Think Fast! These Are the Best ESPN 30 for 30 Documentaries, Ranked
Better known for its comprehensive sports coverage ranging from major league sports to fierce debate and analysis shows, ESPN is also responsible for producing stellar documentaries highlighting the cherished yet complicated world of sports. The 30 for 30 documentary series, originally aimed to celebrate ESPN’s 30-year anniversary with 30 of the best sports stories throughout history, has since soared past its original idea, with over 157 episodes and five different volumes.
Since its growth in popularity among general audiences and the sports world as a whole, ESPN’s 30 for 30 has made undeniable impacts in sports journalism, with O.J.: Made in America receiving the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2017. And though it wasn’t technically part of the official 30 for 30 series, the ESPN-Netflix documentary the Last Dance captured the screens of millions across the country during the early days of the pandemic.
With dazzling film editing and in-depth interviews with some of the biggest sports figures in history, let’s take a look at the best 30 for 30 episodes that highlight why the series remains beloved to this day.
The Real Rocky
The Rocky film franchise remains one of the most popular film series to this day, but who was the man behind the beloved story? The real-life Rocky is Chuck Wepner, also known as the “Bayonne Bleeder” in the boxing world. During his career Wepner was globally ranked, and even went as far as to fight Muhammad Ali in 1975. Though Wepner’s story is not as victorious as the film adaptation, it is nonetheless worth your attention.
By 1996, the New York Islanders hockey team was at the lowest of the low. With a dwindling fan base, losing streaks, and mismanagement among the franchise, the Islanders needed a hero. Businessman John Spano quickly became that hero, offering to buy the team for $165 million and revitalize the program. Shortly after buying the franchise, however, it was revealed that Spano had insufficient funds to fulfill his commitment, thus making him one of the biggest fraudulent figures in sports history.
Playing for the Mob
When the underground world of the mafia and professional sports collide, you get a story so good it could be a movie. Mob criminal Henry Hill, better known as the subject of Martin Scorsese’s hit film Goodfellas, took a liking to college basketball, and between 1978-1979, he organized the fixing of Boston College basketball games through a point-shaving scheme.
Straight Outta L.A.
When Raiders owner Al Davis moved the football team from Oakland, California, to Los Angeles in 1982, fans were not happy. The team was heavily supported by the Black and hispanic communities in the Bay Area, and the move from Oakland was a harsh blow to their sense of community. The nature of this move as well as the politics that influenced it, is told in this documentary through the lens of long-time Raiders fan and rapper, Ice Cube.
Into the Wind
Into the Wild tells the story of a man’s perseverance and strength to fulfill his goals, despite devastating obstacles. In 1980, Terry Fox was dealing with a few significant obstacles: one, being diagnosed with bone cancer, and two, having a leg amputated due to his cancer. While these events would send most into a spiral of despair and hopelessness, Fox used this to motivate his goal of running across Canada to raise awareness for cancer research.
The Fab Five
The University of Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball team was on the rise in the early 1990s due to the recruitment of five players: Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Ray Jackson, and Juwan Howard. These players, collectively known as the “Fab Five” quickly became popular media figures and influenced the world of college basketball. As they say, it’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine.
Based on a 2009 Sports Illustrated article that highlighted the financial troubles of retired athletes, Broke investigates how some of the richest athletes in the United States become broke within just a few years of retirement due to reckless spending, mounting medical bills, risky investments, and freeloading family and friends.
One Night in Vegas
On September 7, 1996, the world changed forever. Heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson fought Bruce Seldon and won that night, taking the WBA belt from the former champion. On the same night, rapper Tupac Shakur, whom Tyson was close friends with, attended the fight and planned on going to an after party together with Tyson following his win. Instead, Shakur was shot and killed later that night. One Night in Vegas looks into the friendship between the two, and how that night changed Tyson.
This Was the XFL
Throughout the years, despite various attempts, the NFL has remained the only American football league. In 2001, WWE chairman Vince McMahon and NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol launched the XFL, a fresher, wilder, and tougher competitor to the NFL. Despite the initial hype around the new league, the XFL ultimately failed, but nonetheless changed the world of sports entertainment as we know it.
Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks
This 30 for 30 takes a look at the rivalry between Indiana Pacers player Reggie Miller and the New York Knicks, particularly during the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals when Miller won the game in the last 8.9 seconds by scoring 8 points.
Jordan Rides the Bus
At the height of his career, Michael Jordan’s father, James, was tragically murdered in 1993. In the month’s following his father’s death, Jordan made the decision to retire from the NBA and start a career in baseball, as his father had originally dreamed for him. This episodes dives into Jordan’s year-long hiatus from the NBA and his short-lived baseball career with the Chicago White Sox.
