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GOOD SPORTS: Filmmakers dive deeper on ESPN
October 6, 2009  | By Diane Werts
30 for 30 espn gretzky trade.jpg

Think "sports documentaries," and you think of elegiac baseball histories or NFL Films mythologizing that game into a patriotic religion.

Certainly ESPN hasn't done much to change this perspective, but maybe that's changing. Tonight's documentary film Kings Ransom (Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. ET, ESPN) kicks off a Tuesday night series called 30 for 30, in which diverse directors examine wider-ranging stories that developed in sports throughout ESPN's 30-year history.

Peter Berg of Friday Night Lights is first up. Devoted to hockey, he chose to delve into the momentous Wayne Gretzky trade, sending the sport's all-time king in 1988 from Canada's four-time Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers to a middling team called the Kings in a hockey afterthought called Los Angeles. The trade broke Canada's heart and broke up what might have been a historic dynasty.

30 for 30 gretzky kings.jpgIn Kings Ransom, Berg chats up Gretzky on the golf course -- that second home for hockey players who get the summer off -- and talks to the owners involved in the deal and to Gretzky's "Yoko-ized" actress wife Janet Jones. Berg also captures that moment in time when hockey was Hollywood cool. (Talk about elegiac.)

Next week's film, The Band That Wouldn't Die (Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. ET, ESPN), comes from that great Baltimore partisan, Barry Levinson (Homicide, Diner). He charts that city's love affair with its Colts, and their own '80s heartbreak, when the football team packed its gear into moving vans and left town in the middle of the night for Indianapolis.

In Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? (Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. ET, ESPN), producer Mike Tollin (The Bronx Is Burning) revisits how he broke into Hollywood, shooting games for the upstart football league that challenged the NFL in the early '80s. Tollin finds "a sports story, a business story, a human interest story . . . a great piece of Americana." And he handily had lots of footage available to mine.

30 for 30 espn usfl tollin.jpgSo did cinema verite legend Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens), who'd spent two months shooting training footage before Muhammad Ali's 1980 fight with Larry Holmes. Muhammad and Larry (Oct. 27 at 8 p.m. ET, ESPN) finally presents that footage nearly 30 years after the simultaneously tragic and triumphant bout.

Subsequent 30 for 30 film subjects (and their directors) include the cocaine death of basketball's Len Bias (Kirk Fraser), NBA superstar Michael Jordan's attempt (below) to switch to baseball (Ron Shelton), NFL legend O.J. Simpson's "slow speed chase" (Brett Morgen), sprinter Marion Jones' downfall (John Singleton), and even the BMX circuit (Jeff Tremaine, Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze).

In other words, these aren't the usual glossy sports stories. They broaden beyond the competition to examine fans' ties to teams, the business of leagues, and the players' emotional landscapes. And the sociological impact of all of it. ESPN's 30 for 30 also offers 30 different viewpoints on both sports and filmmaking, and that alone provides reason to celebrate its presentation.

30 for 30 espn jordan baseball.jpgLet's hope it doesn't take ESPN another 30 years to take such a richly idiosyncratic look back.

Or to take a more clear-eyed look at history in the making -- as it happens.


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