The Best of 30 for 30 Volume 1

30 for 30, ESPN’s award winning documentary film series, returns tonight with the first film of Volume 2 (the first of another 30 films I would guess) Broke. Broke is what is sure to be a fascinating examination of how so many former athletes find themselves out of money within a very few years of retirement (if not before). But before ESPN sucks us back into another 30 movies I took a look back at Volume 1 and ranked them 30 to 1. Here are the ten best:

10. No Cross Over: The Trail of Allen Iverson

Story: On Valentine’s Day 1993 Allen Iverson was THE football and basketball star in Virginia, that evening he and some of his friends got into an argument which escalated into a brawl that resulted in Allen Iverson going to jail. What followed was a national discussion of race and responsibility and corruption and it all swirled around a kid whose athletic ability was simply other worldly.

What Jumped Out: The footage of Iverson in High School, both as a Football player and on the basketball court is beyond eye-popping. The fact that the law they used against Iverson when he was convicted was written to be used against KKK members and hadn’t been cited in 30 years in Virginia was definitely eyebrow-raising.

Conclusion: Steve James, who directed the greatest documentary of all time (and one of the best films of all time) when he made Hoop Dreams grew up in the Virginia Beach area and provided a unique perspective to all of the grey emotional areas that the community felt about Allen Iverson then and still today.

9. The U

Story: The University of Miami was transformed from an upper-crust school bent on being “the Harvard of the south” to a football juggernaut when Howard Schnelenberger realized the bevy of talent that existed in the ghetto’s of Florida. Not everyone at the University was thrilled with the change.

What Jumped Out: First, just how much talent has come out of that football program particularly in the 80’s and 90’s and all the stuff with Luther Campbell (of 2 Live Crew) was just gold.

Conclusion: As much a trip down memory lane as an unearthing of things that are new, but it is quite an entertaining trip.

8. Fernando Nation

Story: In 1981 a chubby 19-year old kid from a small town in Mexico who didn’t speak a lick on English and who looked like he was in his mid 40’s exploded onto baseball in a way that no one had before or since.

What Jumped Out: 30 some years had past and it was easy to forget just how big Fernando was that summer. Even back East, where I lived at the time, you could not get away from Fernando-mania and the filmmakers do a really good job of bring you back to that time and reminding you how it all slowly evaporated.

Conclusion: Like The U this documentary isn’t as much about uncovering things you didn’t know as it was reminding you of something amazing that you had forgotten.

7. Once Brothers

Story: Drazen Petrovich and Vlade Divac grew up together in Yugoslavia and were the cornerstones of the Yugoslavian men’s basketball team that became an unexpected international powerhouse in the late 1980’s. In the early 90’s Drazen and Vlade went to the NBA where they became two of the first international stars in the league. Then in 1991 civil war split their country in two and Petrovich and Divac found themselves on opposite sides of a feud that was thousands of years old. After not speaking for years Divac is finally faced with having to deal with his once brother’s passing when Petrovich dies in a car accident in 1993.

What Jumped Out: The whole story is fascinating and it is fun to see some of the footage of Team Yugoslavia.

Conclusion: Last weekend another documentary was released about the 1992 Lithuanian Men’s Basketball Team called The Other Dream Team. In my review of that I pointed out that one of the great “what if’s” of basketball history is what if Yugoslavia hadn’t split up and the the NBA Dream Team had faced the united Yugoslavian squad in the 1992 Olympics. Do Jordan and company win? Sure, probably, but not by 30 plus points.

6. Pony Express

Story: Only one college football program has ever received “the death penalty” (where the NCAA suspends the program for two years) and that school was SMU. This doc chronicles just how far SMU over the line SMU had to go in order for the NCAA to step in and put a stop to it all.

What Jumped Out: Maybe the two most memorable things were Eric Dickerson receiving a Trans Am from Texas A&M and then deciding to go to SMU instead, saying basically “what can they do about it?” And the other shocking one was the fact that they couldn’t stop paying players because they were under a form of contract.

Conclusion: A dirty college football program is nothing new but just how dirty these guys were and how for it stretched (all the way to the Governor of Texas) and what the impact of the Death Penalty was (they have never used it again) was all really interesting to watch play out.

