Why 30 for 30 makes the TV Hall of Fame

“Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them — a desire, a dream, a vision.”
— Muhammad Ali

Living in Ireland for 5 years, and now Germany, I don’t watch much TV.  Over the past ten years, the only TV I watch is after the third or fourth person says, “I can’t believe you haven’t seen X yet, you have to see it! (Where X = The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Breaking Bad).

I’ve probably watched about 7 or 8 TV shows over the past 1o years.  The format is constricting, and with all the commercials, it’s hard to develop a real story in each episode.  And there are so many good movies to watch. But that was before The Wire.

I realize this is old news, but once again I feel it is my duty to shout the praises of the Wire from the rooftops so that all of you who haven’t seen it yet know: The Wire is the best thing ever to be on television. For me David Simon and Ed Burns are to TV as Shakespeare was to the stage. That may sound like too much, but hold your scoffing until you have seen all 5 seasons please.

But enough about the Wire for now — I wanted to write this to tell you about my current favorite TV show — 30 for 30. I was never a big documentary guy, but it seems like when you hit 30, some kind of alarm goes off in your brain and the next thing you know you’re downloading some movie about Pixar or Macs. Maybe it’s the whole “truth is stranger than fiction” aspect of the medium — documentaries make you appreciate the miraculous and the beautiful in the real-life stories that surround us.

Formula for a hall of fame TV show:

30 dramatic sports stories during my lifetime + 30 of the best filmmakers in the world + Bill Simmons as producer

I should have known Simmons was behind it. I have been stealing his style for years, and as I sat down to write this post, I pulled up the 30 for 30 web page and found that not only is he the producer of the series, but it was also his idea! (Like I said, I’ve been out of the loop for 5 years, give me a break).

Here’s how Simmons approached the series and pitched it to the ESPN execs:

We made a master list of potential stories that we wanted to see … and they had to be stories, not just a laundry list of “we’ll do Jordan, we’ll do Tyson, we’ll do Magic” and so on. We were especially attracted to stories that resonated at the time but were eventually forgotten for whatever reason. Like the unique connection between Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble. Like Tim Richmond taking NASCAR by storm, disappearing just as quickly because of an “illness” (later revealed to be AIDS), then having his story covered up and dismissed. Like O.J.’s car chase, Escobar’s own goal and Jimmy the Greek’s career imploding in just a few sentences. Like the 2004 Red Sox winning four incredible games in four nights against the Yankees; even if the big picture theme had been beaten to death, the small picture theme (every remarkable twist from Game 4 through Game 7) had never really been told. We wanted people to say, “Wow, I forgot how (fill in a word: great, amazing, poignant, crazy, depressing, unbelievable) that was” or “I can’t believe I never knew that whole story.” We didn’t want to check off a laundry list of the 30 biggest stories from 1979 to 2009. That’s what our viewers would expect from us. We wanted to surprise them.

The Sports Guy has been bringing us the best writing in sports for years, and I’m glad to see he’s now venturing into the TV world to bring us even more great content. With the 30 for 30 series, he’s entered my Pantheon of Heroes (a topic worthy of its own post at some point), one of the few people I look at and say, “Wow, that guy has made my life a little bit better.”

Sidebar: Unintentional Fist Pump

I think I finally accepted how much of a nerd I was when I got caught doing an unintentional fist pump in my second year of college.  I had just gotten an important exam back in a really tough Economics class, and packed up my stuff and made my way over to meet my girlfriend for lunch.  On the way there, I opened up the exam and saw that I had aced the exam.  I sat down to eat with her:

Girlfriend: “You know people are going to think you are crazy if you walk around pumping your fist like a nerd.”
Me: “What are you talking about???”
GF: “I saw you walking down the stairs on the way here — you were standing there cheering to yourself like an idiot, don’t you know that?”
Me: “Ummm… yeah, I knew that, I aced my Econ exam…”

Thus was born the unintentional fist pump.

Shake your Moneymaker

As far as I know, there are only two TV shows that have inspired an unintentional fist pump (although clearly I don’t always notice them, so I could be wrong).  The first was the Wire — every time the grey HBO static came on at the start of a new episode, the curtain went up and the greatest show on TV started… I waited for the goosebumps and glued myself to the TV.  The second TV show that inspires this nerd-joy is 30 for 30 — the cheesy intro song usually has me doing my Moneymaker impression.

