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:
The Birth of Big Air
I’ll be honest, before I watched this particular 30 for 30 I didn’t really know who Matt Hoffman was and, what’s more, I didn’t even really care that much for BMX biking. Despite these immediate detractions, however, The Birth of Big Air has become far and away one of my favourite documentaries in the series.
The interesting thing about this selection, compared to most other 30 for 30 entries, is that it doesn’t necessarily center around any one particular event but, rather, the entire career of one extraordinary athlete. Again and again, The Birth of Big Air tempts the audience to question what it is that makes someone want to go higher and faster than anyone else has ever gone before. Throughout both his BMX career and in the film, Matt Hoffman, the film’s protagonist, is constantly engaged in a balancing act, the main benefit of which is finding out just how far one can push the boundaries of the human body.
Hoffman is an extremely endearing character as he was, in his prime, head and shoulders the best BMXer in the world. At the same time, however, Hoffman paid a steep physical price for his desire to push the sport to entirely new levels. The laundry list of Hoffman’s injuries is absolutely staggering and, on more than one occasion, the viewer is forced to witness two of the bleakest moments in the BMX legend’s life: when his heart stops en route to the hospital after rupturing his spleen on a half-pipe, and when he hits his head so hard he slips into three-day coma.
Hoffman’s story in The Birth of Big Air is captivating because at one time he was the Michael Jordan, the Wayne Gretzky, the Babe Ruth of BMX. He was light years beyond any of his contemporaries, but his skill also demanded the type of sacrifice that turns your body into an orthopedic surgeon’s nightmare. More than anything else, The Big of Big Air documents how far someone will go to soar upwards of 50 feet on a bicycle.
Straight Outta L.A.
In the mid-nineties, I can vaguely remember my parents reading news articles on the dangers of NFL Raider gear. The iconic black and silver Raiders logo had become connected to gang activity and violent incidents. Being a naive elementary school kid with no interest in football at the time, I had no real grasp of the issue. The only thing that managed to stick with me through the years: that Raiders logo means trouble.
Straight Outta L.A. can be summed up as a loyal fan’s nostalgic tribute to his childhood team; except this loyal fan is legendary gangster rapper Ice Cube, accompanied by his good friend Snoop Dogg. Directed and narrated by Ice Cube, this 30 for 30 entry is a personal account of the 13-year existence of the Los Angeles Raiders from 1982-1994.
Through interviews with notable players, NFL coaching legend John Madden and eccentric Raiders owner/GM/Crypt Keeper-lookalike Al Davis, Ice Cube compares the Raiders image and reputation for ruthlessly physical play with the violent backdrop of South Central Los Angeles. The emergence of West Coast gangster rap during the Los Angeles Raiders era is explored in detail, along with the reaction to notorious rap group N.W.A.’s use and endorsement of Raider clothing. Combining the Raider image with their music’s blunt, violent description of life in South L.A., N.W.A. had a great affect on the cultural expansion of Raider Nation.
To this day, the Raiders and their fans maintain their reputation as the NFL franchise for social outcasts and ruffians. As a lover of both music and football, I really enjoyed learning how the Raiders culture and the gangster rap culture were brought together both in the stadium and streets of Los Angeles.
Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks
What makes Winning Time so special is that it takes something that, in the grand scheme of NBA history, isn’t all that important, and makes it exciting. As the title suggests, the film’s main focus centers around the playoff battles that took place in the mid-nineties between Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks. On a broader level, though, the film is about an era of basketball that no longer exists today.
In the late nineties the NBA began to institute much stricter rules regarding physical contact between opposing players. In an effort to allow for more offence in each game, the league clamped down on any type of obstruction defending players could get away with without foul. Winning Time showcases a time before today’s current era of professional basketball, where players would battle hard, physically sacrificing their bodies in order to drive to the basket. This was a time when players could expect an elbow to the jaw or a shoulder to the chest quite regularly, especially they wanted to get anywhere near the paint.
Aside from the physical aspect, the rivalry captured in Winning Time is likely one of the better, more interesting rivalries of the past decade. Their series were absolute wars but, more than that, they showcased some absolute miraculous playoff performances from Miller, in particular. This 30 for 30 takes joy in slowing down specific moments in the games between these two teams, indulging in the storylines that played out on the court, such as the cerebral battle between Miller and Knicks superfan Spike Lee in 1994, or the dying moments of game one of the ’95 Eastern Conference semifinals where Miller scored eight points in just under nine seconds to steal an upset victory at Madison Square Garden.
In retrospect, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this particular 30 for 30 is one of my favourites — maybe it all comes down to the simple fact that it is fun to watch something special happen, great theatre in the guise of a sporting event.
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.