The 20 Best “30 for 30” Films

“What if I told you”


The words above echoed in each “30 for 30” trailer and allowed each film to explore the behind-the-scenes of some of the most famous and infamous moments in sports history. But what if I told you that some of the best documentaries of all time were a part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. A series that has showcased some of the most inspiring and ultimately some of the most depressing sports-related stories. What started in 2009, has turned into one of the most entertaining and riveting tv-documentary series we have ever seen. What I love most about each documentary is the amount of heart each one has. No matter what the story is about, each one allows you to experience something so genuine and authentic. If you think you know these athletes, think again. These films will showcase some of the most famous stories and athletes in ways you never could have imagined.

Making a list of only the 10 best films was near impossible, so I give you the 20 best “30 for 30” films ranked in order!









20. Bernie and Ernie

The “Bernie and Ernie Show” was such a joy to watch. These two players were so passionate and talented, and genuinely loved the game of basketball. This simple and innocent story is able to beautifully capture a friendship that blossomed on and off the court. And in the midst of the simplicity, one of the most disturbing moments in the “30 for 30” series unfolds as Bernard King is assaulted by a Policeman. A scene that will leave you truly shaken.





19. This Magic Moment 

Similar to Bernie and Ernie, this documentary examines the relationship between Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway, and ultimately O’Neal and the Orlando Magic. But more importantly the luck and fate of the Orlando Magic’s first few years in the NBA are on full display. The story may not be vividly entertaining, but you can’t deny the impact this story had on the history of the NBA. Also who doesn’t love the wisecracking ‘Lil Penny.




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18. Catholics Vs. Convicts 

One of the many “30 for 30’s” to feature a historic rivalry. This documentary explores how the rivalry between the traditional Notre Dame Irish and the rebellious Miami Hurricanes came into existence, along with the intriguing backstory of the “Catholics Vs. Convicts” t-shirt. The football games are thrilling and the players are overly passionate. But what makes this documentary so amazing is the story of Pat Walsh and how his childish ambition and passion for the game got the best of him.




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17. Run Ricky Run

Ricky Williams was one of the most talented and entertaining football players we had seen, and then one day, he just left it all behind due to drug allegations. Williams was brash and controversial, but you could not ignore his immense talent. A documentary that allegedly was made over the course of 5 years, as Williams asked his good friend to start documenting him towards the end of his career. This is one of the more intriguing looks at an athlete due to the quirkiness yet authenticity of Williams off the field.




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16. Trojan War

The rise and fall of the historic 2000’s USC football dynasty that was filled with a 34 game wining streak, Heisman’s. and dozens of tragic secrets.  The glitz and glamour of California at the time is vibrantly shown and discussed throughout the documentary. The rise and fall of Reggie Bush is a remarkable tale. The cunning and brilliant Pete Carroll is in full force. And one of the best games ever played, the 2006 Rose Bowl, comes to life in a stunning way.




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15. Four Days in October

The triumphant underdog story of the 2004 Red Sox team that shocked the world to beat the stacked Yankees team in the World Series. It was their first World Series win in 86 years, and the beauty of their illustrious run is a thing of magic. The famous story still manages to create levels of tension and suspense due large in part to fantastic editing and interviews.





14. I Hate Christian Laettner

Christian Laettner is one of the most polarizing college basketball players to ever step on the court. You either hated him or loved him, but at the end of the day you couldn’t deny his skill. 4 consecutive final fours and 2 national championships is no accident. Laettner was arrogant and entitled, but this documentary shows the reasons behind his actions and the humble, more innocent side of Laettner that many never saw.





13. Youngstown Boys

Maurice Clarett dreamed of playing football at Ohio State. Jim Tressel dreamed of winning championships at Ohio State. The thing about dreams though, is that they are usually short-lived. This is a harrowing look at two individuals from Youngstown, Ohio who endured fame and success, and the ultimate downfall of sacrifice and punishment. Even through all of the misfortunes they endure, this documentary provides the viewer hope that their can still be second chances.





12. Four Falls of Buffalo 

In the early 90’s, the Buffalo Bills went to 4 straight Super Bowls, and lost every single one. Often viewed as the biggest “losers” in football, this documentary takes a deeper look at the circumstances that ultimately cost the Bills 4 chances at unfaltering glory. Even though you know the ultimate outcome of the story, this documentary excels at excellent storytelling that showcases not just the losing team, but the players who felt the unfathomable burden of these losses.





11. Bad Boys

Bad Boys is a joy to watch if simply to see how much more fun the NBA use to be. Don’t get me wrong, I love present-day NBA, but the Detroit Pistons from the late 80’s and early 90’s were just plain ol’ reckless and unforgiving on and off the court. These players didn’t care about the other teams, as they are seen fighting others, and even walking off the court during playoff games. But in the midst of all the roughness, this documentary provides a captivating look at the rise and fall of Isaiah Thomas, who became entranced with shaking off his innocent persona.





