Judge Erich Asperschlager is zero for 30.
30 Stories. 30 Films. 30 Directors. 30 for 30.
While many sports fans turn to ESPN for the latest scores and analysis, the cable network has plenty to offer beyond last night's big game. The best of the network's non-ephemeral programming is its documentary series 30 for 30. Originally conceived by columnist Bill Simmons as 30 big stories from the last 30 years, the initial run of films proved so popular the network came back with a second "season"—the first 15 episodes of which is available on DVD in the 30 for 30: Season II, Volume 1 box set.
This second season carries on the first's focus on big stories told by passionate filmmakers. Many of the stories come from the raucous '80s, a decade whose impact can still be felt in professional sports, while a few look farther back, to the birth of basketball and a key moment in Civil Rights. They focus on people both inspirational and controversial, tragic ends to promising beginnings, and real-life stories that play out like Hollywood blockbusters. Even the least interesting of the documentaries are worth watching, while the best will stick with viewers for a long time to come.
Season II, Volume 1 includes the following films:
• "Broke" (directed by Billy Corben): An examination of the surprising number of professional athletes who end up losing all their money in a combination of bad investments, bankruptcy, and untenable lifestyles.
• "9.79*" (directed by Daniel Gordon): The story of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who went from hero to villain after he tested positive for steroids during the 1988 Olympics.
• "There's No Place Like Home" (directed by Maura Mandt and Josh Swade): When Jayhawks superfan Swade heard that James Naismith's original rules for basketball were going up for auction, he made it his mission to raise the millions necessary to bring them back home to the University of Kansas.
• "Benji" (directed by Coodie and Chike): The story of Ben Wilson, an early '80s Chicago high school basketball phenom whose career was cut tragically short.
• "Ghosts of Ole Miss" (directed by Fritz Mitchell): James Meredith's forced integration into Ole Miss in 1962 has been called the "last battle of the Civil War." Mitchell examines the college's darkest chapter and the way its football team helped unite a fractured community.
• "You Don't Know Bo" (directed by Michael Bonfiglio): A profile of modern-day superhero Bo Jackson, an unmatched athlete who had record-setting (if short lived) careers in two major league sports.
• "Survive & Advance" (directed by Jonathan Hock): The amazing story of North Carolina State's improbable 1983 NCAA Championship run under the entertaining and inspiring coach Jim Valvano.
• "Elway to Marino" (directed by NFL Films and Ken Rodgers): This film focuses on the 1983 draft and two future hall-of-fame quarterbacks—golden boy John Elway and the undervalued Dan Marino.
• "Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau" (directed by Sam George): At a time when a key aspect of Hawaiian culture was in danger of being co-opted by white outsiders, Aikau made a name for himself with his surfboard and his humanity.
• "Free Spirits" (directed by Daniel H. Forer): Before it merged with the NBA, the ABA was home to some of professional basketball's most colorful characters. This film looks at the spunky Spirits of St. Louis, whose antics on and off the court were the stuff of legend.
• "No Más" (directed by Eric Drath): Sugar Ray Leonard travels to Panama to find the truth behind the bizarre ending to his 1980 rematch with Roberto Duran.
• "Big Shot" (directed by Kevin Connolly): In the early '80s, the New York Islanders went from NHL powerhouse to laughingstock, leaving them open in the mid-'90s to one of the strangest hoaxes in sports history.
• "This is What They Want" (directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien): Tennis legend Jimmy Connors' brash attitude made him equally loved and hated over a career that saw him leave and come back several times. His final reappearance was at the 1991 US Open, where the 39-year-old electrified crowds and nearly won it all.
• "Bernie & Ernie" (directed by Jason Hehir): The story of two basketball players from New York, one from the projects and one the son of Jewish immigrants, who joined forces at the University of Tennessee to become legends.
• "The Book of Manning" (directed by Rory Karpf): Narrated by John Goodman, this co-presentation of the SEC and ESPN Films profiles the NFL's most famous family—Archie "Super" Manning, who energized Ole Miss football in the late '60s, and sons Cooper, Peyton, and Eli, all of whom made their own impact on the game of football.
With rivalries, competition, and built-in storylines, sports and drama are a natural fit. 30 for 30: Season II, Volume 1 draws on sports' built-in drama with stories of competition, rivalry, and underdogs going all the way. That come from behind spirit drives the best of these films, including "This is What They Want," "There's No Place Like Home," and my favorite, "Survive and Advance"—a thriller packed with twists, turns, and a charismatic leading man in NC State coach Jimmy Valvano. I'm not ashamed to admit I cried at the end. Here's a tip: if one of the main people profiled doesn't appear in any interviews, it's not going to end well.
Another standout is "Big Shot," the crazy story of John Spano, a small-time hustler pretending to be an oil tycoon who owned the New York Islanders just long enough for someone to realize he didn't actually have any money. The film marks Spano's first interview since the incident. Along the same strange-but-true lines is the boxing film "No Más," which examines one of the most bizarre conclusions to a major sporting event.
30 for 30 is best at films that focus on a specific event, people, or team. Broader topics don't always work as well. "Broke," for instance, feels too long at 79 minutes. The topic—pro athletes who lose everything—is fascinating, but there are too many talking heads and not enough of a narrative.
Season II, Volume 1's 1.78:1 presentation is a mix of sharp modern footage and archival material, shot and edited to rival the best documentaries, with 2.0 stereo audio that is simple and clean. Even in standard definition, these are non-fiction films of the highest quality.
ESPN has made many of their 30 for 30 films available on streaming services, but the generous helping of bonus features ensures the best experience is on DVD. Each film comes with a combination of director's statements, deleted scenes, and archival footage.
Fifteen episodes of a television series may not sound like a lot, but this 30 for 30 release feels more like a mini film library than a TV box set. A third of the documentaries in Season II, Volume 1 are less than an hour but the remaining ten are feature length—between 77 and 101 minutes. That's a lot of content. 30 for 30 may cater to a sports literate audience, but you don't have to be a superfan to enjoy these stories of struggle, triumph, passion, and pain.
Touchdown! Not guilty.
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