5. Without Bias

Story: Two days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics in the NBA draft Len Bias drops dead of a cocaine overdose leaving a legacy of questions that are both trivial and important.

What Jumped Out: That he had no reported problems with drug use before (I think the general assumption was that he had had a problem and this was the horrific if inevitable conclusion) and watching the footage of Bias was breathtaking.

Conclusion: Speaking of basketball what if’s, there may not be a bigger one that what if Len Bias had played for the Celtics. There are those who say he was the next Jordan. There are those who say he was a young ABA Dr. J. If he was close to either of those assessments what does that mean for the 1987 NBA Finals where the celtics were old and beat-up? What about 1988? Do the Pistons finally break through? In know some Celtic fans who honestly believe they would have had a chance to win four in a row if Bias had made it to Boston, he was that good. All of which makes his death no more or less tragic, it is plenty tragic without the what if’s.

4. June 17, 1994

Story: A date that was filled with memorable occurrences (Arnold Palmer’s Last round at the US Open, the Ranger’s victory parade for ending their Stanley Cup drought, the World Cup coming to America and Patrick Ewing fighting for an elusive NBA championship) all of which are forgotten or at best have become footnote to a white bronco driving slowly down the freeways and streets of LA and the world watched.

What Jumped Out: All of the other memorable stuff that was going on that day. I had remembered the NBA finals only because I, like many people, was watching it when they cut into the game to show the Bronco “chase”.

Conclusion: An extremely well done re-capturing of one of the “remember where you were” days in my life time.

3. Muhammad & Larry

Story: Larry Holmes agrees to fight his friend and mentor, and aging Muhammad Ali, even though he realizes even though he will win the fight he can’t really win the fight.

What Jumped Out: What sincerely affection the two men had and have for each other and how much Larry Holmes really didn’t want to hurt Muhammad.

Conclusion: Larry Holmes, Ivan Lendl, Ricky Henderson and Isaiah Thomas are by far the four most underrated athletes of the last 40 years. Here we get to remember how good, how dominant Holmes was and how sad it is to watch an aging superstar try to hold onto greatness that has passed him by.

2. The Two Escobars

Story: Andres Escobar was the captain of Columbia’s national soccer team that was one of the favorites to win the 1994 world cup. Pablo Escobar was the notorious Columbian drug lord who loved soccer and for years had put money behind youth leagues that helped build Columbia soccer into the unexpected powerhouse it had become. Columbia, too long viewed as a country of criminals whose main export was cocaine, had so many of its hopes and dreams pinned to the 1994 World Cup Team that they hoped would serve as a symbol to the rest of the world that Columbia was something more that what others viewed them to be. Then, right before the World Cup, Andres Escobar was murdered and the dreams of a nation were dashed.

What Jumped Out: What didn’t? The thing that may have been most surprising were the corollaries between the murders of each of the men.

Conclusion: This is a film that makes you reevaluate so many things (the importance of sport to a community, the impact that criminals have on sport, why soccer is so popular everywhere but here) and does it without ever making you feel like it is work watching it. That’s about as good as a documentary gets.

Before revealing my #1 I should point out that I was only looking at the 30 films that were officially part of the 30 for 30 series. This meant that movies like The Fab Five (which would have made this top 10 somewhere in the range with The U and Fernando Nation) and Catching Hell (which would probably have been #1 if it had been eligible) were not a part of this list.

#1 The Best That Never Was

Story: In 1981 Marcus Dupree was the most sought after recruit in college football. More than that, Dupree might have been the most coveted high school recruit of all time, the surest of sure things and destined for legendary greatness. What happened?

What Jumped Out: The found footage of his high school games is incredible and maybe the thing that really makes this movie work. He really is/was that good and you can see it on the tape. He is bigger, stronger, faster than everyone he played against. And unlike other backs his size (Hershel Walker) Dupree had Barry Sanders like moves on top of everything else.

Conclusion: Dupree’s “failure” was an interesting combination of bad luck, injury, lack of maturity and being mishandled. What is more interesting is that his story is not a tragedy, which is what makes this doc unexpected.

There you have it. The best of the best not just of this series but in a lot of ways of sports documentaries. Check out Broke tonight on ESPN and remember …

But hey, what do I know? I’m fat.