ESPN 30 for 30: Top 20 of All Time List



Rating the best films in the ESPN 30 for 30 series is a highly debatable endeavor, as there are so many great documentaries to choose from. Click the title where highlighted for a review/feature on that specific film.

A year ago, I would have told you that there’s Hillsborough, the college football docs, and then there’s everything else. Still true, except now there’s Laettner, which towers above everything else.


1. I Hate Christian Laettner

There’s a reason that we’ve written about this 30 for 30 more than every other 30 for 30 combined. There’s also a reason that Christian Laettner and Director Rory Karpf gave the best media conference call ever! (The words “pussy” and “bitch” were used several times.

This film was pretty much my March 2015 content strategy, and why not since all those Laettner features drew over 384,000 page views.

The film also directly addresses the Christian Laettner gay rumors that were prevalent when he was in college.


2. Hillsborough

The most powerful and poignant of the docuseries. The best one ever premieres tonight; on the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. I could be biased because the press screener I saw was uncensored, more raw, and more real than what the WWL puts out tonight. This film is more about venue design/organization/planning/security gone tragically wrong than it is about soccer. The real story, and crux of the film, is about police and local authorities altering and tampering the statements of witnesses to cover their own arses. And how it’s taken 25 years for the actual truth to come out. More on Hillsborough here and here.


3. One and Not Done 

4. Pony Exce$$

We know big time college athletics is a hypocritical and fatally flawed system. NCAA President Mark Emmert keeps feeding us bullshit as he has no recourse but to play for time, trying to halt the inevitable bursting at the seams. If you want your college team to win big, then they have to be completely corrupt. That’s reality; and SMU football in the ’80s did graft, greed, corruption, pay for play, bribery, grade tampering, academic fraud, under-the-table payoffs, prostitution slush funds etc. bigger than anyone.

Everything’s bigger in Texas!

miami hurricanes logo-espn-30-for-30

5. The U.

This ESPN 30 for 30 seems to be a consensus favorite among the people I talk to. Watching it, it’s easily understandable. The late Walter Byers, former NCAA leader, legal expert and architect of the sinister “student-athlete” legal classification, had a kind of Dr. Frankenstein like remorse for his creation very late in life. During one of his final public appearances, Byers himself referred to the NCAA revenue producing sports as a “neo-plantation mentality.”

The plantation system is best exemplified by financial powerhouse programs directing their recruiting efforts at the lowest income neighborhoods. Now Miami Coach Howard Schnellenberger didn’t have that type of exploitative agenda; not at all. But he was the first to go into the rough neighborhoods that other coaches wouldn’t. He pioneered the concept and won national titles with it.

6. Big Shot

Could easily be the best CNBC “American Greed” special ever, had this doc been made under that umbrella instead. John Spano was not who he claimed to be, not even close. But he made me actually care about the ’90s New York Islanders, so that’s definitely accomplishing something! That’s the beauty of ESPN 30 for 30. The best ones transcend city, state, country, time or even sport.

7. The Best that Never Was

miami cheerleaders the u part 2

8. The U. Part 2

First you’ll learn all the big picture ideas that you need to know about how college football has developed over the past 40-50 years.

Then you’ll realize that the NCAA model of “amateurism” is even more broke than you could ever imagine. And that’s been broken since the 1970s.


9. Doc & Darryl

10. The Fab Five

Jalen Rose may be a horrible journalist (we’re still waiting on that Tom Izzo to the Detroit Pistons announcement), but he’s a very entertaining and interesting personality. Like the time he called Christian Laettner “a bitch,” or Grant Hill “an Uncle Tom.” Again these are his words through a vehicle of his presentation. Rex Chapman is an equally terrible journalist (Coach Cal is signing his new L.A. Lakers deal soon?), but he’s nowhere close to the showman that Rose is.!

Michigan Fab 5-jalen-rose-espn-30-for-30

11. Catching Hell

We’re all sick of Steve Bartman, I know. And even though he just wants to be left alone, I still find him annoying. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. Maybe I’m mistaking his fear for actual condescension. Or maybe he just is the most awesome human being on the planet and he’s above all of us. Whatever the abstract version of the truth, his story compels.


12. The Price of Gold

Was a zillion times better than the NBC Olympics documentary on the exact same topic. Bristol really slaughtered the peacock here. What’s interesting about that is NBC had the advantage of getting Nancy Kerrigan to talk, while ESPN could not. Therefore, The Price of Gold was much more focused on Tonya Harding. It works out well because Tonya is the much more interesting character. Villains usually are! Cue up that annoying overplayed Jaguar commercial “it’s good to be bad.”

Even though all human beings are too complex and contradictory in their behavior patterns to ever be classified as completely “good” or “bad.”


13. Youngstown Boys

Never thought I’d find Maurice Clarrett to be a sympathetic figure, but here we are. He did some things wrong, as did Jim Tressel, but the NCAA’s core is much more evil than both of these men combined; if they each lived a 1,000 years. (More here)

14. Trojan War

If you’ve already seen “The U,” “The U Part 2,” and “Pony Exce$$,” then you’ve also pretty much seen “Trojan War” already by default. The new film is the USC Trojans answer to the three ESPN Films 30 for 30 documentaries we just mentioned. Trojan War premieres tomorrow night, kicking off the new fall season of 30 for 30s.

USC trojans fans sarkisian

15. The Guru of Go

Very underrated. It’s niche-y and maybe I’m overrating it because I’m a basketball wonk, but you can’t see it and not feel for Paul Westhead

16. Four Falls of Buffalo

17. White, Blue and White

Directed by Camilo Antolini, the film explores Argentinian star Ossie Ardiles’ time playing overseas for Tottenham in London. A time when his native country and his new adopted home country went to war. Also, writing about this prompted one commenter to use the phrase “spineless fuckpigs,” and that’s worth the price of admission by itself.

18. Straight Outta L.A.


19. Requiem for the Big East

20. Benji

ESPN 30 for 30 that didn’t make the cut, but were VERY GOOD:

King’s Ransom, Roll Tide/War Eagle, Broke,  The legend of Jimmy the Greek, Small Potatoes: who killed the USFL?, Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks, Ghosts of Ole Miss, Catholics vs Convicts, The Two Escobars, Without Bias, Run Ricky Run, This is the XFL, Tim Richmond: To The Limit, Fernando Nation,  The Marinovich Project, Believeland


ESPN 30 for 30 that you can miss:

Elway to Marino (Even an NFL Draft dork like myself couldn’t pay attention to the whole thing),  The Band that Wouldn’t Die (might work as a short), June 17th 1994 (maybe I don’t get it?), Jordan Rides the Bus (not than interesting of a story to start from, Jordan was also never an interesting person), There’s No Place like Home (would have worked great as a short, but no one on Earth should care enough about the subject matter to spend two hours)

Bad Boys (tries too hard to be  a product that pluralizes with a Z, Bad Boyz), 


You Don’t Know Bo (Jackson is quite often an ornery sort, and the idea of centering a platform around him is not good for anybody. This might be the worst 30 for 30 that I’ve ever seen), 

No Crossover: the trial of Allen Iverson, Silly Little Game, Marion Jones: Press Pause

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports and TheBank.News, partnered with FOX Sports Engage Network. and News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times and NBC, contributes to Chicago Tribune.comBoldWGN CLTV and KOZN

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  1. Ashe Asha says

    The fuck you mean Bad Boys sucked?? It was freaking cool man!!!

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