Why you should care
Because these sports stories you’ve never heard of are part of the wave of documentary filmmaking that’s going mainstream.
Ready-up, sports fans. We know there’s not enough on TV tonight that’s good. We’ve got you covered.
If you’re a sports junkie, you probably already know about ESPN’s documentary entitled 30 for 30. Started as a celebration of ESPN’s 30th anniversary five years ago, the series has turned into dashing documentary hits — at a time when documentaries are no longer just for geeks.
It began with the booming Bill Simmons, ESPN legend and co-founder of the narrative sports site Grantland, who had the sort of conviction most sports lovers — or story lovers, for that matter, have: that there are piles of untold stories worth diving into. More players, coaches, games, histories that all deserve some digging into. And the ESPN team decided to make one hell of a production choice, giving amateur and indie directors a chance to take a whack at the storytelling.
Even if you’re not a sports fan, the documentaries are full of the insights you’d want from a great Malcolm Gladwell article.
For me, it’s a tie between two of the films for favorite-ever. There’s The Best That Never Was, about Marcus DuPree, a high school and college football superstar in the early 1980s who fell off the map and became a rural Mississippi garbageman. Then there’s Unguarded, the compelling story of a college basketball phenom named Chris Herren who could have become a white superstar in the NBA — despite being only 6 feet tall. Instead, he succumbed to heroin addiction. Both are sweeping, unexpected, novelesque stories told with incredible verve — just run and go see them today.
From the first doc — which tackled the trade of Wayne Gretzky, hockey superstar, from Edmonton to L.A. — the series did well. But it was Without Bias, the fifth doc in the series, that launched it from experiment to sensation. The film told the story of NBA star-to-be Len Bias, who was drafted to the pros as second pick out of college — only to die days later of a heart attack from a cocaine overdose. It’s the kind of what-if-almost storytelling that 30 for 30 does best, making you think, making you shake a little and, most of all, making you sink into real tales that are also damn good.
But even if you’re not a sports fan, the documentaries are full of the insights you’d want from a great Malcolm Gladwell article: It’s history; it’s success; it’s what Ken Rodgers, the director of Elway to Marino, one of the fantastic docs following the 1983 NFL draft, calls “a very intimate account.”
The documentarians have a knack for cutting straight to it: In 1983, for instance, six NFL superstars were drafted in the first round and later went on to be inducted into pro football’s hall of fame. What did that incubator of superstardom look like from the inside? Like a little bit of a mess, the film reveals, pulling from diaries, interviews and the firsthand accounts of those who’d been there.
And then there are the stories that step way beyond athletics — like the Two Escobars, a film that explores the connection between the rise of Colombian soccer and drug cartels.
The relatively inexperienced directors cobbled together the film in half-Spanish, half-English, and they may not have expected much — despite a promising deal with ESPN, a film about soccer isn’t exactly a guaranteed success in the U.S. But the directors dug in and, after finding material that went far beyond a 50-minute TV piece, turned it into a feature-length movie and screened it at the Cannes, Tribeca and Los Angeles film festivals.
Call it all a part of — or the first sign of — the documentary boom in the last few years, from film festivals to Netflix to HBO. Commercial successes like 30 for 30 have helped major networks get on board with the idea of mini-docs and full-length documentary series — and they’ve whetted our appetite for so much more.