The Best ESPN 30 for 30 Documentaries to Watch Before The Last Dance
ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series is filled with fascinating stories from the sports world and beyond. Here is what you should check out before its latest, The Last Dance, premieres.
The Last Dance, one of the most ambitious sports documentaries to come from ESPN since the birth of its 30 for 30 series 11 years ago, is set to air its first two episodes at 9 p.m. ET Sunday, April 19 on the network and its streaming platform.
Over the next five Sundays, the 10-hour miniseries from director Jason Hehir will tell the story of Michael Jordan’s final NBA championship run with the Chicago Bulls during the 1997-98 season. That runtime eclipses even the Worldwide Leader’s lengthy Academy Award-winning marathon doc by more than two hours.
The 30 for 30 franchise and its related endeavors from ESPN Films have produced scores of enthralling feature films, shorts, and podcasts since 2009. For those looking to fill this time without live sports, it’s hard to go wrong by simply picking something at random from the back catalog of sports documentaries available through an ESPN+ subscription.
But if you’re looking for recommendations, here are a bunch of highlights separated by time commitment for easy planning.
O.J.: Made in America
Directed by: Ezra Edelman
Runtime: 7 hours, 57 minutes (five episodes)
At just shy of eight hours, this Oscar-winning saga is the crowning achievement of the 30 For 30 series. The story of O.J. Simpson and, in particular, his infamous trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman needs the hours of context Made in America provides. Edelman’s masterpiece marries the Juice’s football and off-the-gridiron fame with decades of simmering racial discord in Los Angeles to explain how that impacted the trial. Yes, it’s about Simpson, but it’s also about the United States as a whole as the nation entered the 21st century.
Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies
Directed by: Jim Podhoretz
Runtime: 4 hours, 14 minutes (three episodes)
The perfect way for Millennial and Gen Z to catch up on the NBA’s premier rivalry is to settle in for four hours of nastiness on the hardwood. Podhoretz, with narration from Los Angeles’ Ice Cube and Boston’s Donnie Wahlberg, sets up the iconic Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird dynamic as the Lakers and Celtics vied for basketball supremacy in the 1980s. Not to be downplayed is the role race played both surrounding the matchup and in shaping the fan bases’ identities outside the city limits. Follow it up with The Announcement, in which Magic revisits his experience of learning he had contracted HIV.
Directed by: Stanley Nelson
Runtime: 3 hours, 26 minutes (two episodes)
Premiering earlier this year, the two-part story tells of the rise, fall and redemption of Michael Vick. The first episode paints a picture of a generational athlete who went on to revolutionize the most prominent position in football. It’s no secret the quarterback’s career was destroyed by the dogfighting operation at his house, and the second half details his downfall. It also details his path back to the NFL and how he became an unlikely ally for the Humane Society of the United States. Make sure to also check out No Crossover, another fascinating story about an all-time athlete (Allen Iverson) from the Virginia Peninsula.
The U series
Directed by: Billy Corben (The U and The U, Part 2) and Patrick Creadon (Catholics vs. Convicts)
Runtime: 5 hours, 7 minutes (about 1 hour, 42 minutes each)
This isn’t a single, multi-part doc like the first three. It’s more like a modern Hollywood film structure with an original (The U) with a sequel (The U: Part 2) and a spinoff (Catholics vs. Convicts). The first entry chronicles the rise of the University of Miami as a college football powerhouse. Part 2 tells of the program’s rise from the ashes after scandal doomed the Hurricanes in the mid 1990s. Catholics vs. Convicts zeroes in on the classic 1988 matchup between Miami and Notre Dame, highly successful programs with wildly different reputations.
The Two Escobars
Directed by: Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist
Runtime: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and soccer standout Andres Escobar — no relation — were once two of Colombia’s most prominent public figures. While the former was building a deadly, illicit empire, the latter was a key defender for the national team with a sterling reputation on the pitch. The two were connected by more than a surname and a shared hometown — Medillin — as The Two Escobars’ gritty narrative illustrates how the Pablo’s downfall and demise created an environment that permitted the tragic murder of Andres, just days after Colombia flamed out at the World Cup.
