It’s tough out there for American sports fans right now. Over the past few days, several collegiate athletic conferences announced the cancellation or delay of fall sports, including college football. Various NFL players are opting out of the upcoming season, and it’s still unclear if the season will happen at all. Multiple Major League Baseball teams have been struck by COVID-19 outbreaks. The NBA seems to have figured out a workable solution, but once the playoffs end in mid-October, we probably won’t see professional basketball again for many months. Unless a vaccine is approved and widely distributed soon, we’re likely headed for another sports drought. How can fans get their fix? Luckily, ESPN’s full 30 for 30 library is available on the ESPN+ streaming platform, and the critically-acclaimed documentary series offers hours of entertainment for anyone who can’t stand the thought of another several months without sports. Here’s my ranking of the top ten must-watch 30 for 30 films:
10. June 17th, 1994 (2010)
The 1994 World Cup began, hosted for the first time by the United States. The New York Rangers celebrated their Stanley Cup victory with a ticker tape parade down Broadway. The Knicks defeated the Rockets in Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals. Arnold Palmer competed in his final US Open. These events all took place on June 17th, 1994, and they were all overshadowed by a white Ford Bronco being chased by more than a dozen police vehicles down the I-405 in Southern California. Consisting primarily of news clips from that day, this documentary recounts the bizarre O. J. Simpson police chase within the context of other major sports events, and it serves as a unique exploration of the relationship between American sports and American media.
9. Four Days in October (2010)
The 30 for 30 series is surprisingly light on documentaries about America’s pastime. Of the dozen or so entries about baseball, only a few are truly memorable, including this chronicle of the 2004 American League Championship Series, in which the Boston Red Sox defeated the New York Yankees to reach the World Series. It pretends, at first, to be an objective examination of one of the greatest rivalries in American professional sports, but in reality it skews heavily in favor of the Red Sox. You know what? That’s okay. That’s the narrative. It’s fun to watch the Red Sox break the Curse of the Bambino. Nobody likes the Yankees, anyway.
8. Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies (2017)
If you’re a basketball fan, you’ve probably seen these highlights before: Bill Russell and Jerry West, Magic and Bird, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, etc. Basketball’s greatest rivalry has produced some of the most iconic athletes, matchups, and moments in sports history. Best of Enemies doesn’t have any new footage to offer, but it repackages the familiar imagery of the Celtics/Lakers rivalry into something sleeker. The documentary is a bigger commitment than most 30 for 30s,around five hours long and split into three parts. Whether you watch it all at once or take your time with it, you’re sure to have a fun time.
7. Catching Hell (2013)
A Cubs fan named Steve Bartman tried to catch a foul ball during the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, and he’s been paying for it ever since. Catching Hell explores a darker side of sports fandom, focusing particular attention on fans’ eagerness to find a scapegoat for all of their teams’ failures. Bartman’s innocent mistake wasn’t the reason the Cubs lost that series, but he got all of the blame, and the harassment he received in the aftermath of the “Bartman incident” has had lasting effects for both his family and the Cubs organization. This is an absorbing documentary about one of the ugliest sagas in the history of sports media, and it’s an essential entry in the 30 for 30 collection.
6. You Don’t Know Bo (2012)
Every so often, an athlete’s on-field accomplishments become more than just highlights or stats. Sometimes their athletic feats are so impressive, so unbelievable, that they take on an almost mythical quality. Jackson was such an athlete, his strength and speed and natural ability rendering him godlike in the eyes of many sports fans. He was so good that even his video game equivalent, in the 1987 game Tecmo Bowl, has been called “easily the greatest video game athlete of all time.” This documentary certainly treats Jackson like some kind of god, and that’s the point. His dual-sport career, in which he became an All-Star in both the MLB and the NFL, is the stuff of legends. You Don’t Know Bo is a fascinating look at one of the most awe-inspiring athletes to ever live, and a sobering reminder that injuries can reduce even godlike athletes to mere mortals.
5. The Fab Five (2011)
Chris Webber. Jalen Rose. Juwan Howard. Jimmy King. Ray Jackson. These five freshmen made up possibly the best recruiting class in the history of collegiate sports. The Fab Five is the story of how they exploded onto the scene in 1991, led the Michigan Wolverines to two NCAA championship games, and changed the culture of college basketball forever. Unfortunately, Chris Webber doesn’t have the best relationship with his old teammates these days, and he declined to participate in the documentary. However, that’s pretty much the only flaw in this otherwise exhilarating chronicle of one of the most iconic basketball teams ever assembled.
4. Survive and Advance (2013)
Everyone loves an underdog. The COVID-19 pandemic cost us the chance to root for a new Cinderella team in March Madness this year, but we can still enjoy this documentary about one of the most inspiring teams in the history of college basketball, and the coach that led them to a championship. At the first ESPY Awards, less than two months before his death, Jimmy Valvano delivered a now-famous speech and offered some advice: “There are three things we all should do every day. Number one is laugh…Number two is think…And number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears…If you laugh, you think, and you cry that’s a full day, that’s a heck of a day.” This documentary is guaranteed to make you laugh, think, and cry, and that’s why it belongs on this list.
3. The Two Escobars (2010)
The best 30 for 30s examine the intersections of sports and history, but only a few of the documentaries are as historically significant or as poignant as The Two Escobars. It tells the story of the Colombian national soccer team in the 1980s and 1990s, and of players who sought to redefine their country’s image in the eyes of the world. At the center of the story are two men: Andrés Escobar, the captain of the team; and Pablo Escobar (no relation), the infamous drug lord who laundered his money through Colombian fútbol teams and fueled the rise of “narco-soccer.” It’s a tale of high hopes and human tragedy, and it’s essential viewing for any sports fan.
2. Pony Excess (2010)
As the conference dominos continue to fall in 2020, it’s entirely possible that we are about to experience a fall without a college football season. The effect that this will have on universities is not yet clear, but it’s important to note that this won’t be the first time a college football program was forced to cancel its season. Pony Excess, one of the best 30 for 30 documentaries, charts the stunning rise and sudden fall of Southern Methodist University’s football program in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1987, after evidence emerged that multiple players had accepted illicit payments during the recruiting process, SMU became the first (and to this day, the only) university to receive the NCAA’s dreaded “death penalty,” and its football program was terminated for two full years. SMU’s team has never fully recovered. The documentary is well-made, entertaining, and as relevant as ever.
1. O. J.: Made in America (2016)
This list started with an O. J. Simpson documentary, and it ends with another one. By far the longest and most ambitious of the 30 for 30 features, O. J.: Made in America is also the most critically acclaimed. This five-part, eight-hour miniseries about the career and criminal trials of O. J. Simpson won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the 89th Academy Awards, along with more than a dozen other awards and honors. Via hours of interviews and archival footage, it tells O. J.’s story through the lens of racial tensions and celebrity culture in America. It’s a biography of a Hall of Fame athlete, and it’s also a true crime documentary. It’s perfect binge-watch material. Of all the 30 for 30 docs, it’s the most impressive and the most rewatchable.
The entire 30 for 30 library is available on ESPN+.