What if I told you we didn’t have to let history be lost, that a show could change the way we view sports and history, that we have a backlog of everything, recorded and ready to be looked at once more? That perhaps there are more than just 30 stories that must be told?
Those stories have been told over the past 13 years, beginning in 2009 with ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, one that has become synonymous with phrases such as instant classic, sports nostalgia, and many more.
Though it once began as 30 stories told over three volumes, it’s since expanded, including shorts, soccer stories and now a Volume IV that is ongoing. In all, there have been 119 30 for 30 stories told, with Dream On, a profile of the United States women’s national basketball team of the mid-1990s as the latest.
The hour-plus long episodes feature athletes, programs and sports history from all generations with some of the most interesting stories out there, giving fans greater detail, oftentimes unseen or forgotten footage of parts of sports history that ought not be forgotten. They’ve, in a sense, become a part of history within history itself — very meta.
The stories not only tell the tales of athletes but also the trials and tribulations of those who have dealt with social issues, scandals and a host of various topics within society.
Off the basketball court in the case of ‘No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson’, which explores the eventual trial of Iverson, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison before being pardoned four months later, to tales of what could have been in ‘Without Bias’, a 30 for 30 that explored what could have been with the late Len Bias who passed away just days after being selected in the 1986 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics.
But among the 119 stories told, along with the shorts, there are some that stand out from the rest of the pack. That’s why we’ve put together a list of what we believe are the 10 best 30 for 30 stories ESPN has told over the years. Click here to check out the entire library of 30 for 30 content from ESPN.
‘The Last Dance’
This is perhaps the most popular 30 for 30 available right now. It, of course, focuses on legendary basketball star Michael Jordan and his final season with the Chicago Bulls. It is a 10-episode affair that essentially goes over the entirety of Jordan’s career, starting from his college and early days in the NBA.
The way the series utilizes interviews, players’ recounts and clips from the games themselves is unique and exciting. It gives a complete, in-depth retelling of history as seen through the eyes of players, general managers, coaches and media members alike. Perhaps the most popular basketball player of all time deserves the undivided attention he got in this one.
‘The U’ Parts I & II
Another “classic,” ‘The U’ Parts I and II go over the University of Miami football program in the 1980s, covering both the rise and fall of the program, which was riddled with NCAA sanctions and scandals. Still, the program was able to rise back up to win another championship. Though the Miami Dolphins were the end-all-be-all of Miami athletics for a time, the U overtook that throne through the 80s, becoming one of the most iconic programs in NCAA history.
Miami would go on to win three national titles in the 80s: 1983, 1987 and 1989, while winning another in 1991 and a fifth in 2001. The episodes include iconic players such as Jim Kelly, Michael Irvin, Warren Sapp, Ed Reed, Bernie Kosar, Jon Vilma, Clinton Portis, and many more.
Not every 30 for 30 is easy to watch, and that’s not because of how well done they are, but because of the content itself. That was the case for ‘Without Bias’, which details the tragic death of Len Bias, a former basketball player who was selected in the first round of the 1986 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics. Bias would pass just two days after the draft.
Bias passed due to a cocaine overdose, and the film goes through societal views of casual drug use, while also detailing Bias and his life, how much he impacted those around him and tells the story of an athlete who made one grave mistake plenty can learn from.
The film details what Bias could have become and how much he would have changed the game on the court, but also his life and what he went through in the days, months and years leading up to his tragic passing.
‘No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson’
Another fan favorite, ‘No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson’ details what would ultimately define Iverson’s life before he was able to make his way to the NBA court with the Philadelphia 76ers. The film details race relations within the community of Hampton, Va., and a costly “mistake” that occurred to potentially derail Iverson’s life.
Ultimately, following a brawl between two groups of high school kids at a bowling alley, one white, and one Black, Iverson and his friends were found guilty despite not being the only group that was involved in the fight. Iverson, originally sentenced to 15 years in prison, would eventually be pardoned by then-Governor Doug Wilder and released from custody. The film does more than just detail what occurred, but also why it did, and offers plenty of commentary on Black and white race relations within the town.
Iverson was not in the film itself, but plenty of those who knew him, family and friends, offer commentary.
An ongoing issue even today, women’s tennis player Venus Williams is featured in this film that speaks about the pay gap between men and women within sports. This focuses specifically on tennis, including commentary from Venus herself and plenty of other current and former tennis players, showcasing how one player had such an impact on garnering equal pay.
“Sometimes it takes an outsider to do that,” was one of the more profound quotes of the film. Not only did Venus face an uphill battle for pay as a woman, but also as a Black athlete breaking into a sport that was seen as not for Black athletes during the early days of her playing career. It’s a wonderful commentary on two different areas of society, both on race relations, but also on gender relations.
The film is directed by Ava DuVernay, and while the film is not an official 30 for 30 film, it is under the subcategory of Nine for IX, featuring women among the cascade of men that dominate the space.
The film ends showcasing the 2007 Wimbledon prize money:
Roger Federer: $1,371,300
Venus Williams: $1,371,300
‘O.J.: Made in America’
Perhaps equally as popular as ‘The Last Dance’, ‘O.J.: Made in America’ details one of the most infamous events in United States history as NFL Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson went on trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.
The case didn’t just impact the lives of both Simpson and Brown and their family, but also society as a whole, with a saga involving race, media, violence, and the U.S. criminal justice system. The multi-episode series within 30 for 30 retells everything, from the murder to the trial, motive, blood — everything. It explores deeper, however, getting to the heart of the issues the OJ trial exposed within America then and now.
As an avid watcher of college football, I’ve always been fascinated with how something came to be within the sport. That was told completely with the ‘Pony Excess’ film, detailing how Southern Methodist University (SMU) became a program synonymous with NCAA violations and ultimately what has been coined the “Death Penalty” within the realm of collegiate athletics.
SMU was without football for two years and the school’s history was shaken in the late 80s, something that the program has still not fully recovered from, aside from a couple of bowl game victories. Though it has been reborn, as told within the film, SMU as people once knew it is no longer.
‘You Don’t Know Bo’
It’s only fitting that one of the most entertaining athletes in U.S. history got his own film, with Bo Jackson featured in the 30 for 30 film, ‘You Don’t Know Bo’. It’s simple and chronicles Jackson’s life as an athlete, a man who was able to play not one, but two sports at the same time at the highest level (football and baseball).
He is one of the most famous athletes of all time and this film makes it known just how he became that, and how much his legacy will always be part of American sports until the end of time.
‘The Two Bills’
This film features two of the most important figures in football history, and it’s only fitting that both of their first names are “Bill.” Both Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells are the greatest head coaches in NFL history. Between them, they’ve won eight Super Bowls as head coaches (six for Belichick and two for Parcells). Both will always be remembered as the “GOATs” of their profession.
Parcells is already in the NFL Hall of Fame and Belichick will follow whenever he is officially done with the NFL. But the film itself details the relationship of both coaches, when they first met and when they both became assistants with the New York Giants, where Parcells won his two Super Bowls. It also details the ups and downs of both of their careers, including times when the two faced off against each other.
A two-part affair, ‘Vick’ chronicles the rise and fall of former Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, one of the most prolific football players of all time. It is very similar to the film on Allen Iverson, with Vick dealing with his own legal issues, including a dog fighting conviction which ultimately sent him to federal prison for 21 months.
Vick entered the NFL as the No. 1 pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, playing for the Falcons for six seasons before his career was derailed due to his own mistakes (that he’s since owned up to and worked to atone for). The film does a good job of exploring both the rise and fall, and short comeback for Vick, who still remains one of the more polarizing sports figures alive.