I was excited to hear about the ESPN documentary film project 30 for 30, which documents how sports have changed from 1979 to 2009. This period is analogous to my life, since this coincides with when I started getting interested in sports and was probably at the apex of my fandom, thus, many of the stories from the series have personal resonance. The list of directors is impressive as well: Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights), Barry Levinson (Diner, etc.), Ron Shelton (Bull Durham), Steve James (Hoop Dreams), and Ice Cube among many others. Many of the subjects appeal to me as well: the demise of the USFL, the death of Len Bias, Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks, Hank Gathers, etc. So I was excited to watch the first set of documentaries.
There were so many excellent episodes in the first series of 15 documentaries: Mike Tollin’s film “Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL?” is what I was looking for in this documentary series. There were plenty of profiles of coaches, players, owners, analysts, and fans with lots of footage from the brief 3-year history of the league. This documentary follows the league from the inception to the court case that ruined the league and comes to the conclusion that it was Donald Trump’s ego that killed the league since he wanted to get into the NFL at any cost-he gambled big and lost big bringing down the league with him. I also greatly enjoyed Dan Klores’ episode, “The Winning Time: Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks.” I remember seeing most of those games including the one where Miller scored 8 points in 24 seconds. (I will always be a Knicks hater). Great entertainment. I’ve always been a huge hoops fan, but I’m probably more of a college ball fan, thus I also really enjoyed Bill Couturie’s episode on Paul Westhead and his high charged Loyola-Marymount Lions college team that lost Hank Gathers to a heart attack at tournament time in “The Guru Of Go.” I remember watching the make it to the elite eight only to lose-it was a great run and a lot of fun to watch. Steve James served up one of the best documentaries with his documentary on hometown hero Allen Iverson and the trial that stirred up racial tensions that still has left scars on the community and the troubled Iverson himself in “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson.” No less fascinating was the documentary on Ricky Williams and his departure from the NFL and his struggle with finding a comfortable place in the world in “Run Ricky Run, “ which was directed by Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni. I have seen the film Invictus, and therefore was more invested in Clifford Bestall’s documentary on the Springbok’s 1995 Rugby World Championship in South Africa, “The 16th Man.” Equally fascinating was the final film, “June 17th, 1994” about O.J. Simpson’s very public run from the law by Brett Morgen. This is especially true since he didn’t make a conventional documentary but put together all kinds of footage from the media from that day and older clips that provided background context.
The rest of the films had their merits, but weren’t as interesting for different reasons: The first installment, “Kings Ransom,” directed by Peter Berg, recounts the blockbuster trade that sent NHL all-tiem great Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. Although interesting overall, I would have liked to have had more background information about Gretzky’s rise and overall career since I am not a big hockey fan. This one suffers from staying to close to the specific subject of the trade in my mind. I think Barry Levinson’s documentary on the Colts marching band, “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” also falls in the same category, as Berg’s film in that it is was too specific of an event to merit the hour long documentary in my opinion. The fact that the Colts up and moved to Indianapolis one night in 1984 is a part of a larger story that eventually has the Ravens moving back into town and that is glossed over. “Muhammad & Larry” directed by Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan,” was mostly filmed when the event took place. Maysles filmed it but couldn't find a distributor for it at the time. Muhammad is always entertaining and poor Larry Holmes continues to be underrated. “Without Bias” directed by Kirk Fraser is a heartbreaker, especially since I forgot that his younger brother was gunned down a year after Len Bias had his heart attack-a tough two years for that family. I can really remember watching Jimmy The Greek every weekend and then seeing his fall from grace. It was then revisited by Fritz Mitchell with “The Legend Of Jimmy The Greek.” I think Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen’s “Silly Little Game” about rotisserie baseball might not have been of interest to many sports fans, but I have to admit I use to play these silly little games myself when I was an adolescent-however, never officially rotisserie baseball. Ice Cube’s Straight Otta L.A.” was entertaining, but not one of my favorites-since I’m a Seahawks fan, thus a Raiders hater.