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The 30 Best ’30 for 30′ Films

As ESPN’s groundbreaking series celebrates its fifth anniversary, we pick our favorite films: tales of triumph, tragedy and (of course) ‘The U’

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ESPN

In a 2009 interview with TV critic Alan Sepinwall, ESPN writer/producer/personality Bill Simmons laid out his plans for the (then) new documentary series 30 for 30: "We want to do stuff that people haven't seen," he said. "To tell stories that are different."

Five years later, 30 for 30 has stayed true to its mission. Mostly. The documentaries haven't always been that offbeat – and the series has long since outgrown its original "30 films about events from the last 30 years" premise – but 30 for 30 continues to connect top-notch filmmakers with subjects that they convey with passion and artistry. Along the way, the series has become a franchise, spawning web videos and spin-offs that have dealt with everything from Clyde Frazier's sartorial flair to the history of the high five.

On November 25, ESPN Films is releasing the 30 for 30 Fifth Anniversary Collection, a sprawling, 32-disc DVD (or 20-disc Blu-ray) set that contains 50 episodes from the 30 for 30 series, 11 "ESPN Films Presents" documentaries, two of the SEC Storied films, all nine of the Nine For IX episodes, all eight Soccer Stories, and selections from the 30 for 30 Shorts. That's a generous helping of some of the best sports journalism of the past half-decade. So to mark its release, we've chosen the best of the best: The Top 30 30 for 30s.

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30

‘Into the Wind’ (Dir. Steve Nash and Ezra Holland)

Though sports movies often get tagged as "tearjerkers for men," 30 for 30 has only occasionally gone the sentimental route. One of the most effectively heart-tugging episodes tells the story of Terry Fox, an amputee who became a hero in his native Canada when he ran from Newfoundland to British Columbia to raise money for cancer research. Co-directed by basketball star Steve Nash and narrated by Taylor Kitsch – both Canadians – Into the Wind is as deeply felt as it is moving.

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29

‘Fernando Nation’ (Dir. Cruz Angeles)

During the strike-shortened 1981 Major League Baseball season, one of the biggest on-field stories was the phenomenal Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Fernando Valenzuela, a squat screwballer who baffled hitters and delighted fans. Looking beyond the mania surrounding Valenzuela, Fernado Nation considers the Dodgers' shaky history with L.A.'s Mexican-American community, and how what were meant to be harmless jokes and comments about Valenzuela's ethnicity influenced the public debate over whether he was being overworked and underpaid.

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ESPN

28

‘Unmatched’ (Dir. Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters)

Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert played each other in 80 professional tennis matches, with Navratilova finishing with only a slight advantage in wins. But Unmatched is more about their personal lives off the court, where Evert's turbulent romances and Navratilova's coming out as a lesbian put them both through trials and brought them closer together. It's a sweet study of how competitors forge bonds over time, and how there's no friend like a rival.

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27

‘Run Ricky Run’ (Dir. Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni)

30 for 30 is often at its best when it gives notorious teams or superstars a chance to tell their side of the story. And in that regard, Run Ricky Run is an especially expectation-defying episode, drawing on co-director Sean Pamphilon's long relationship with running back Ricky Williams to refute all the tsk-tsking sports columnists who've questioned Williams' pot-smoking and lack of team spirit. Not just a character sketch, Run Ricky Run asks whether the military mentality of organized football may be robbing the sport of talented iconoclasts like Williams.

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The Fab Five is an ESPN Films documentary produced by Three Tier Entertainment and directed by Jason Hehir. The two-hour film highlights the five University of Michigan freshman (l to r) Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Chris Webber and Ray Jackson with head coach Steve Fisher, who led one of the most famous (and infamous) teams in college basketball history.

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26

‘The Fab 5’ (Dir. Jason Hehir)

Another convincing "sympathy for the devil" episode – and the first under the "ESPN Films Presents" banner – The Fab 5 unfolds like a gripping sports procedural. The documentary covers how Michigan Wolverines basketball stars Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson were recruited by coach Steve Fisher, how they dominated and scandalized college hoops for two years and how their legacy was tainted by NCAA violations. The Fab 5 also directly confronts the racist tinge to the criticisms aimed at this Michigan team, suggesting that what the establishment mistook as disrespect or arrogance was just a case of underprivileged kids enjoying their success.

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ESPN

25

‘The Price of Gold’ (Dir. Nanette Burstein)

30 for 30's inclination to give sports' villains a fair shake adds layers of complexity and tension to The Price of Gold, the story of the 1994 attack on Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by goons associated with Kerrigan's U.S. teammate Tonya Harding. Director Nanette Burstein makes Harding semi-sympathetic – contrasting her working-class upbringing and bad girl image with Kerrigan's chilly golden-girl persona – but it doesn't let Harding off the hook either, no matter how much she professes her innocence.

