With less than a week until the European launch of season two of the much acclaimed ESPN “30 for 30” series TCC’s Andrew Sanders takes a look ahead at what we can expect.
In October 2009, ESPN premiered its “30 for 30” series in celebration of the network’s thirtieth anniversary. These films sought to explore a variety of sporting, or at least sport-related, events from the ESPN era. Heavily involved in their production was ESPN’s leading columnist Bill Simmons, now the editor-in-chief of Grantland, the occasionally brilliant, occasionally jejeune sport/popular culture website.
30 for 30 and a series of follow up films, which were produced under the title “ESPN Films Presents:”, have brought a new level of analysis to a network which depends heavily on debate and discussion (or, in the case of Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, shouting, arguing about Tim Tebow, and more shouting), tackling some hugely controversial issues; of particular relevance in recent months was their film on the Southern Methodist University football program, which was given the “death penalty” for repeated recruiting infractions. Such a punishment was tossed around as being suitable for the recent, but completely different situation at Penn State.
“Pony Excess” is testament to the fact that no such penalty was appropriate at State College, emphasising the sporting nature of the “crimes” committed at SMU which contrast completely with the despicable, but individual, nature of the crimes committed at Penn State by Jerry Sandusky. In this sense, 30 for 30 helps to provide context in which contemporary situations can be assessed.
30 for 30 Volume II begins with “Broke”, an exploration into the financial difficulties encountered by several elite athletes, many of whom have received millions of dollars for their talents over the duration of their careers. The second film “9.79” details the 1988 Summer Olympics and what was the first time many people of my own generation encountered the issue of steroid abuse in sports, when Canadian Ben Johnson broke the world record in the men’s 100M final, before being stripped of his title and banned. The third film, “There’s No Place Like Home”, a clever twist on the line from “The Wizard of Oz”, tells the story of one fan’s attempt to purchase the original rules of basketball, as written by James Naismith, and to bring them “back” to the University of Kansas. It is followed by “Benji”, another tale of a basketball talent whose life was ended too soon, profiling Chicago high school star Ben Wilson. The penultimate film, “Ghosts of Ole Miss” brings together the story of the elite Ole Miss football team and the explosive integration era of the early 1960s when the Southern States erupted in violence. Finally, “You Don’t Know Bo”, profiles Bo Jackson, one of the greatest two-sport athletes of all time, who enjoyed professional careers in both the MLB and NFL, both of which were cut short by injury.
These films begin on ESPN America on 7th November with the screening of “Broke” with the next three films debuting on consecutive Wednesday nights throughout the month.
A few personal highlights from the “30 for 30” and “ESPN Films Presents:” series:
The moving “Without Bias”, directed by Kirk Fraser, which details the rise and sudden death of Maryland star Len Bias, a player who seemed destined for all-time NBA greatness before a cocaine overdose took his life the day after his selection in the 1986 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics.
“The Fab Five”, directed by Jason Hehir, which follows the story of the 1991 Michigan Wolverine basketball team featuring Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, their struggles with issues of race and class on their way to becoming one of the all time great college teams. Jalen Rose’s statement that the Wolverines looked upon African-American players who played for Duke as “Uncle Tom’s” brought about significant controversy and drew criticism from Grant Hill, one of Rose’s contemporaries in Coach K’s Blue Devils team.
“The Marinovich Project”, directed by Andrew Stephan and John Dorsey, chronicles the rise and fall of former University of Southern California and Los Angeles Raiders Quarterback Todd Marinovich, how his father Marv trained him for a career as an NFL star, how this dream came so close to realisation, and how it ultimately all fell apart.
TCC friend Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson’s “The Announcement”, directed by Nelson George, is powerful viewing, showing the full background to the revelation that Johnson had contracted HIV.
For me, however, none come close to the incomparable “Once Brothers”. Focusing on the great Yugoslavian basketball team of 1988 and its star players, Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, the NBA Entertainment directed feature details the relationship between the two, going back to their time as youngsters in the Yugoslavian leagues and under-age sides. An uncomfortable construct following the end of World War II, ethnic tensions rose in Yugoslavia during the 1980s after the death of Marshall Josip Tito, leading to the breakup of the country. Leading the revolution was Petrovic’s Croatia. After the Yugoslav side won the 1990 FIBA World Championship in Argentina, a Croatian flag was brought on court, which Divac quickly disposed of. This act was considered highly politicised, although Divac has always maintained that it was not; he merely wanted to celebrate the Yugoslav victory with his team-mates, outside of politics. His relationship with Petrovic soured and the two never got the chance to bury the hatchet, Petrovic’s life cut short by a car accident in 1993. If you haven’t seen “Once Brothers”, I suggest you rectify this as soon as possible.