But enough with the preamble, on to the show…

A couple people I told about the show said, “Ok, it sounds great, but where do I start?”

Each episode is really well done and shows off the filmmaker’s unique style, so you can’t go too far wrong with any of the shows, but some of the episodes really stood out as exceptional for me.

I didn’t really know how to capture how beautiful and inspiring these films are, so I thought I would just make a list. That’s what people do on blogs, right? Anyway, here’s my list of top 5 30 for 30 episodes along with why they blew me away. Keep in mind I am a football/basketball/boxing guy, so I’m biased towards documentaries on those sports.

#5 Jordan Rides the Bus

In the fall of 1993, in his prime and at the summit of the sports world, Michael Jordan walked away from pro basketball. After leading the Dream Team to an Olympic gold medal in 1992 and taking the Bulls to their third consecutive NBA championship the following year, Jordan was jolted by the murder of his father. Was it the brutal loss of such an anchor in his life that caused the world’s most famous athlete to rekindle a childhood ambition by playing baseball? Or some feeling that he had nothing left to prove or conquer in basketball? Or something deeper and perhaps not yet understood? Ron Shelton, a former minor leaguer who brought his experiences to life in the classic movie “Bull Durham,” will revisit Jordan’s short career in the minor leagues and explore the motivations that drove the world’s most competitive athlete to play a new sport in the relative obscurity of Birmingham, Alabama, for a young manager named Terry Francona.


Why it’s great:

Jordan always amazed me, and was always an artist on the basketball court.  Looking back, I have a much better understanding of what it takes to continue to get better day after day, and deliver great performances night after night with millions of people watching your every move.   You think your job stresses you out?  Look at the faces of the players and fans in “the shot” and you’ll have an idea of how many people’s lives depended on what Jordan did on the court. This documentary gives some insight into how mentally strong Jordan is, giving his time and privacy to media and fans in the wake of his father’s murder, while enduring endless criticism and attacks on his character. The film also is a great tribute of the love of a son for his father, and the love for an athlete for his craft after the money and the fame has been stripped away.

#4 Muhammad and Larry

In October of 1980 Muhammad Ali was preparing to fight for an unprecedented fourth heavyweight title against his friend and former sparring partner Larry Holmes. To say that the great Ali was in the twilight of his career would be generous; most of his admiring fans, friends and fight scribes considered his bravado delusional. What was left for him to prove? In the weeks of training before the fight, documentarians Albert and David Maysles took an intimate look at Ali trying to convince the world and perhaps himself, that he was still “The Greatest.” At the same time, they documented the mild-mannered and undervalued champion Holmes as he confidently prepared to put an end to the career of a man for whom he had an abiding and deep affection. In the raw moments after Ali’s humbling in this one-sided fight, it was not fully comprehended what the Maysles brothers had actually captured on film and, due to unexpected circumstances, the Maysles footage never received a public screening or airing. However, in the intervening years, the magnitude of this footage is now clear. An era ended when the braggadocio and confidence were stripped away in the ring, and the world’s greatest hero was revealed to be a man. Here for the first time is the unseen filmed build up to that fight, accompanied by freshly shot interviews by Albert Maysles with members from both the Ali and Holmes camps, as well as others who were prime witnesses to this poignant foolhardy attempt at courage.


Why it’s great:
Like Jordan and Bill Simmons, Muhammad Ali is another member of my Pantheon of Heroes. Ali’s love radiated across the world, and carried him to victory whether he was fighting against Foreman or the Vietnam War.  This documentary shows that magicians in the ring don’t age gracefully; there is a heavy price to pay for putting yourself up there on the cross so many times.  It’s sad and tough to watch at times, but seeing Ali trying to perform his unique style of magic one more time at age 39 is inspiring.

#3 Run Ricky Run

Ricky Williams does not conform to America’s definition of the modern athlete. In 2004, with rumors of another positive marijuana test looming, the Miami Dolphins running back traded adulation and a mansion in South Florida for anonymity and a $7 a night tent in Australia. His decision created a media frenzy that dismantled his reputation and branded him as America’s Pothead. But while most in the media thought Williams was ruining his life by leaving football, Ricky thought he was saving it. Through personal footage recorded with Williams during his time away from football and beyond, filmmaker Sean Pamphilon takes a fresh look at a player who had become a media punching bag and has since redeemed himself as a father and a teammate.


