In an essay on ESPN.com, ace columnist "The Sports Guy" Bill Simmons explains the genesis of the Worldwide Leader's 30 for 30 film series: Simmons shot an e-mail to his bosses suggesting an unconventional documentary series in honor of the network's 30th anniversary.
They'd tell some of the great sports stories of the past three decades, but they'd ignore predictable fare like "The Miracle on Ice" and focus on "stories that resonated at the time but were eventually forgotten for whatever reason."
Furthermore, they'd recruit Hollywood filmmakers and celebrities to direct the docs and give the outsiders complete creative control. They roped in names from Peter Berg to Barry Levinson to Ice Cube to Steve Nash.
"We didn't want to check off a laundry list of the 30 biggest stories from 1979 to 2009," Simmons wrote. "That's what our viewers would expect from us. We wanted to surprise them."
ESPN rolled out 30 for 30 last month with a flock of flicks that show the depth and breadth of the series' ambition.
Kings Ransom is Peter Berg's tale of Wayne Gretzky's tumultuous trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles. Barry Levinson's The Band That Wouldn't Die tells the story of the Baltimore Colts' midnight exodus to Indianapolis and the city's quest to bring football back. (Some happy ending there ...)
In Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?, Mike Tollin tackles that question with his sights set squarely on Donald Trump. Albert Maysles' Muhammad and Larry beautifully but painfully dredges up the Ali-Holmes fight and its unfortunate consequences for both men's legacies.
The series' fifth entry, Without Bias, premiered Tuesday and will re-air throughout this week. The film is Kirk Fraser's account of the cocaine binge that killed University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias two days after the Boston Celtics drafted him.
Fraser turns to emotional friends and family and articulate outsiders like sportscasters to give Bias context for a generation who didn't know him, showing what a shock his death was and what far-reaching legal and cultural reverberations it set off. Without Bias isn't the best of this bunch, but that's only because this is such a strong set of films.
Even better is The Legend of Jimmy the Greek, set to premiere at 8 p.m. this Tuesday. The last 30 for 30 film before the series resumes next month chronicles the long, slow rise and meteoric fall of Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, a larger-than-life Steubenville native who transformed sports gambling from a secret vice to a beloved national pastime.
The Greek's story typifies 30 for 30's stellar output so far. If you were there, it will flood your memory with nostalgia. If you weren't, it will send your brain spinning with wonder.