The 10 Best of ESPN’s 30 for 30

On the occasion of 30 for 30's fifth anniversary, ESPN Films has released a 100-Film Gift Set. And on that occasion, a list of the 10 best 30 for 30 films.. so far.

On the occasion of 30 for 30‘s fifth anniversary, ESPN Films has released a 100-Film Gift Set. The metal locker includes all 30 for 30 films, as well as 30 for 30 Shorts, 2013’s Nine for IX series, and 2014’s 30 for 30 Soccer Stories. Below, a list of the 10 best 30 for 30 films, so far.

Special mentions for Venus Vs. (Ava DuVernay 2013) and Hillsborough (Daniel Gordon 2014), and the shorts, The High Five (Michael Jacobs 2014, 10 mins), and Judging Jewell (Adam Hootnick 2014, 20 mins).


Film: 30 for 30: Once Brothers

Director: Vlade Divac

Studio: ESPN Films

Year: 2010

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/o/oncebrothers_poster200.jpg

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Once Brothers
Vlade Divac

Growing up in Yugoslavia, Vlade Divac idolized the players of the NBA and dreamed of “flying away”. But his film, Once Brothers, is not only autobiographical; it also situates his life inside a series of complicated recent histories, from the introduction of European (and South American and Asian) players into the NBA to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. When his national team won the Olympic Silver medal in 1988 and the World Championship in 1989, several players were signed to NBA teams, including Toni Kukoč, Dino Rađa, and Dražen Petrović. Divac and Petro’s special friendship was first disrupted by the war (Divac being Serbian and his friend Croatian), then ended tragically when Petrović died in a car accident in 1993, when he was just 28 years old. Beyond this personal story, the film underscores the irony that even as the NBA made efforts to “internationalize” its team rosters, expanding its profits, the rest of the world followed its own course: bloody and utterly brutal.


Film: 30 for 30: The Price of Gold

Director: Nanette Burstein

Cast: Tonya Harding, Ann Schatz, Connie Chung, John Powers, Tony Kornheiser, Sandra Luckow, Jerry Solomon, Mary Scotvold

Studio: Asylum Entertainment/ESPN Films

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/thepriceofgold_30for30_poster2001.jpg

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The Price of Gold
Nanette Burstein

Tonya Harding’s remarkable triple axel at the 1991 US Figure Skating Championships is a fascinating starting point in The Price of Gold, which goes on to follow the story of Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, her rival during the early ’90s and, of course, the skater who was attacked with a police baton on 6 January 1994 in Detroit. But Harding’s historic achievement has everything to do with that story, in the sense that it describes her determination, her gifts, and her obstacles, the story of her life and career. The film considers media storytelling, in the forms of the scandal and the legal case, and also the preposterous, wholly predictable, and fabulously lucrative decision to include both skaters on the US Olympic team in 1994.


Film: 30 for 30: Bernie and Ernie

Director: Jason Hehir

Cast: Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld, Hubie Brown, Marv Albert, Chuck D (narrator)

Studio: ESPN Films

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/b/berniendernie_30for30_poster200.jpg

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Bernie and Ernie
Jason Hehir

Structured around the bond Bernard King developed with his University of Tennessee teammate, Ernie Grunfeld, Jason O’Hehir’s film offers a potent indictment of racism in its many forms. It also celebrates the healing provided by community and sports. In basketball, Bernard King finds a sense of connection and identity that being part of a team might provide. Along with thrilling game footage and stories of athletic triumphs, the movie begins with King’s memories of a working class childhood in Brooklyn, then reveals a traumatic encounter with Knoxville police, an episode that resonates with many others, traumatic for “a guy from New York that didn’t understand the South”. His continuing pain, visible in his face as King speaks, offers a lesson in the terrors of racism.


Film: 30 for 30: Benji

Director: Coodie and Chike

Cast: Scoop Jackson, R. Kelly, Mario Coleman, Michael Wilbon, Nick Anderson, Billy Moore, Wood Harris (narrator)

Studio: ESPN Films

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/b/benji_30for30_poster200.jpg

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Coodie and Chike

Ben Wilson was a star. Personable, talented, ambitious, he was the first Chicago player to ranked as the top high schooler in the nation. Two days before the start of his senior year at Simeon Vocational High, he was shot dead on the sidewalk by two students from another school. Benji uses talking heads to recount the promise and the loss, including Ben’s older brother Curtis, coaches, lawyers, and teammates. As it also uses animation to reimagine game highlights as well as the murder, it introduces something else, an interview with one of the shooters, William Moore, whose story speaks to circumstances both familiar and frightening, the circumstances of being young and black in the projects.


