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OJ: Made in America
What it's about: The finest of the 30 for 30s details the life of Hall of Fame running back O.J. Simpson, from growing up poor in the "slums" of San Francisco, to starring at USC, breaking NFL records, becoming the most prominent pitch man on TV — "Go, O.J., Go!" — and then tearing it all down as he is accused of the abuse and eventually the murder of his wife Nicole Brown, and of her friend Ronald Goldman. O.J. was acquitted thanks to his capable and often creative legal team, but despite his freedom, the legend became a pariah who could never enjoy the life he created. Years later he ended up in jail, where many felt he always belonged, on charges of kidnapping and robbery.
What it's really about: Race, celebrity, and identity, though it's obviously not that simple. O.J. was a reluctant African-American icon for decades, and once told sports sociologist Harry Edwards: I’m not black, I’m O.J. "His quest," Edwards adds, "was to erase race as the defining factor in his life." So it became the ultimate irony that his trial, along with the acquittal of five officers videotaped beating Rodney King a few years earlier, added to the racial tension of an already divided country. When the film explains how O.J. sought to embrace African-Americans that supported him during the trial, he does so with little to no understanding of what their culture stands for beyond stereotypes. He got his wish. He is just O.J., for all the good and the bad that label now includes.
I Hate Christian Laettner
What it's about: One of history's greatest college basketball players, Christian Laettner, is also one of the sport's most despised figures. He led Duke (also pretty despised) to four Final Fours and two championships during his time at the university, and somehow elevated his game on the biggest stages. His famous buzzer beater against Kentucky in 1992, capping a perfect 10-for-10 performance, is ingrained in the sports consciousness, but many feel he shouldn't have been in the game after stomping on a rival’s chest earlier in the evening. Laettner proves that the line between hero and villain can be very, very thin.
What it's really about: Schadenfreude. Laettner was handsome, white, and confident. He was a gifted athlete who went to an elite Southern school, he crushed the hopes of opponents at nearly every turn, and he always seemed to get a pass when things didn't go his way. It doesn’t matter that he grew up blue-collar and worked as a janitor to help pay his way through high school, or that his success was a product of his efforts in the gym. People wanted him to fail and relished his mediocrity in the NBA (if you can call 13 seasons and more than 11,000 points mediocre). But his was a life and a career earned, not given. He just did it his way. So who's the real asshole here?
What it's about: Just as the NBA was hitting its artistic apex in the 1980s thanks to Jordan, Wilkins, Magic, and Bird, the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons came out to prove that basketball was still a physical game. Through strength and fundamentals, speed, toughness and a touch of brilliance and imagination from point guard Isiah Thomas, they changed the sport in the late-'80s and proved that no matter how flashy your top scorer might be, defense still wins championships.
What it's really about: Persistence. To be the best, you've got to beat the best, which meant falling short to Bird's Celtics, often in grueling contests. It meant creating the famous "Jordan Rules" to hold back history's greatest player. And it meant being within three points of the ultimate goal before losing a game seven to the Lakers in 1988. The Pistons finally won back-to-back titles the following seasons, and a championship is so much sweeter when you've put in the work, learned from mistakes, and redefined your sport in the process. Or in the words of Isiah, quoting the Ohio Players: "Heaven must be like this!"
What it's about: Most would assume Shawn Bradley, a 7-foot-6 center during the NBA's booming 1990s, would have an advantage over everyone on the court. You know, like a sumo wrestler minding the net in the NHL. But 1993's second overall pick, just behind Shaquille O'Neal, is now most remembered for the times he was "posterized," or dunked on so fiercely by opponents like Tracy McGrady that the image is worthy of a bedroom wall. Bradley won some of those battles at the rim, too, totaling more than 2,100 blocks, but of whom much is given, much is often expected.
What it's really about: Humility. Bradley leaned on his pituitary anomaly to play 12 years in the NBA, and was indeed on the unfortunate end of some incredible dunks. One writer called him "the worst sight in professional sports." But it never really seemed to bother the center, a devout Mormon who never sought the NBA limelight. He was instead happy to play a game he loved while making roughly $70 million in the process, and happy to walk away when the time was right. He now works at a shelter for troubled kids and has plenty of better memories on his own walls.
What it's about: Security guard Richard Jewell was considered a hero of the 1996 Olympic Games after he discovered three pipe bombs in a backpack during a concert at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. He alerted authorities and helped evacuate as many people as possible before it detonated, killing two and injuring 111. The world turned quickly on Jewell, though, as he became the FBI’s prime suspect for fitting the profile of the lone bomber. He was unfairly investigated by the media, resulting in damaging and often incomplete and inaccurate reports about his character and personal life. Jewell was eventually exonerated and won suits against many of the outlets responsible, but he could never get his life back. He died at 44.
What it’s really about: Trial by media, and our ability to tear a man apart out of fear. According to Jewell's lawyer, Lin Wood, "The FBI was under a lot of pressure to tell the world 'We got our man' while the world was still watching." It made those at the Olympics feel safe again, it made security, law enforcement, and the Games' organizers look strong and capable, and it made the journalists appear authoritative and diligent. But the film gives the last word to Jewel: "In their mad rush to fulfill their own personal agendas, the FBI and the media almost destroyed me and my mother," he said. "I thank God it is now ended and that you now know what I have known all along. I am an innocent man."
