Netflix Instant is a pretty awesome thing. Probably just as equally as awesome is ESPN’s acclaimed documentary series, 30 for 30. Combine the two, and you’ve got an excellent way to kill time (supposing you’ve got any time to kill). And although I’m probably a little late in letting you all know—30 for 30 began streaming on Netflix a few months ago, I think—it’s better late than never. If you’ve never caught the show, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice and I no longer trust anything you have to say about sports and/or documentaries, and especially sports documentaries.
For the uninitiated, 30 for 30 is a Bill Simmons created series about compelling sports stories. Usually about 90 minutes in length, and each directed by a different (sometimes famous) director, the movies capture moments in sports history, sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic. (Mostly tragic).
So if you’re just getting started, here are some episodes that shouldn’t be missed.
The U: Perhaps the most well-known of the series, “The U” is about—what else—a fatal traffic decision that changed the course of Olympic bobsledder Hiram Yorkley’s life in unimaginable ways… Ok, not really. The U is actually an in-your-face time capsule about the 1980’s rise-to-prominence of everyone’s favorite outlaw football program, the Miami Hurricanes. The U is brilliant because it highlights what 30 for 30 does best: it takes a familiar story, adds contextual layers, and packages it in an engrossing narrative that pulls the viewer into the proceedings. Watching The U, you can SEE yourself with the gold-chains and the high-top fade. You can FEEL the burn from the cocaine and the chlamydia. It’s effectively representative of not only a storied institution during a specific time period, but a portrait OF that time period itself. It’s a little like VH1’s “I Love the 80’s” without the snarky, occasionally funny talking head commentary.
Without Bias: If you’re even a casual fan of sport, you’re probably semi-familiar with the cautionary horror story of Len Bias. Drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1986, Bias never stepped foot on an NBA court. In the midst of a post-draft celebration, he suffered a cocaine-induced heart attack and died at the age of 22. Though there really isn’t anything new or earth-shattering revealed in the picture, it is nevertheless a captivating look at one of collegiate and professional athletics’ greatest personal tragedies. Like “The U”, “Without Bias” is remarkable at building an encapsulating snapshot of the era, and once again, this era is dominated by elaborate black-dude hairstyles and frighteningly obscene mid-80’s urban fashion… frighteningly obscene, but at the same time beautiful, too.
Tim Richmond: To the Limit: I didn’t anticipate liking this one so much. Why? Because I don’t care for NASCAR. At. All. Just not my thing. But part of what 30 for 30 does so well—as does any good documentary—is convince you to be interested by something that typically wouldn’t be of any interest whatsoever; in this case, the staunchly conservative nature of NASCAR in the 1980s. See, Tim Richmond was a badass, righteously mustachioed driver/playboy who was quickly making a name for himself on the circuit when his hedonistic, off-track lifestyle caught up with him: he got the AIDS. And though he and his people tried to deny it as best they could, it wasn’t really something that you could hide for long… especially in the early, untreatable years of the epidemic. So Richmond died, but not before causing a bit of a stir in such an awkward setting. I don’t know that his story opened many eyes—can you imagine the backlash that would STILL occur if Jeff Gordon got diagnosed tomorrow?—but his was a fascinating tale well-worthy of documentation.
The Two Escobars: The rest of the world takes soccer WAY more seriously than we do in the United States—like, WAAAAY more seriously. So much more seriously, in fact, that if you’re a Colombian soccer player, and you score an “own-goal” (an accidental goal against your own team) during something as important as the World Cup, you might very well be murdered. Such is the story of footballer Andres Escobar, who was killed in Medillin after his nation was eliminated from 1994’s tournament. “The Two Escobars” focuses not only on Andres, but on Pablo, too, the militant drug lord who ruthlessly controlled the nation of Colombia—his nation, really— through intimidation, drugs and murder. Though the two couldn’t have been more different as people, they were interminably linked under a nation passionate for futbol and cuckoo for coca plants. The film does an excellent job of exploring the perilous line between harmless passion and complete fanaticism.
The Best That Never Was: He had the tools to be the greatest running back in the history of the world, but sometimes, the stars decide that you’re really just supposed to be a manual laborer living out your post-glory days transporting heavy machinery. So goes the tale of Marcus Dupree, who was legendary in high-school, occasionally brilliant in college and mostly a flop in the USFL and NFL. Using plenty of archival footage that demonstrated his unreal natural abilities, and interspersed with depressing current-day footage of him reminiscing while living a fallen hero’s life in rural Mississippi, “The Best That Never Was” is a poignant look at how simple twists of fate can reduce untouchable Gods into mere mortals.
So there you have it. The list is admittedly brief– realistically, there are a TON of great ones in the first series (and they’re currently airing new ones, rendering the idea of 30 films a moot selling point)– but if you HAVEN’T seen them, you should stop reading and go watch these now. Much more entertaining than listening to this old man prattle on about his love of documentaries, I assure you.
And as always, you can find me on Twitter @StanfordWhistle.