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GOOD SPORTS: When sports really are metaphors for life
June 14, 2010  | By Diane Werts
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Sports tend to be either ephemeral -- today's game is gone tomorrow -- or idealized, like the Boys of Summer. NFL Films fuses God, country and paralyzing tackles. As for steroidally super-sized home run sluggers, geez, baseball broadcasters never noticed.

ESPN can be one of the prime offenders. Remember how they canceled 2003's scripted football-team drama Playmakers so as not to offend the NFL with its unvarnished hardly-role-models portrait?

But now ESPN is taking a good long look -- a really, really good look -- back at memorable sports moments, issues and cultural reflections from throughout ESPN's 30-year history. Acclaimed filmmakers have delivered 30 labor-of-love documentaries now unreeling under the umbrella title 30 for 30. The films are so eye-opening and thought-provoking that they've been nominated in the news/information category for this year's Television Critics Association Awards.

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Anyone over the age of 20 should be able to relate to this week's premiere of June 17, 1994 (Wednesday, June 16 at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN). That's the night O.J. Simpson led Los Angeles police on the infamous "slow-speed chase" as he was being sought in connection with the murder of his ex-wife. But it wasn't the only sports-related happening that Friday. Also taking place were what the film's web site calls "firsts, lasts, triumphs and tragedy" -- the U.S.-hosted World Cup kickoff in Chicago, Arnold Palmer's final U.S. Open round, the New York Rangers parade celebrating their long-awaited Stanley Cup, and Patrick Ewing trying to conquer the NBA finals at Madison Square Garden.

Director Brett Morgen (On the Ropes, Nimrod Nation) distills all of that into "this great window into our own psyche," with so "many emotions wrapped into one day." His images tell the tale -- from slick SportsCenter highlights to searing personal close-ups to the ubiquitous chase coverage that kept the country glued to the tube that Friday night 16 years ago.

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Next week's premiere is even more tightly wrapped in societal fabric -- The Two Escobars (June 22 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, after its Spanish-language ESPN Deportes debut June 21 at 9 p.m. ET) focuses on "narco-soccer," as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar helps bankroll his country's hopes to take the 1994 World Cup with a team led by ill-fated captain Andres Escobar.

Doesn't matter if you're not into sports. These are tales of human poignance and cultural imperatives, made mesmerizing by directors who speak to these subjects from their souls. Each film's web page includes a Personal Statement by its maker(s) that clarifies context, intent and significance. They address what they know and feel deeply about -- Ice Cube on the hip hop impact of the Oakland Raiders '80s L.A. sojourn (Straight Outta L.A.), Baltimore die-hard Barry Levinson on the impact of the Colts leaving town (The Band That Wouldn't Die), sports journalist Sean Pamphilon lucidly adding color to the black-and-white public image of iconoclast running back Ricky Williams (Run Ricky Run).


Check your cable/satellite on-demand options to see if the 14 previously premiered 30 for 30 films are available for viewing there. My Comcast system has Run Ricky Run available now, along with Without Bias, assessing the '80s sports/drugs/cautionary tale intersection of tragic basketballer Len Bias, and The 16th Man, in which South Africa's white rugby team in 1995 proves an unlikely uniter in a nation still torn by the consequences of apartheid.

ESPN Classic is encoring 30 for 30 films most Thursdays after July 1, starting anywhere from 10 p.m. to midnight. And there's a mini-marathon July 31 from noon to 5 p.m. But it's not nearly enough.

Where's the DVD set?

While we're waiting, read this breezy how-it-all-came-together tale from series brainstormer Bill Simmons.

Or watch this ESPN promo that beautifully conveys the project's emotional/cerebral tone:

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