10. You Don’t Know Bo: The Legend of Bo Jackson 

This film takes a deeper look at the mythical sports legend that was Bo Jackson. A sports icon who redefined what it meant to be an athlete by playing at the highest level in 2 Major League sports. As incredible of an athlete he was, this films succeeds in showing Bo was in fact mortal. The interviews with a present-day Bo, who enjoys archery as a passion now, are a work of marvel.




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9. Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies

The newest “30 for 30” and the one that inspired me to make this list. “Best of Enemies” takes you on a incredible ride through the iconic and memorable 1980’s NBA rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers. You get to see the unforgettable NBA Championship games, the racial controversy that loomed over both teams, and of course the unwavering competitiveness between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. But more than anything, you ultimately get to see how this rivalry was the biggest thing that saved the NBA from going off the deep end.





8. The ’85 Bears

Some of the most iconic and egotistical football icons: Mike Dikta, Jim McMahon, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, and Buddy Ryan are put on fully display throughout this documentary. You get to relive the staunch and terrifying Chicago Bears defense that dominated the mid 80’s. But more importantly, you get to see the lighter and more touching side of many of the players and coaches. Seeing the toll that Buddy Ryan had taken over the years is truly heartbreaking to watch.





7. Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks

Reggie Miller turning to Spike Lee during the 1994 NBA Playoffs and signaling the Knicks “choking” is one of my all time favorite sports images. We are introduced to one of the most dramatic and exciting NBA rivalries of the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers in this unbiased film. Reggie Miller is arrogant and ruthless, but he backs up every trash talk with some of the best shooting we had seen at the time, as evident in this film. This documentary is pure entertainment from start to finish.





6. The Fab Five

In 1991, Michigan recruited quite possibly one of the most exciting and controversial basketball teams the world had ever seen. Even though Chris Webber refused to be interviewed, for obvious reasons, The Fab Five is a truly entertaining documentary about how five players beat the odds to stun the world with their unique style of play and arrogance. The story is famous, but the deeper look at the hate and ridicule that the team faced is incredibly disheartening.





5. Catching Hell

One of the few “30 for 30’s” to place its focus on a non-athlete, Catching Hell is a truly saddening tale of a innocent fan who became a scapegoat for a losing franchise. Steve Bartman infamously deflected a foul ball in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS and the rest is unfortunately history. This documentary shows the shallow impact that a sport can have on someones life and the ability to completely lose one’s ethics due to a losing culture. Also noted, is the impeccable telling of Cubs player, Bill Buckner, who made an innocent mistake as well, and the ultimate backlash that he endured because of it.




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4. The U Part 1 and 2

The U was one of the first 30 for 30’s I saw and boy was it a fun film. The U is obnoxious, brash, wild, and most of all, it is a powerhouse of a documentary, just like the Miami Hurricanes were as a team. I treat both parts as a singular movie and both are truly incredible when watched back-to-back. Whether you love the Miami Hurricanes or not, this documentary will have you screaming “It’s all about the U! It’s all about the U!”




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3. OJ: Made in America 

A true force of a film, OJ: Made in America is “30 for 30‘s” most extensive and detailed look at an athlete, and boy is it haunting. The documentary lasts 10 hours and covers almost every aspect of OJ Simpson’s roller coaster of a life. This documentary never forces you to take sides, but the horrific and downright awful stories will make you ultimately pick a side for your own. OJ is a figure like none other, and this documentary does an unbelievable job of showcasing him as both the terrific athlete and ultimately the less-than-terrific human being.




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2. Survive and Advance 

By far, the most inspiring and uplifting documentary out of all of them. The film shows the unbelievable odds that the NC State basketball team beat in 1983 led by the awe-inspiring head coach, Jim Valvano. Most people know this story, yet seeing it all unfold throughout this film is a work of beauty. The suspense and genuine excitement from each game (even though you know the outcome) are truly magical. And of course, Jim Valvano’s story of hope and passion, will leave you with tears every single time.





1. Fantastic Lies

An unnerving and unflinching look at the tragic Duke Lacrosse scandal that took place in 2006. A scandal that ultimately ruined/damaged the lives of so many innocent individuals. Most people know this case, and most people, including myself, assumed these preppy lacrosse players were guilty of such a horrible crime at the time. This documentary showcases the prejudice that still reigns heavy in our world. Being a Mass Communication major, this documentary especially hit hard as I was absolutely disgusted by the way the media handled this case and created the themes of rich vs. poor and white vs. black. Ultimately though this documentary tops the list because it shows these kids at their most scared and vulnerable. Kids, who were caught up in such an unfortunate situation. Kids, who simply wanted to play the game they loved.


Well that’s it! I hope you enjoyed it and make sure to comment below what were your favorite “30 for 30’s”!!!!


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