My 11 favorite ESPN 30 for 30s

I recently finished watching all 30 ESPN 30 for 30s and enjoyed them a lot more than I expected. The biggest thing I took away from them is that sports are quite closely tied to a lot of social phenomenon. The films, on their own, are also remarkable because each is made by a different film-maker, artist or athlete. Below is a list of my 11 favorite 30 for 30s with a short description or editorial comment on each. They aren't in ascending or descending order, just 11 favorites from the 30. A nod of the proverbial hat goes to my friend Darryl for recommending most of these as well.

1. Two Escobars

Pablo Escobar, arguably the world's most famous drug lord, had an unmatched passion for Columbian soccer and the soccer world had a conflicted relationship with him. The title can be taken to mean the two Escobars as in Andres Escobar, the star of the Columbian national team, or the two sides of Pablo Escobar: philanthropist and drug/war lord.

2. Once Brothers

Vlade Divac and Dražen Petrović had remarkable rises to fame in the NBA after playing together as teenagers in Yugoslavia. Political and ethnic tensions in their home country found their way into their once strong friendship. Petrovic died an untimely death in a car-accident and Divac retraces the roots of their friendship in this documentary.

3. Pony Excess

Many have complained about college athletics taking attention away from academics or being tainted with poor ethics through bribery or monetary incentives for college athletes. This documentary takes Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas as a case study to explore college football's excesses.

4. No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson

A racially charged story about Allen Iverson's involvement in a 1993 bowling alley brawl. Made by a resident of Hampton, Virginia where Iverson, Michael Vick and Lawrence Taylor are from.

5. Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks

This was probably the most entertaining documentary of them all. Reggie Miller's antics on the court, Spike Lee's antics on the sideline and the drama that unfolded over multiple playoff series all make for a great story.

6. Straight Outta L.A.

The co-evolution of the L.A. raiders and gangster rap in L.A. The focus on the Raider logo and merchandise was especially interesting. Design and PR folks could probably draw one example after another out of this documentary.

7. Without Bias

I didn't know much about Len Bias before watching this documentary. His career as a high school phenomenon, college star and first-round draft into the NBA all came to an end at his death following his cocaine use. The scenes featuring his mother and father were especially powerful.

8. The U

Usually, unbridled showboating and bragging are a turn off. I've always associated Miami with this kind of behavior. This documentary didn't change my judgment about that, but it did contextualize their success in some really interesting ways, not the least of which was the racial makeup of South Florida in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

9. The House of Steinbrenner

New Yorkers like to win. The Yankees win, a lot. This documentary is about winning, but it also humanizes the organization and especially George Steinbrenner. It also features the most crying out of any of the documentaries.

10. Run Ricky Run

On some level, this was the most interesting documentary for me. This profile of Ricky Williams, one of the NFLs most talented and promising running backs, shows a man battling with himself in so many ways. At one point, one of Williams' family friends says something that really hit home for me and made sense of all of Williams' troubles -

Ricky's identity formation was flawed, it became tightly linked to what he was supposed to be, to his achievements. He needed it to be rooted in sweet acceptance, so he could love himself. Ricky longed for that.

11. One Night in Vegas

This documentary is filmed as a graphic novel. It explores the relationship that Mike Tyson and Tupac Shakur had around the time of Tupac's death (the night of a Tyson fight in Vegas). It also features some really great spoken word poetry that hits home the comparisons between Tyson at his prime as a boxer and Tupac at his prime as a rapper.


It would be pretty awesome to give this treatment to some other topics. For me, political science, social science, economics, international relations, the presidency, fiscal policy and things of that sort come to mind. But really, any worthwhile topic would be interesting to ask 30 people to make hour-long documentaries about. Its not exhaustive by any means, but it would be fun.