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Volume 22 No. 28
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What’s your favorite ‘30 for 30?’ Key players in series share theirs

In the spring of 2014, Bill Simmons, the co-creator of ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” series, and Jalen Rose hosted a live show with basketball hall of famer Isiah Thomas. The show followed the premiere of the “Bad Boys” documentary about the Detroit Pistons teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Simmons recalled how Thomas became emotional that night.

 

“Truly one of the highlights of my career,” Simmons said. “Those guys felt underappreciated for 25 years, and then we treated their legacy properly and left him absolutely overwhelmed. What a cool night that was — and I’m a Boston fan.”

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the series launch. It started Oct. 6, 2009, with Peter Berg’s “Kings Ransom” about Wayne Gretzky’s decision to leave Edmonton for Los Angeles.

All told, ESPN has produced 91 documentaries under the “30 for 30” banner, the most recent being “Rodman: For Better or Worse.” The series has picked up multiple Sports Emmy awards and its “O.J.: Made in America” won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Simmons, who developed the series with ESPN’s Connor Schell, said “Bad Boys” was the most memorable because it shined a new light on a familiar story.

“That’s the beauty of that series,” he said. “We could take a story that everybody thought they already knew, then flip the story on its heels and change your opinion on it. People hated that team, and by the end of that doc, you couldn’t hate them. Those are the best kind of stories and ultimately that’s why the series worked.”

I reached out to several of the people who were instrumental in developing and growing the series. I wanted them to identify their favorite “30 for 30,” along with one sentence explaining why.

George Bodenheimer

Former ESPN president

Bodenheimer was ESPN’s president when “30 for 30” launched.

“‘A Kings Ransom,’ because it led the way.”

 

 

John Skipper

Executive chairman, DAZN Group

Skipper ran ESPN’s content division when “30 for 30” launched.

“While the most important ‘30 for 30’ was the O.J. doc, my personal favorite is ‘The Two Escobars.’ The conversation with Andrés Escobar’s widow was revelatory. And the anthology’s ability to harmoniously interweave narratives was on display, juxtaposing global soccer culture with the impact of drug money on Colombia.”

Connor Schell

Executive vice president of content, ESPN

Schell is a co-creator of the series.

“This is so difficult for me because I have 15-20 legitimate answers to this question. ‘Once Brothers,’ ‘Winning Time,’ ‘The U,’ ‘The Two Escobars,’ ‘Survive and Advance,’ I could go on and on. But the answer is ‘O.J.: Made in America’ because not only was Ezra Edelman’s film so creatively excellent on its own, but it also represented a level of ambition in storytelling and form that was only possible because of the quality of all of the incredible work that came before it that had built the credibility of ‘30 for 30.’”

Bill Simmons

Founder, The Ringer

Simmons is a co-creator of the series.

“My favorite ‘30 for 30s’ were ‘The Two Escobars’ (degree of difficulty: 9.9), ‘Winning Time’ (creative, masterfully crafted and addictively rewatchable) and ‘June 17th’ (our team collectively came up with a cool idea and Brett Morgen killed it). 

 

John Walsh

Former executive editor at ESPN 

Walsh was an executive producer on the series when it launched.

“‘The Two Escobars’ because it represented the best of what the originals intended for ‘30 for 30’: Young filmmakers showing what they could do, unique idea, concept and vision, a story that mattered in both sports and news, and reactions that told viewers to pay attention to ESPN storytelling.”

Libby Geist

VP and executive producer, ESPN Films and Original Content

Geist started as an associate producer for ESPN Films in October 2008.

“So hard to pick a favorite but ‘The Price of Gold’ really stands out as a favorite film and all-time great working experience. Getting to watch director Nanette Burstein work her magic on such a crazy story, and then realize we helped inspire the box office hit ‘I, Tonya’ was pretty unforgettable.”

John Dahl

Vice president and executive producer, ESPN Films and Original Content

Dahl has been an executive producer on the series since the first season.

“‘The Best That Never Was.’ To see the way Marcus Dupree watched that previously lost film of himself in his prime is to understand the essence of what might have been.”

Jay Jay Nesheim

Senior director, communications, ESPN

Nesheim has overseen PR for the series since 2011.

“‘Unguarded’ by director Jonathan Hock, is one of my absolute favorites — telling the powerful story of former NBA player Chris Herren who fulfilled his dream to play for the Celtics before nearly losing everything to a devastating addiction. It is an amazing story of recovery and redemption. Today, Herren continues to spread a message of hope with speaking engagements across the country.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ and read his twice-weekly newsletter.