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24

‘Free Spirits’ (Dir. Daniel H. Forer)

There are plenty of fun anecdotes to tell about the American Basketball Association – the NBA's laid-back 1960s/1970s competition – and Free Spirits works a lot of them into its look at the short-lived Spirits of St. Louis, one of the teams that didn't survive when the ABA collapsed. Around for the death throes, the Spirits experienced wild swings of success and failure before the owners finally cashed in, going through a frenzied experience that was like the ABA in miniature.

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23

‘Swoopes’ (Dir. Hannah Storm)

As one of the WNBA's best-known players – and, for a time, one of the highest-profile openly gay athletes in the world – Sheryl Swoopes dealt with the pressure of different communities almost needing her to become a superstar. Swoopes humanizes a woman whom many tried to turn into an unimpeachable symbol, painting her as a person who's had complicated, not-always-exemplary relationships with her teammates, her lovers and her sport.

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ESPN

22

‘The High Five’ (Dir. Michael Jacobs)

The 30 for 30 franchise has experimented with varying lengths, from a half-hour to two hours – and even shorter, in its series of online shorts. That's allowed the series to tell some less-ambitious but still compelling stories, as in the 10-minute short The High Five, which uses the universal symbol for celebration as a way to frame the life of its creator, baseball player Glenn Burke, who was eventually forced out of the game for being gay.

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21

‘Four Days in October’ (Dir. Major League Baseball Productions)

Boston Red Sox fans already know every stolen base and clutch home run in the team's historic comeback against the New York Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series; and Four Days in October doesn't reveal much else. But this is still a come-from-behind story like no other (the Sox were down 3-0 in the ALCS), one that's amazing every time it's retold. And if nothing else, Four Days in October preserves Kevin Millar's confident Game 4 prediction – "Don't let us win today. Then they get Petey tomorrow, and then we got Schill Game 6. And then Game 7, anything can happen."

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20

‘Requiem for the Big East’ (Dir. Ezra Edelman)

Not just a lament for what's been lost with widespread NCAA conference realignment, Requiem for the Big East doubles as a mini-history of how ESPN grew in prominence in the 1980s, thanks to its college basketball cablecasts and the colorful personalities in the ascendant Big East. It's a reminder that even institutions that seem firmly established – like the network carrying 30 for 30 – have origin points, and someday maybe even endings.

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ESPN

19

‘Untucked’ (Dir. Danny Pudi)

Though unaccountably absent from the new 30 for 30 box set, Community star Danny Pudi's Sundance Film Festival-approved short Untucked is a delight, recounting the history of the Marquette University basketball team's stylish 1970s jerseys. Like the best films in the series, Untucked takes a small piece of pop culture history and blows it up big enough to scrutinize it for larger meaning – in this case how one change of fashion represented a blow for individuality in the conservative world of athletics.

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18

‘Big Shot’ (Dir. Kevin Connolly)

The title character in Big Shot is one of 30 For 30's unlikeliest subjects: John Spano, a wheeler-dealer who promised to be the savior of a moribund New York Islanders franchise, only to be exposed as a fraud after he'd "bought" the team. Professional sports ownership is an exclusive club, one which Spano desperately wanted to join, even if it meant hatching an ill-conceived plan that would've seen him use revenue from the Islanders to pay what he owed. The whole scheme speaks to the power of the luxury box, and the desire of some people to buy their way into a world they're otherwise not gifted enough to join.

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17

‘Broke’ (Dir. Billy Corben)

For all the grumbling about how much money professional athletes get paid, many pull down relatively small salaries when taking into account their agents, publicists, assistants, taxes. . .and the shortness of their careers. The enlightening Broke examines how easily fortunes can disappear, especially when they're being wielded by shortsighted youngsters who assume that the millions are going to keep flowing in for the rest of their lives.

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16

‘The U’ (Dir. Billy Corben)

A 30 for 30 so popular that it's earned a sequel (airing December 13), The U is a dizzying spin through the rise and fall of the University of Miami's football program in the 1980s and 1990s: an era that ran parallel with the heyday of the drug trade depicted in the TV series Miami Vice. Like a snazzy exploitation film, The U lets viewers have the fun of Miami's misbehavior on and off the field, before closing with a little righteous retribution.

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ESPN

15

‘Youngstown Boys’ (Dir. Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist)

Youngstown, Ohio, native Maurice Clarett and former Youngstown State football coach Jim Tressel both had moments of glory at Ohio State University, and both saw their time there end in disgrace due to NCAA investigations. Youngstown Boys takes a frank look at what Clarett and Tressel did and didn't do, and asks whether the media scorn and official sanctions were fairly applied to both, or whether the black athlete was held to a harsher standard than his white coach.

