ESPN has broadcast a lot of schlock since taking the air in 1979. The network’s rise to cable juggernaut has meant sports devotees wasting uncounted hours (not me, of course) watching lumberjack competitions and the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. But to mark its 30th anniversary in 2009, ESPN stressed the entertainment in its original Entertainment and Sports Programming Network name to take a deeper focus on 30 moments with 30 documentaries. Fifteen of the films in the “30 for 30” series are now out in a DVD boxed set ($74.95). The nearly 20 hours add up to a very strong lineup, with themes like fallen stars, fans’ broken hearts and the parallel tracks of sports and music. But like any roster, some players are more valuable than others. Here’s a scouting report:
The Starting Five
Muhammad & Larry: Properly restores forgotten champ Larry Holmes to his place among boxing heavyweight greats and just as properly indicts Muhammad Ali’s toadies for putting him in the ring with Holmes in 1980 when he was washed up.
The Legend of Jimmy the Greek: Long before cable TV exploded, three networks dominated. One of them, CBS, had the most watched pregame NFL show in the 1970s and early ’80s. One of its stars was oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. And then he wasn’t. This well-paced piece chronicles the rise and fall of a man who legitimized talk of sports betting.
Kings Ransom: The Trail Blazers’ prominence in small-town Portland is nothing compared with hockey in Anytown, Canada. This film captures that with Edmonton’s trade in 1988 of superstar Wayne Gretsky to—Canada’s horror—the LA Kings.
Straight Outta LA: When Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis moved his silver-and-black renegades to Los Angeles in 1982, LA’s gangs and rappers embraced the team and its colors. Directed by Ice Cube, this documentary shows how these vilified groups found common cause and profited from it.
Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?: Less a whodunit than a wry take on a good-vs.-evil battle over spring football’s fate between two team owners. Good (John Bassett) loses to Evil (Donald Trump). But director Mike Tollin makes great sport of Trump along the way, including a classic interview with the man, and recalls the whimsy of a league that briefly had a Portland franchise.
The 16th Man: Nelson Mandela gets released from prison, apartheid ends, and Mandela graciously cheers for South Africa’s white rugby team. Yes, it’s the plot of Invictus. But in documentary form, it’s still a worthy, uplifting watch.
Without Bias: A quintessential “Where were you when you heard…?” moment for basketball fans was when top Boston draft choice Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication in 1986. Told through the people who knew Bias best, this film shares their memories of what Bias could have been and why his death mattered in making federal drug laws.
Guru of Go: A quintessential “Did you see the highlight?” moment, sadly, for hoops fans was when Loyola-Marymount star Hank Gathers collapsed in 1990 against the University of Portland and died. His coach was Paul Westhead, whose run-’n’-gun offense has some parallel to Oregon football coach Chip Kelly’s speed-it-up philosophy. Maybe they discuss that in Eugene—Westhead now coaches the Ducks women. This movie explains all that happened to the 71-year-old Westhead.
Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks: A fun return to 1995, when the New York Knicks mattered and Indiana’s Reggie Miller was the most amazing shooter trying to beat them.
Run Ricky Run: A largely successful effort to sort through the competing reasons (marijuana and anxiety disorder, among them) star running back Ricky Williams left the NFL.
End Of The Bench
The Band That Wouldn’t Die: Barry Levinson has directed poignant dramas recounting his native Baltimore (Diner, Avalon and Liberty Heights, among them). His documentary retracing the departure of Baltimore’s Colts and the team band that kept fighting for a new franchise is at times schmaltzy but should remind Blazers fans how tenuous having a franchise can be in any league.
June 17th, 1994: If you lived through this newsy sports day topped, of course, by the O.J. chase, these clips add up to a nice piece of nostalgia.
No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson: Before the O.J. trial divided black and white America, the fate of Iverson when he was a Virginia high-school superstar arrested after a bowling-alley brawl did the same in that Southern state.
The U: A similar tale to Straight Outta L.A. of showy athletes and the rappers who love them, this time at the University of Miami. But this film makes that same point over and over.
Silly Little Game: A mildly amusing tale of who started the phenomenon of fantasy leagues. But it goes off track when it replays that history at times with actors. Plus, hearing about your pal’s fantasy team is only slightly duller than watching a history about what created the whole concept for him.