 for 30

I love documentaries. They are among one of my favorite genres of filmmaking. Nine times out of ten, if you look to see what is cluttering up my DVR, it is usually a string of documentaries that aired on PBS that I’ve just never gotten around to watching or I wasn’t yet in the right mood for. There is just something about watching a story unfold and knowing that it is based on real people and real incidents that make them so powerful. Of course, a documentary is one version of the truth and can be shaped by what is omitted and the viewpoint of the director. Nothing should just be taken at face value. But even with that slight caveat, they are a medium that can be both entertaining and informative. People think that documentaries are boring and tend to skip them. I’m here to say that if they are done well, they are anything but boring. I’m always especially intrigued by documentaries that take something small and make them compelling; you wouldn’t think that one man’s quest to set the highest score on Donkey Kong would be all that riveting, but I’ll be damned if King of Kong isn’t one of my favorite documentaries. If you haven’t seen it, definitely check it out. It’s really good stuff.

Back in October of 2009, the sports network ESPN was celebrating the 30th anniversary of being on the air. To commemorate the occasion, they decided to create a series where they would commission filmmakers to make 30 different documentaries about events that had happened in the world of sports in the 30 years that ESPN had been on the air. The idea came from ESPN columnist/blogger Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons and further cemented in my mind that he just might be my soul mate (minus the whole rooting for Boston sports teams foolishness and the fact he already have a wife and kids). The caveat for the documentaries were that they should tell stories that haven’t already been told or that aren’t very well known; these would not be a rehash of some of the big stories in sports, but would rather shine a light on some of the smaller or forgotten sports stories over the last 30 years. The project attracted many top tier filmmakers and covered varied topics including the 1992 Little League World Series, the friendship between tennis players and rivals Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and the rise and fall of the SMU college football program.

Obviously, I ate these documentaries up with a spoon. They were not only up my alley, they were up my entire boulevard. As a huge sports fan, this was a marriage of two of my favorite things. They became appointment TV for me and I watched all 30 of them when they aired. They were almost uniformly excellent and I learned a lot; I tend to know a lot about certain sports topics, but not a lot about others. The documentaries that I enjoyed the most told me about things that I knew nothing about. Some of them were incrediblytouching (more than one moved me to tears) and some were tremendously inspirational. Even the few documentaries that I didn’t really enjoy – I wasn’t a fan of Marion Jones: Press Pause, Silly Little Game (on the birth of fantasy baseball) or One Night in Vegas (on the intertwined events of Mike Tyson’s fight in Vegas and the murder of rapper Tupac Shakur) – taught me something.

However – and I can’t stress this enough – you do not have to be a sports fan to enjoy the 30 for 30 documentary series. The documentaries tell the story so well that it doesn’t matter if you know anything about the subject matter beforehand. I know absolutely nothing about NASCAR, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find the profile of driver Tim Richmond and his death from AIDS fascinating. You don’t have to regularly watch ESPN to get something out of the documentaries; many of the critics who praised these film admitted that they aren’t sports fans but found these documentaries to be very well done and enjoyable. If you enjoy documentaries, you will enjoy the 30 for 30 series, regardless of your sports knowledge. If I could sit through the retelling of the epic collapse of the Yankees against the Red Sox in 2004 (my darkest moment as a sports fan), these documentaries are worth it.

The stories tend to be more about the human aspect rather than the sport itself. My favorite of the series is The Band That Wouldn’t Die, which focuses on the decision to move the Colts football franchise from Baltimore to Indianapolis. There are a lot of stories that could be told about this event, but the filmmaker (Barry Levinson. Yes, that Barry Levinson ) decided to focus on the orphaned Baltimore Colts marching band and their steadfast determination to bring football back to Charm City. While The Band That Wouldn’t Die is clearly about a sports, it’s about more than that. It’s about human emotion, loyalty and resolve. It’s a story that wouldn’t have been told without the 30 for 30 series.

After the 30 for 30 series ended in 2010, ESPN continued to make sports documentaries under the ESPN Films Presents label. Unfortunately, since these documentaries did not air on a regular schedule like the 30 for 30 franchise, I missed a lot of them. The few I did see maintained the high quality of the 30 for 30 experiment. I was particularly enthralled with Catching Hell, as it told the story of the poor Cubs fan Steve Bartman and his alleged interference with a play and how he became a scapegoat for an entire fan base’s frustration and anger. As a baseball fan I remember the incident well, but the documentary really took you inside the hell that poor Bartman’s life became after that game. I hope to see out the rest of the docs that I missed; I take some pride in the fact that I watched all of the original 30 for 30 films and would like to “complete the set” with the films that followed.

Tonight, ESPN will be re-launching the 30 for 30 series with a second batch of films. Dubbed 30 for 30: Volume II, the series begins with the film Broke, which was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. It will chronicle the phenomenon that has become all too familiar in sports: a player’s instant wealth and then subsequent bankruptcy. I’m looking forward to future installments on the integration of Ole Miss, the murder of a promising basketball prospect and a film on Bo Jackson. 30 for 30: Volume II will be augmented with some video shorts that will appear on the Grantland.com website (required reading for fans of sports and pop culture). The first, “Here Now,” followed Pete Rose as he hawked sports memorabilia and autographs at a Vegas casino and debuted earlier this summer. “Arnold’s Blueprint” is currently showing and focuses on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s youth in Austria and his mandatory military service.

I really cannot recommend these films highly enough. I think 30 for 30 was a wonderful project and I am so glad that they decided to re-launch it. A must view for fans of sports, fans of documentaries or fans of both. Well worth the time that you will invest.

Broke debuts tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET and will re-air on the various ESPN channels and the Watch ESPN app. Check your local listings. The original 30 for 30 films are available on DVD and on Netflix streaming.  To keep up with the latest news on future documentaries, follow @30for 30 on Twitter.

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