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The Stories of Their Time
Richard Deitsch
December 20, 2010
ESPN's 30 for 30 fields a rich lineup of documentaries
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December 20, 2010

The Stories Of Their Time

ESPN's 30 for 30 fields a rich lineup of documentaries

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The drug baron Pablo Escobar explodes onto the screen six minutes into The Two Escobars. The thrilling documentary from ESPN's 30 for 30 series explores the rise and fall of Colombian soccer during its era of narco-fútbol, the deadly marriage of the country's cocaine cartels and soccer clubs that contributed to the death of Andrés Escobar, a defender for the 1994 Colombian World Cup team (and no relation to Pablo). Pablo arrives in the film as a larger-than-life figure: speeding on his motorcycle through the grounds of Hacienda Napoles, his opulent playground ranch in Puerto Triunfo, in a scene that promises a ride unlike any sports documentary the viewer has ever seen.

In the same year that ESPN broadcast The Decision, the self-aggrandizing shamathon featuring LeBron James, the network also produced some of its finest content since its inception in 1979. ESPN debuted 23 documentaries this year as part of 30 for 30, including arguably the four best documentaries of the series (The Two Escobars, Once Brothers, The Best That Never Was and June 17th, 1994). "We wanted to tell interesting stories that stood on their own," says Connor Schell, an ESPN Films executive producer and one of the men behind 30 for 30. "But we also wanted to tell a larger story collectively of what sports meant to the era, and where sports intersected with the era."

What started as a one-paragraph e-mail from writer Bill Simmons to his bosses three years ago about making documentaries on some of the iconic sports moments of ESPN's history has morphed into a critically praised franchise. The network tapped three groups of filmmakers for the project: those who had made significant sports films (such as Barry Levinson and Ron Shelton); accomplished documentarians with a built-in audience (Alex Gibney, Barbara Kopple, Steve James, Albert Maysles); and fresh voices, including Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, the codirectors of The Two Escobars, and Jonathan Hock, whose The Best That Never Was brilliantly chronicles the life of Oklahoma schoolboy football legend Marcus Dupree. The mix of directors provided a fascinating mélange of subjects and storytelling.

While 30 for 30 had misses (Marion Jones: Press Pause, The House of Steinbrenner and Silly Little Game were all muddled), collectively the series helped legitimize ESPN within the film industry. So impressive was The Two Escobars that it screened as an official selection at the film festivals of Cannes, Los Angeles and Tribeca, and at Amsterdam's documentary festival, the biggest in the world. ESPN executives say they are committed to long-form storytelling and want to be a player in the genre along with HBO Sports. "Documentaries are not medicine," said Schell. "They can be entertaining, interesting, informative, thoughtful and innovative in form."

Carrying on the 30 for 30 ethos, ESPN Films will debut documentaries next year on the University of Michigan basketball's famed Fab Five and on Olympic speedskating champion and celebrated humanitarian Johann Olav Koss.

"I think the main legacy of the 30 for 30 project [will be] the affirmation that there is still meaning to be found in sports, beyond the clatter of sports radio and argument-based talk shows," says Hock. "There's an audience grateful for programming representing a deeper level of thinking and feeling about sports."