Why it’s great:

I remember watching Ricky Williams give interviews with his helmet on, the faces of the reporters registering a huge WTF any time he attempted to answer a question. This is a great story about a man who took “the road less traveled” in order to find himself.  Ricky Williams did things his own way — as the blurb says, “the Miami Dolphins running back traded adulation and a mansion in South Florida for anonymity and a $7 a night tent in Australia.”  This documentary follows the unique NFL superstar and Yogi on his journey to enlightenment, and shows us that the fight for self-awareness is long and difficult, especially if you’re a professional athlete in the spotlight.

#2 Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks

Reggie Miller single-handedly crushed the hearts of Knick fans multiple times. But it was the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals that solidified Miller as Public Enemy #1 in New York City. With moments to go in Game 1, and facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit of 105-99, Miller scored eight points in 8.9 seconds to give his Indiana Pacers an astonishing victory. This career-defining performance, combined with his give-and-take with Knicks fan Spike Lee, made Miller and the Knicks a highlight of the 1995 NBA playoffs. Peabody Award-winning director Dan Klores will explore how Miller proudly built his legend as “The Garden’s Greatest Villain”.


This video stars Reggie Miller as Achilles in a modern day, basketball version of the Iliad.  This story has everything — city vs. country, Indiana vs. New York, Reggie vs. the ultimate Knick Fan, brother vs. sister, Reggie vs. John Starks’ forehead…  Reggie’s career-long battle with the Knicks, Spike Lee, and the rest of New York is modern day mythology, and Director Dan Klores tells the tale beautifully.  Reggie is still my favorite “villain” of all time — I’d never seen a guy talk so much trash and take so many dives to draw fouls– he was easy to hate unless you were a Pacer fan.  I always liked the guy because I never saw anyone step up their game like him when it mattered most.  He was the best clutch performer I ever saw.  ESPN summarizes the drama:

Would Game Seven at MSG be “Miller Time”, or would Ewing get another chance at the Finals after losing the championship the year before? Would Spike, Woody and Trump have the chance to return Reggie’s choke sign? Would Starks, who head-butted Reggie in a playoff game the year before after he lit him up for 25 points in the fourth quarter, come through in the clutch? Would Brown’s whining to officials, the League, and the media matter as the final minutes ticked away?

I was lucky enough to see those games live, and this film gave me goosebumps just like Reggie’s clutch  performances did 15 years ago.

#1 Birth of Big Air

In 1985, at the tender age of 13, Mat Hoffman entered into the BMX circuit as an amateur, and by 16 he had risen to the professional level. Throughout his storied career, Hoffman has ignored conventional limitations, instead, focusing his efforts on the purity of the sport and the pursuit of “what’s next.” His motivations stem purely from his own ambitions, and even without endorsements, cameras, fame and fans, Hoffman would still be working to push the boundaries of gravity. Academy Award nominee Spike Jonze and extreme sport fanatic Johnny Knoxville, along with director Jeff Tremaine, will showcase the inner workings and exploits of the man who gave birth to “Big Air.”


Why it’s great:

Some people have dreams.  In sports, every athlete dreams of being the best in their sport and winning championships, and very few athletes get to live their dreams.  Some athletes transcend competition — they are so good, they are forced to look inward and compete with themselves. Mat Hoffman dreamed of getting as much air as he possibly could without killing himself (he came pretty close several times according to the film).  I am not an extreme sports fan, but this film made me a Mat Hoffman fan.  Director Jeff Tremaine sums it up:

I first crossed paths with Mat Hoffman when BMX was a small sport. Even at age 16, Mat was the best rider anyone had ever seen. I watched him take punishing slams and get back up time and again. He was a gladiator whose spirit couldn’t be broken. He is one of those guys who found his purpose in life early on. The irony about Mat is he does what he was born to do, and it could kill him.

Please, download this documentary and watch it.  Words can’t do it justice.

If you actually read this far, wow thanks, and here are my top ten 30 for 30 episodes:

1. Birth of Big Air
2. Reggie Miller
3. Run Ricky Run
4. Muhammad and Larry
5. Jordan Rides the Bus
6. Marcus Dupree
7. Four Days Oct.
8. King’s Ransom
9. Steinbrenner
10. Pony Excess

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