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5 Essential ’30 for 30′ Docs

5 Essential ’30 for 30′ Docs


March is about to get mad.

Beginning tonight, sports fans (and a lot of non-sports fans) will spend most waking hours pouring over brackets and RPIs, trying to figure out who will be the next Davidson or Lehigh, and watching more TruTV over 3 weeks than they will rest of the year combined.

ESPN is smartly capitalizing on the momentum of March Madness by debuting its latest 30 for 30 documentary on Sunday at 9 p.m. EST, following its annual Bracketology special. For the uninitiated, the 30 for 30 docs series began in late 2009. Its mission: shine a light on incredible, real-life sports stories that might not have received the coverage they deserved (or have faded with time for whatever reason). Requiem for the Big East—Sunday’s special—is the 60th feature-length 30 for 30 documentary. It promises to be a lovely, bittersweet ode to a brand of college basketball lost to realignment and the changing realites of the sport both on and off the court.

As a primer, let’s count down five of the best this series has to offer. Maybe you’re coming to it for the first time, or perhaps you’ve been involved with it intermittently for 5 years. Whatever the case, these titles are truly exceptional examples of athletics documentation, and like most of the series, all are available to stream instantly on Netflix and other VOD platforms.

When Ben Johnson won a gold medal and set a world record in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, it was Carl Lewis’s first and arguably only setback in his decade-long run at the top of the track-and-field world. Perhaps not coincidentally, Johnson tested positive for banned substances in the immediate wake of his record-setting sprint. Johnson’s an interesting guy because he doesn’t shy away from the fact that he doped, and he’s sympathetic for just that reason. His (and director Daniel Gordon’s) argument is that the entire sport was compromised at that point in time, so Johnson was simply playing the game. Does that excuse his actions? Maybe, maybe not. The gray area, however, makes for a pretty fascinating exploration of sports ethics.

baltimore-colts-band-movieThe Band That Wouldn’t Die
This one comes from Rain Man director Barry Levinson and tells the story of the shocking overnight relocation of the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in 1984—an event that wasn’t exactly shocking to the Baltimore Colts’ Marching Band. The band was notified of the team’s relocation hours before it happened, and its leaders basically stole the band uniforms and equipment and hid them until Colts owner Jim Irsay slid out of town. From there, the band operated independently for a decade before becoming the official band of the new Baltimore football team, the Ravens. It’s an unbelievably sweet story with cleverly executed heist elements and some interesting intellectual elements that will stay with you.

The Best That Never Was
One of the more successful 30 for 30 templates is the profile of the athlete who never lived up to his promise. (In fact, there’s another film that fits the profile further down the list.) The Best That Never Was, which likely introduces many viewers to former college football star Marcus Dupree, is the best such film in the series. A one-of-a-kind high school running-back prospect, Dupree was sought after by every major college football program in the country. He eventually chose Oklahoma, where he excelled as a freshman on the field but clashed horribly with coach Barry Switzer. During an injury-plagued sophomore season, Dupree bolted for home, leaving OU to resume his college football career at Southern Mississippi, a school near his hometown. Things were never the same for Dupree after that, and The Best That Never Was introduces us to a middle-aged Dupree who is overweight and works odd jobs. It’s a sad, cautionary tale about not living up to potential.

The U
Another college football doc, The U discusses coach Howard Schnellenberger’s total revitalization of the University of Miami football program. Before his arrival in 1979, the university was considering dropping the football program. By 1983, he’d won a national championship by changing the U’s recruiting strategy and finding young men with swagger. He left after that national title, but Miami’s attitude under his successor, Jimmy Johnson, remained the same. Future NFL superstars, like Michael Irvin, flocked to South Florida. And while a cloud of controversy would always hang over the program (its athlete’s were infamous citizens for a number of years), the program changed the face of college football in the 1980s and 90s.

without-bias-docWithout Bias
Like Marcus Dupree, Len Bias was a highly sought-after high school athlete who was compared favorably to some of his sport’s (basketball) all-time greats. Bias shined at the University of Maryland and was drafted second overall in the 1986 NBA draft by the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics. It was the perfect situation for a promising young player to come into—learn the ropes of professional basketball from the likes of living legend Larry Bird, among others. But Bias died of complications related to a cocaine overdose just 2 days after he was drafted. It was a terrible tragedy, and in Without Bias, some of the most well-known and admired sportswriters in the country—not to mention Bias’s family and college teammates—remember it with heavy hearts. This is 30 for 30‘s most moving film.

— John Gilpatrick