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14

‘The Birth of Big Air’ (Dir. Jeff Tremaine)

"Extreme sports" take center stage in Jeff Tremaine's loving, infectious The Birth of Big Air, produced by Spike Jonze and Johnny Knoxville. Even traditionalists who find themselves baffled by the X Games and its ilk may not be able to help coming away impressed by what daredevil BMX rider Mat Hoffman and his peers can do, as they test the limits of bodies and bikes just for the thrills.

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13

‘Venus Vs.’ (Dir. Ava DuVernay)

The "IX" in the Nine for IX series refers to Title IX, the federal law that requires public institutions to provide equal opportunities for men and women to participate in extracurricular activities like athletics. The first Nine for IX episode details how Venus Williams carried on the fight of tennis legends like Billie Jean King before her to get equal prize money for both genders, swatting away the same maddening, nonsensical arguments against equality that forced Title IX into existence.

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12

‘Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks’ (Dir. Dan Klores)

One of the enduring images of the NBA in the 1990s – aside from Michael Jordan crushing every opponent – is of the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller jawing with famous New York Knicks fan Spike Lee during games at the Garden. The Miller/Lee give-and-take anchors Winning Time, a funny look back at the Pacers' battles with the Knicks in 1994 and 1995 playoffs. A lot of 30 for 30s have heavier themes, but few are this purely entertaining.

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11

‘Judging Jewell’ (Dir. Adam Hootnick)

It's only 20 minutes long, and it's not about an athlete, but the short Judging Jewell is one of the best explications of a common 30 for 30 theme: Don't presume that the way the media initially frames a story is the only way to look at it. The rush to vilify and psychoanalyze security guard Richard Jewell in the wake of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing – a crime that Jewell was investigated for, but didn't commit – says a lot about how the demand for clean, comprehensible narratives unfairly turns real people into cartoon heroes and villains.

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**ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, MARCH 29-30 -- FILE -- ** Chicago Cubs left fielder Moises Alou reaches into the stands unsuccessfully for a foul ball tipped by fan Steve Bartman against the Florida Marlins in the eighth inning during Game 6 of the National League championship series in an Oct. 14, 2003, file photo at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The Marlins won the series and went on to beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

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10

‘Catching Hell’ (Dir. Alex Gibney)

The dream for players and spectators alike is to be in the right place at the right time. The nightmare is to be Steve Bartman, the lifelong Chicago Cubs fan who, during the 2003 National League Championship Series, interfered with a foul ball that might've been caught by Moises Alou – and might've helped send the Cubs to their first World Series title in nearly a century. Alex Gibney's Catching Hell puts Bartman's infamous interference in context of everything else that went wrong in that game, wondering why it's so easy for fans to focus on one moment (and one person) when assigning blame for a devastating loss.

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ESPN

9

‘The Best That Never Was’ (Dir. Jonathan Hock)

Because most athletes' prime years are in their teens and 20s – and because people that young tend to be dopes – a lot of 30 for 30 episodes are about jocks making terrible, life-altering decisions. The Best That Never Was is the most poignant of these, looking back at Marcus Dupree, a Mississippi-born running back so touted in the early 1980s that he had a book written about him before he'd really accomplished anything. Injuries, money mismanagement and badly applied "tough love" coaching wrecked Dupree's career and thwarted his dreams, but as this episode makes clear, what befell Dupree could've happened to any kid forced to squeeze his talents through a football combine and a Southern culture designed to suppress, not nurture.

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83PACK13.SP.021508.GPH -- NCSU's Jim Valvano, left, celebrates with Derek Whittenbug after the Pack beat Houston to win the NCAA Championship in Albequerque NM in March 1983, photo by Greg P. Hatem

Greg Hatem

8

‘Survive and Advance’ (Dir. Jonathan Hock)

Next to Into the Wind, no 30 for 30 is as much of an irresistible weepie as Survive and Advance, which covers the improbable 1983 ACC and NCAA basketball tournament runs of coach Jim Valvano's North Carolina State Wolfpack. Told in part by the players themselves, gathered for a reunion, Survive and Advance relies heavily on the alumni's feelings of wistful nostalgia – about what they accomplished, and about the relentlessly upbeat Valvano, who was later forced out of his job before dying of cancer. The result is both a thrilling underdog saga and a touching depiction of grown men who miss their mentor.