You Don't Know Bo
A master of both baseball and football, Bo Jackson was a force no one had ever seen before. In baseball, Jackson had multiple double-digit home run seasons, to name just one of his accolades. In football, Jackson broke records, leading the league in both rushing and receiving yards. You Don’t Know Bo highlights his legacy and his popularity among the public.
Run Ricky Run
The pressure of performance alongside the glamorous celebrity lifestyle is not for everyone, as exemplified in former NFL player Ricky Williams. When personal values conflicted with playing football, Williams retired from the NFL in 2004 after playing for five seasons. Williams caused a media frenzy by giving up this dream job and a life of luxury, but he attests that it was for his better good.
The '85 Bears
Featuring some of the biggest names in football, including: legendary coach Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan, Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, and William Perry, the 1985 Chicago Bears were a force to be reckoned with. This episode follows the team’s victorious season, with an overall record of 15-1 and their double-digit Super Bowl win against the New England Patriots.
Four Days in October
The Celtics/Lakers might be the biggest rivalry in basketball, but the Yankee/Red Sox rivalry is the greatest in the MLB world. In the 2004 American League Championship Series, the chance of the Yankees winning the series looked good, as the team led the series 3-0. Game 4, however, changed the tide, and the Red Sox went on to make history with a four-game winning streak to clinch the ACLS and move onto the World Series, which they won against the St. Louis Cardinals – their first time in 86 years.
Muhammad and Larry
By the start of the 1980s, boxing legend Muhammad Ali remained determined to hold onto his title of being the greatest of all time. In an attempt to continue his legacy and make money, Ali, who then was struggling with early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, arranged to box life-long friend and boxing opponent Larry Holmes. The fight was mostly one-sided, as Ali struggled to both attack and defend himself, and ultimately resulted in a loss as well as Ali’s retirement.
At the height of his NFL career, quarterback Michael Vick broke statics for rushing yards and saw multiple playoffs, a division title, and a championship game. His success as a player, however, was derailed in 2007, when he plead guilty to involvement in a dog-fighting ring. His reputation was never the same afterwards, and Vick tells the story of the journey back on his feet after falling so far.
Survive and Advance
At the start of the 1982 NCAA basketball season, the North Carolina State Wolfpack were hopeful that the season would bring great victory, but these hopes soon came crashing down. With ten losses, there was little to no chance of the team winning the ACC Tournament, let alone the NCAA Tournament. In a miraculous turn of events, the Wolfpack went onto win nine straight tournament games and won the national championship with the encouragement of larger-than-life coach Jim Valvano.
I Hate Christian Laettner
On paper, Christian Laettner was a star. In the NCAA, he was a key player in helping Duke win two national titles in a consecutive four trips to the coveted Final Four. In the NBA, his success continued, being named player of the year in 1997. With all of his accolades, Christian remained one of the most disliked players in the basketball world, with an overly confident and privileged persona often getting in the way of the legacy he was trying to build.
In the 2003 MLB postseason, the Chicago Cubs were destined to get to the World Series. With a passionate fanbase starved of any postseason action since 1945, the Cubs worked their way to the National League Championship Series. In game six of the series, in the eighth inning, batter Luis Castillo hit a fly ball into left field foul territory. When Cubs outfielder Moisés Alou attempted to make a catch, Cubs fan Steve Bartman went to catch it himself, but deflected the ball and diverted the catch, thus changing the pace of the game as the Cubs knew it. Bartman became the scapegoat of the Cub’s elimination from the series and faced vitriol for years to come.
By the time he was selected by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft, promising athlete Len Bias had a lifetime of career success ahead of him. Just two days after the draft, Bias tragically passed away from a heart attack directly related to cocaine use. Without Bias centres on the young athlete’s potential, while also providing insight into the problem of casual drug use that often plagues professional sports.
O.J.: Made in America
While June 17, 1994 centers on the day O.J. Simpson fled from the police and his potential imprisonment for murder, O.J.: Made in America focuses on his life as a whole, including his successful career in the NFL, grand celebrity status, and ultimately the very public criminal trial involving the murder of his ex-wife.
No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson is known to be one of the most prolific basketball players to emerge from the ’90s and 2000s, but his success as a player did not come without scrutiny and controversy. Prior to being drafted in 1996, Iverson was convicted for taking part in a brawl in his hometown of Hampton, Virginia. This conviction had implications not only on Iverson’s career and reputation, but also on the community that he came from.
The Best That Never Was
In the early 1980s, Marcus Dupree was the biggest name in the college football world. The running back was an incredible player at Philadelphia High School in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and he attracted several different college football programs. Ultimately, Dupree decided to attend the University of Oklahoma, where he had an impressive first season until his personal life got in the way. The Best That Never Was looks at what Dupree left behind and how he lives today.