Film: Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks

Director: Dan Klores

Cast: Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Spike Lee, John Starks, Mark Jackson, Pat Riley, Mike Francesa, Jeff Van Gundy, Donnie Walsh, Byron Scott, Cheryl Miller

Studio: ESPN Films

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/w/winning-time.jpg

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Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks
Dan Klores

“It was almost a biblical proportion,” remembers Cheryl Miller, “You had Indiana, the Holy City, and New York, Sodom and Gomorrah.” It’s true, at times the longstanding opposition between the Pacers and the Knicks could seem a matter of life and death, or at least a clash of cosmic forces. That said, Miller ‘s take on the contest is understandably biased, as her brother Reggie was then the star guard for that Holy City, on occasion called on to carry his team over to victory. Reggie and Cheryl and the other interviewees in Winning Time remember the saga shrewdly, with good humor and great wit, perfectly in tune with the film’s operatic score.

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Film: June 17, 1994

Director: Brett Morgen

Studio: ESPN Films

Year: 2010

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/j/june171994.jpg

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June 17, 1994
Brett Morgen

On June 17 in 1994, O.J. Simpson’s White Ford Bronco was everywhere on television. Brett Morgen’s documentary sets the O.J. chase alongside sports events that took place on that same day, from Arnold Palmer playing his last round at a US Open and the start of the FIFA World Cup in Chicago, from a Manhattan parade in honor of the Rangers’ Stanley Cup and Ken Griffey Jr.‘s pursuit of a single season home run record to the fifth game of the NBA finals, and the Knicks versus the Rockets at Madison Square Garden. Each of these events is surely memorable on its own: as they come together here, however, they tell another story, about how TV shapes memory and history. Cutting from one moment to another, as if you’re clicking a remote, the documentary makes clear connections that are usually left obscured, the connections that create TV viewers’ views of the world. “This is one of those cases,” observes one TV anchor while watching the Bronco on the 405, “where you just can’t believe that reality is real.”


Film: 30 for 30: The Two Escobars

Director: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist

Cast: Francisco Maturana, John Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, Fernando Rodriguez Mondragón, Jaime Gaviria, César Gaviria

Studio: ESPN Films

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/thetwoescobars_30for30_poster200.jpg

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The Two Escobars
Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist

To tell the stories of two very different Escobars, Andrés the Colombian soccer superstar and drug lord Pablo, the Zimbalist brothers’ documentary interviews players and family members, sports journalists and hit-men. Arguing that Pablo’s villainy allowed and even produced Andrés’ heroism (as the drug cartel supported the national team), and vice versa: their trajectories are intertwined. As Coach Francisco Maturana observes, “We were living through a violent time in a country fraught with social problems that could not be divorced from soccer. The drug trade is an octopus. It touches everything. Is football an island? No.”


Film: Catching Hell

Director: Alex Gibney

Cast: Moises Alou, Bill Buckner, Bob Costas, Eric Karros, Pat Looney, Steve Lyons, Scott Turow, Alex Gibney

Studio: Jigsaw Productions

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Catching Hell
Alex Gibney

Section 4, Row 8, Seat 113. A hand points toward the empty seat at Wrigley Field, now a tourist destination. As Alex Gibney refers to “The anguish of what might have been”, the camera traces the movement of the hand that reached out for a baseball that came its way on 14 October 2003. It was the eighth inning of Game Six of the National League Championship Series. The ball was hit by Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo, the hand belonged to Cubs fan Steve Bartman. And the moment is the focus of Catching Hell, which goes on to look at the “Bartman incident” from multiple angles and in many contexts, underlining that it “remains an iconic image of futility”. For all its interviews with witnesses and players and sports writers, the film’s most daunting moment comes as it imagines what Bartman, unseen publicly since that day, might have possibly thought as he realized what he’d done.


Film: 30 for 30: No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson

Director: Steve James

Cast: Steve James (narrator)

Studio: ESPN

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/n/nocrossover-poster.jpg

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No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson
Steve James

Notoriously brilliant and difficult, Allen Iverson remains an elusive subject. At once politically trenchant and deeply personal, No Crossover looks back on a trial in Hampton, VA, hometown to both James and his subject. In 1993, 17-year-old Iverson and some classmates were involved in a fight at a local bowling alley that set blacks against whites. The case exposes the city’s racial divisions, as Iverson was charged as an adult, of “maiming by mob,” a Virginia law originally intended to prosecute lynchers. Famous even then, Iverson became an emblem of divisions among prosecutors, victims (including a young white woman hit in the head by a chair thrown during the brawl), and community members who still struggle with what the trial means. As James narrates, “So many years later, he still haunts my hometown. It makes me wonder about how far we’ve come.”


Film: 30 for 30: The Best That Never Was

Director: Jonathan Hock

Cast: Marcus Dupree, Barry Switzer, Sid Salter, Billy Watkins, Ken Fairley

Studio: ESPN

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The Best That Never Was
Jonathan Hock

Charting the story of running back Marcus Dupree, whose startling speed on the football field left most everyone who saw him dumbfounded, The Best That Never Was begins with testimonies to his prodigious talents in high school to part-time truck driver. It’s a story of expectation and brilliance, disappointment and misfortune. It’s also a story of misdirected youth and self-interested adults, history and hope, as well as class and race disparities exacerbated by the college football industry. As University of Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer sums up, “There was so much more to play and so much more to see we didn’t get to.” The question the film asks is most pertinent: who made up this “we” and where were they when Marcus Dupree needed them?