Directed by: Michael Tolajian
Runtime: 1 hour, 20 minutes
European players have thrived in the NBA for decades, but they all owe a debt to Drazen Petrovic. The Croatian national was a legend on the other side of the Atlantic before becoming an All-NBA guard for the New Jersey Nets. But this story focuses more on the kinship between he and Vlade Divac, of Serbia, a longtime NBA veteran and former teammate on the Yugoslavian national team. Fractured by the Yugoslav Wars, the two never reconciled before Petrovic was killed in a car crash in 1993. Divac narrates this unfortunate tale of loss and regret.
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Runtime: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Sports can bring people together from all walks of life. But there’s an ugly side to fandom, and the story of Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman is the epitome of how vicious people with a passion for sports can be. Catching Hell reminds viewers of the young man’s cardinal sin, when he hauled in a foul ball before his team’s outfielder could reel it in. He may have cost his beloved team a World Series that year, but a harmless lapse in judgment at a ballgame turned him into a pariah and a recluse.
The Price of Gold
Directed by: Nanette Burstein
Runtime: 1 hour, 18 minutes
Burstein explores the most salacious story in the history of figure skating: the unprovoked off-ice attack of Nancy Kerrigan and rival Tonya Harding’s involvement in the crime. In The Price of Gold, Harding’s uphill battle to shine as a sort of ugly duckling in a sport of swans is chronicled, as well as the fact that her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly planned a bumbling assault on Kerrigan. Harding remains a unique personality in present-day interviews, while Kerrigan’s circle speaks on her behalf of the events that preceded their journey to the 1994 Winter Olympics as bizarre teammates.
Under an Hour
June 17th, 1994
Directed by: Brett Morgen
Runtime: 52 minutes
Revisit one of the wildest sports news cycles in this doc from Morgan. Between the venerable Arnold Palmer’s final round at the U.S. Open, the beginning of the FIFA World Cup on U.S. soil, the New York Rangers’ ticker tape parade to celebrate the end of their 54-year Stanley Cup drought, the pivotal fifth game of the seven-game NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, and Ken Griffey Jr.’s milestone in his historic pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, it was a busy day. And then O.J. Simpson hopped in that white Ford Bronco on the California freeway…
Directed by: Kirk Fraser
Runtime: 52 minutes
Best of Enemies touches briefly upon one of the more tragic tales in NBA history, but Without Bias expands upon the events that led to the death of brilliant prospect Len Bias and how it changed the perception of cocaine in the U.S. Fraser looks to get to the bottom of how Bias could have died, just days after the Celtics made the University of Maryland forward the No. 2 overall pick, after a supposed one-time use of cocaine. This is how Bias went from future factor in a hoops dynasty to a cautionary tale for generations of young athletes.
Let Them Wear Towels
Directed by: Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg
Runtime: 50 minutes
A highlight from the 2013 Nine for IX series tied in with the 40th anniversary of Title IX, Stern and Sundberg peel back the curtain on how women successfully fought for the right to do their job writing about sports in the 1970s and ‘80s on equal footing with men. This film succeeds in undermining the argument that female reporters don’t belong in the locker room alongside their male counterparts. The path has not always been easy even after early successes, as the segment near the end about 1990s reporter Lisa Olson’s allegations against the New England Patriots makes clear.
Directed by: Mike Tollin
Runtime: 51 minutesCompared to most subjects on this list, Small Potatoes is relatively tame and light. It’s interesting, but not powerful on its own. What makes Tollin’s exploration of the 1980s NFL rival league, the USFL, so intriguing in 2020 is the fact that this 2009 doc is centered on future U.S. president Donald Trump’s role in the swift death of a potentially sustainable sports enterprise. Trump and those who worked around him during the time he owned the New Jersey Generals speak about the experience in what serves as a weird time capsule of Trump’s perception before he became a polarizing politician and POTUS.