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7

‘Muhammad and Larry’ (Dir. Albert Maysles)

Just as 30 for 30 is willing to paint scoundrels in a better light, it's also unafraid of showing heroes as more finely shaded than they may immediately appear. Muhammad Ali doesn't come off as "The Greatest" in cinema vérité pioneer Albert Maysles' Muhammad and Larry. Inadvisably dragging himself back into the ring for a 1980 heavyweight championship bout against his old sparring partner Larry Holmes, Ali embarrassed himself and made Holmes look like a villain, souring his friend's reputation. Maysles' film of the event (much of it shot back in 1980 and then shelved) is a melancholy, matter-of-fact portrait of what some athletes do to themselves and others in the name of money and fame.

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6

‘The Two Escobars’ (Dir. Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist)

30 for 30's profile and prestige have been boosted from the beginning by the filmmakers' willingness to submit their documentaries to major festivals, to screen alongside the best in world cinema. The Two Escobars actually played at Cannes and Tribeca, and won acclaim from mainstream film critics for how adeptly directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist wove together the lives of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and murdered soccer star Andrés Escobar. By the end, The Two Escobars becomes about the dark side of sports fanaticism, which allowed Colombian soccer fans to root for a team funded by a criminal, and to turn on a player for making a mistake in a World Cup match.

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5

‘This Is What They Want’ (Dir. Brian Koppelman and David Levien)

The longer athletes stick around, the more the public perception of them evolves. This Is What They Want looks back at how tennis fans rallied around prickly bad boy Jimmy Connors during the 1991 US Open, finding a weakened Connors more personally appealing than the cocky powerhouse he'd once been. But the great twist of This Is What They Want is that while fans may have softened, Connors never really did. Unexpectedly – and powerfully – this episode develops into a documentary about a fiercely competitive man who'd rather be a winner than a friend.

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4

‘Elway to Marino’ (Dir. Ken Rodgers and NFL Films)

One of the simplest 30 for 30 episodes is also one of the most thoroughly absorbing. The 1983 NFL Draft saw six quarterbacks taken in the first round, four of whom – John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Tony Eason – would go on to lead their teams to the Super Bowl. Elway to Marino goes through that draft pick-by-pick, talking to the players and the decision-makers, and digging into the various controversies and strategies that governed the outcome. Not even the savviest scouts can predict who's going to be an enduring star and who's going to be a washout. Elway to Marino brings back the tension and hope of that moment when a few NFL teams made choices that would determine their fates for the next decade.

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3

‘No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson’ (Dir. Steve James)

More often than not, when documentary filmmakers use first-person narration, it's an unnecessary intrusion, but the personal touch that Hoop Dreams/Life Itself director Steve James brings to No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson is essential. As James reflects on the 1993 assault charge that almost derailed Iverson's basketball career – and forever defined Iverson to many as a "thug" – he speaks honestly about growing up in a racially divided Hampton, Virginia, where the Iverson incident took place. A lot of 30 for 30 episodes deal with the uncomfortable realities of the racial conflicts and biases that run beneath organized sports, but No Crossover is the bluntest about how often the cheers for black athletes stop when they leave the court.

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ESPN

2

‘Hillsborough’ (Dir. Daniel Gordon)

In conjunction with this year's FIFA World Cup, ESPN extended the 30 for 30 brand to a series of soccer-themed documentaries. The first of these Soccer Stories is a stunner. Hillsborough uses first-hand recollections and old video footage to reconstruct what happened in Sheffield, England on April 15, 1989, when 96 people were trampled and crushed to death during a match at Hillsborough Stadium. Carefully and righteously, director Daniel Gordon picks apart the police and the press' initial attempts to blame the tragedy on hooliganism, instead of the inevitable result of bad stadium design and poor crowd-control. Hillsborough begins in horror, shifts into outrage and ends as an inspiring salute to the survivors' decades-long fight to control their own story. Put it this way: If Hillsborough had been released theatrically, it'd be a serious contender for 2014 Best Documentary lists – and maybe even Best Film.

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1

‘June 17th, 1994’ (Dir. Brett Morgen)

When the 30 for 30 series was first announced, ESPN and producer Bill Simmons touted the combination of big-name directors and unusual subjects, promising something more like actual cinema than the typical sports documentary. But for the most part, even at their best, the 30 for 30 films have been fairly straightforward as pieces of filmmaking. One major exception is June 17th, 1994, which looks at everything that was happening in the world of sports on the same day O.J. Simpson led the LAPD on a chase in his infamous white Bronco. Jumping from event to event like a channel-surfer – flipping back and forth between the NBA Finals, a Stanley Cup parade, a historic home run, the end of Arnold Palmer's U.S. Open career and more – director Brett Morgen captures how viewers process television, and how the media struggles to make sense of events that have no clear outcome.

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