Of Miracles and Men
With the Cold War consuming the global politics of the 1980s, America collectively tried its best to remain at the top, and sports were no different. In the 1980 Winter Olympic hockey competition, the “miracle on ice” occurred, in which the American national team beat the Soviet national team 4-3, leading the U.S. to the gold medal. Of Miracles and Men does not tell the American side of the story, however. Instead, it examines the impact of this loss on the Soviet players and how different factors influenced their drive to the sport.
Brotherhood, global politics, and basketball are at the forefront of this episode. Dražen Petrović and Vlade Divac grew up together in Yugoslavia and shared a common love for basketball. In the 1980s, they played together on the Yugoslavian national basketball team, then they came to the United States to play for the NBA. Their friendship and brotherhood was tested, however, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and war plagued their now home countries of Serbia (Divac) and Croatia (Petrovic). Torn between a loyalty to their country and their brotherhood, the two never spoke again, and before they could reconcile, Petrović tragically passed away in 1993.
In the late 1980s, the Detroit Pistons were one of the best teams in the NBA. Grit, determination, and competitiveness gave the Pistons a definitive edge that made people either love or hate them. The core group included talents Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, and Rick Mahorn, and Bad Boys shows the rise and success of one of the most influential NBA teams that wasn’t afraid to push the rules.
Elway to Marino
By the start of the 1980s, the NFL was experiencing a bit of a rocky patch. With a players’ strike, the start of a competitor organization known as the USFL, and league lawsuits, the National Football League needed some kind of rebirth, which came in the the 1983 draft. This draft is recognized as a notable one, with a new generation of six quarterbacks being selected in the first round – the most in history. John Elway and Dan Marino are at the center of this 30 for 30, which examines the politics of draft selections.
The Price of Gold
In the 1994 Winter Olympic Games, figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were at the top of their game. The competitive nature of the sport, as well as socio-economic factors (as the film argues), created a fierce rivalry between the two, and resulted in a scandal that shocked the world. On January 6, 1994, a few weeks before the start of the Olympics, Kerrigan was hit in the knee by a disguised attacker, in an attempt to eliminate her from the competition. The Price of Gold examines how the determination to win and outside pressures can drive someone to make life-changing decisions.
Between 1980 and 1984, the SMU Mustangs held the best record in college football, with 49 wins, 9 losses, and one tie. The team was on top of the world, until 1987 when the NCAA slammed them with the “death penalty,” terminating their program for the next 20 years. SMU (the first and only team to ever get the “death penalty”) was punished for violating several NCAA rules, the most severe being a slush fund, used to bribe and coerce players, coaches, and boosters in order to get to the top. Pony Excess shows how corruption and greed often bleeds into the world of sports, and how in just a short time, they can completely destroy it.
When a disaster of grand proportions occurs, we often ask ourselves, how could this have happened? Hillsborough tells the story of the 1989 disaster at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England, when a surge of attendees during the Liverpool/Nottingham Forest semi-final killed 96 people.
Celtics/Lakers: The Best of Enemies
Examining one of the biggest sports rivalries of all time, The Best of Enemies uses archival footage from the 1980s as well as in-depth interviews with NBA giants Larry Bird (Celtics) and Magic Johnson (Lakers) to show how the once disdain for each others’ team turned to respect.
The Two Escobars
Drug-lord Pablo Escobar dominated the 1980s, being the most feared man in Columbia, and arguably the world. Andres Escobar was a talented soccer player and face of the Columbian national soccer team. By 1994, Columbia was set to win the 1994 World Cup, but devastatingly lost when Andres scored a goal on their own side. When Andres is tragically murdered after the defeat, the greater Columbian drug cartel claims responsibility, showing how soccer and the underground world of narcos had more in common than once thought, and how these two men were fatefully tied together with the same name.
In the mid-1980s, the Miami Hurricanes football program was on fire. In just a few short years, with coach Jimmy Johnson and high-profile players like Michael Irvin and Steve Walsh, the Hurricanes became one of the best ranked teams in the country. The U highlights the success of the Hurricanes but also sheds a light on how race and economic status in the 1980s affected the players’ ability to be accepted into college.
June 17, 1994
Do you remember what you were doing on June 17, 1994? In the world of sports, the day was filled with major events, such as: the New York Rangers celebrating their championship parade, the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets fiercely playing Game 5 of the NBA Finals, and esteemed golfer Arnold Palmer playing the final round of the U.S. Open, to name a few. In the world just outside of sports, however, O.J. Simpson is on the run from the police after the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson. Seamlessly tying the multiple events of the day with the O.J. chase as a backdrop, June 17, 1994 showcases the best of the 30 for 30 filmmaking.