On Oct. 9, 2009, ESPN debuted the first film in their documentary series entitled 30 for 30. The idea behind the series, as illustrated by executive producer Bill Simmons, was to provide a platform wherein unique and spectacular sports stories of the past 30 years could be documented, their stories presented by some of the most accomplished filmmakers of the past few decades.
The series presents a story for each year since ESPN first launched in 1979. Each story is presented in the form of a documentary film, all of which aim to educate and inspire sports fans by telling stories that somehow fell through the cracks of the mainstream media. In almost all cases these films share the distinct quality of transcending their subject matter — best viewed not simply as sports stories but, rather, human stories.
The following is a list of both favourites and suggestions for those not yet acquainted with the 30 for 30 film series:
Once Brothers may be a perfect example of why the 30 for 30 series is so engaging — it takes an emotionally heart wrenching story, one that received remarkably little media attention in North America, and presents it in such a way that it is relatable to sports fans and non-sports fans alike. Once Brothers is directed and produced by NBA Entertainment, a production and programming division of the National Basketball League.
The film revolves around the relationship between two Yugoslavian national team basketball players, Vlade Divac and Dražen Petrović. On the surface Once Brothers is a story about the early careers of two European-import NBA players but, more than that, it follows the trajectory of a friendship that faces both dizzying highs and devastating lows. In the midst of learning how to adjust to life in the U.S., both Divac and Petrović must cope with the fact that their home of Yugoslavia is undergoing an absolutely brutal civil war.
The friendship of the two athletes is strained when Serbian/Croatian political affiliations force the two to take sides in the conflict. In the end, Once Brothers is a tragic story of what happens when a close friendship becomes the casualty of nationalism, jealousy, resentment and, ultimately, death.
What is perhaps so great about this particular 30 for 30 film is that Divac, one of the film’s protagonists, actually serves as narrator and host, providing a much welcome, reflective take on the events of the late eighties and early nineties. Divac is jovial, warm, but at the same time always haunted by the burden he has carried ever since his friendship with Petrović ended in such a tragic way.
Into the Wind
When Steve Nash and Ezra Holland took on Terry Fox’s story for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, they took an unprecedented, honest look at Fox, his life and his legacy.
What is so appealing about this documentary, called Into the Wind, is that it deviates from popular accounts of Fox’s life by refusing to “glaze over” his story. NBA star Steve Nash, who grew up in Canada, exemplifies this approach when he states in the film’s introduction: “Terry was just a regular guy who did something superhuman.”
This realistic approach includes shining an unflattering light on public attitudes towards people with disabilities. Doug Alward, Fox’s best friend and driver of the Marathon of Hope van, attests to witnessing numerous people trying to run Fox off of the road with their vehicles while he was running. This was prior to widespread media attention surrounding the cross-country marathon. There were towns that Fox ran through where there were no donations offered and where there wasn’t anyone out to greet him at all. There was also a newspaper that falsely reported that Fox did not run the entire way across Quebec.
This film also points out that Fox and Alward did not always get along during the marathon — to the extent that Fox’s brother Darrell had to join them to ease the tension. Both also recall that Fox was moody at times during the marathon. These revelations serve to show the very human side of Fox, a side that is not often considered due to his unparalleled ambition and determination.
Yet, it is precisely by revealing Fox’s flaws in Into the Wind that his legacy is strengthened, not diminished. It makes everyday people realize that the radiance and perseverance that Fox embodied is indeed touchable. That making a difference in this world starts with passion, something we are all capable of.
Noreen Mae Ritsema
The 16th Man
Rugby is a sport that doesn’t get much play in Canada. As a rugby athlete throughout high school, I strive to educate myself on the history of the game. When I watched The 16th Man for the first time, I was spellbound.
Directed by Cliff Bestall, this entry in the 30 for 30 series documents one of the most transcendent moments in sports history: the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Focusing on the host nation South Africa, narrator Morgan Freeman lends his voice as the film explores racial tensions that ran deep during apartheid and after the release and eventual democratic election that brought Nelson Mandela into power.
When Mandela tries to use rugby and the Springbok image, symbols of white dominance and authority that the black population had grown to despise, to unite the deeply divided country, it seemed like a foolhardy endeavour. But with the country hosting the upcoming World Cup, Mandela remained steadfast in his conviction. With the Springboks facing incredible odds, and with a nation hanging in the balance, the story that unfolds seems too incredible to be true.
Featuring plenty of rugby footage and interviewers from players and people who lived through one of the most trying times in South African history, The 16th Man is a sentimental look at how sport can change the world.
As the sentimental fool that I am, even after repeated viewings The 16th Man still evokes strong emotions. This is a must-watch for rugby lovers and sports fans alike; it’s a celebration of the ways sports can bring all walks of life together as one.
June 17, 1994
The 30 for 30 that documents the OJ Simpson car chase is probably my favorite of the series. To my mind it is the only 30 for 30 film that actually utilizes the absence of any narration. It uses clips from the speed chase in a timeline format. June 17, 1994 shows the conversation that OJ and his driver had with the police negotiator and plays OJ’s chilling apology to the negotiator, the very confession that was not admissible in his trial.
The other interesting aspect to this documentary is the sports clips that are injected in between OJ’s clips. Arnold Palmer participated in his final US Open, the World Cup debuted in the U.S., the New York Rangers celebrated their Stanley Cup victory, the MLB strike was in full effect and the Knicks were in the NBA finals. All of these events were incredibly important in their own respect, but their coverage was almost universally overshadowed by the constant airing of the infamous high speed chase.
Another interesting point is watching the panic of reporters and cameramen live on the scene. There were so many people watching this event that signal strength was greatly affected. Director Brett Morgen provides a great recap at the end of the film, showing the significance of the sports events that were affected. The Knicks were never in another NBA final, the Rangers have not won another Stanley Cup, the World Cup has never been in the U.S. again, and Arnold Palmer is still retired.
June 17, 1994 really showed how the world was more interested, certainly more captivated, by the high speed chase than in most other programming. It really set the tone for the reality TV obsession to which we have all become accustomed. It was also interesting to watch the flood of support from OJ Simpson fans with claims of his innocence. If you look closely when OJ is in the back of the cop car you might catch a slight, and disturbing, grin too.
ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is currently airing on TSN and TSN2. Each film is also available for purchase through the iTunes store or iTunes.ca.