That Magic Moment
What it's about: Winning the NBA Draft Lottery can change a franchise. Winning two, in a row, can change the league. When Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway were picked by the Orlando Magic in back-to-back Drafts, they created a young super team destined to win multiple titles. The men, along with veterans including Horace Grant and Nick Anderson, picked off Jordan's Bulls in 1995 and were overwhelming favorites in the Finals before their inexperience finally caught up to them against the defending champs from Houston. When Hardaway's rising profile created a rift between the All-Stars, Shaq left for L.A. The rest is history.
What it's really about: You don't know what you got until it's gone. A lack of maturity, and a failure of confidence after losing game one in humiliating fashion to the Rockets in the 1995 Finals destroyed what was a potential NBA juggernaut. Everyone made it out alive, and went on to have solid careers (you may have heard of Shaquille O'Neal), but it's worth wondering what could have been, and how the NBA might have been different, if egos had not gotten in the way.
What it's about: The 1985 Bears arguably put together the best single season in NFL history, with an all-time defense built by Buddy Ryan, and an offense featuring the transcendent talents of Walter Payton and Jim McMahon. The team lost only one game all season and dominated the Patriots 46-10 in the Super Bowl, but fans of great football can't help but look back and wonder how a team that could have owned the 1980s walked away with only one title.
What it's really about: Men on a mission, and the toll it takes. A dynasty may seem more historic, but as time drags on, the legend of the '85 Bears seems to have eclipsed that of Montana's famous 49ers. The Bears focused all their energy and efforts into one season for which they will forever be remembered, and the effects were drastic. Many gave up their bodies and minds, and Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson ultimately took his own life when he could no longer live with the effects of CTE, caused by a multitude of concussions he suffered on the field. It may not seem worth it, but when asked if they'd do it again, most admit they wouldn't hesitate to suit up.
What it’s about: In 1988, Canadian 100m sprinter and genetic marvel Ben Johnson was the fastest man in the world. He owned rival Carl Lewis during the season and won Olympic gold by running a record-shattering 9.79 seconds. But as quickly as Johnson ascended to the top of his sport, his reputation came crashing down. He was found guilty of using steroids days after the race in Seoul, stripped of his medal, and eventually banned from competition for life after another failed test in 1993. Lewis was awarded gold, and no one would eclipse Johnson's tainted 9.79 until 1999.
What it's really about: The lengths people will go to win. Johnson believes a celebratory drink was spiked by Lewis's friend (who doesn't deny it in the film) prior to the '88 drug test. But Johnson also admits to doping, and knows he wasn't the only one. Lewis, who eventually won nine Olympic gold medals, was caught with three drugs in his system during the Trials but was cleared to race in Seoul, and of the top five finishers in the 100m Olympic event that year, only one never failed a drug test. When Dr. Don Catlin of the UCLA Olympic Lab went back to retest hundreds of samples from the 1984 Olympics with modern methods, he was so overwhelmed by additional drugs he found that he stopped. "Better not to do this," he said. So Carl Lewis lives on as an icon of American sports. Ben Johnson exists as a cautionary tale.
You Don’t Know Bo
What it's about: Bo Jackson is maybe the greatest athlete we've ever seen. He was an All-Star baseball player who could crush home runs and literally scale walls at top speed, and an NFL running back so talented and strong he ran through opponents (and through endzones). He likely could have been a hall of famer in any sport, and even his video game equivalent is revered among sports fans. But Jackson suffered a catastrophic hip injury early in 1991 from which he could never really recover. His career remains one of the ultimate what ifs in pro sports.
What it's really about: Enjoying the moment. Bo transcended the insane sports culture of the 1980s, thanks to his mythical feats and famous "Bo Knows" Nike campaign, but people are somehow still disappointed by his career. He never won a title, never earned an MVP, and had effectively disappeared from sports by the time he turned 30, but for a few years he was one of the greatest we've ever seen. Maybe that should be enough.
The Two Escobars
What it's about: In 1994, Colombian soccer star Andres Escobar accidentally scored an own-goal while playing in the World Cup's opening stage against the U.S., resulting in his vaunted team being eliminated from the tournament. It was seen as an embarrassment for the country, and in retaliation for the mistake, Escobar was gunned down outside a nightclub in his hometown five days later.
What it's really about: National identity. Success on the international stage can help reshape a country's image, something Colombia was in desperate want of in the early 1990s. So in walked the other Escobar, Pablo, baron of the Medellín Drug Cartel whose meteoric rise and fall was conveniently linked to the fates of the Colombian soccer team, according to directors Jeff and Mike Zimablist. But, they said, "It became clear this was far from a classic deal-with-the-devil narrative. Rather, this was the story of the passions and dreams of a people intrinsically tied to the rise and fall of a team." A look at both Escobars helps to explain the tensions in a country defined by murder trying to escape its past.
What it's about: It might seem impossible to squander millions of dollars in a few short years, but that's the reality for a large contingent of pro athletes. A Sports Illustrated report in 2009 discovered that 60 percent of NBA players go broke within five years of retirement, and 78 percent of NFL athletes have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress. Yes, "professional athletes blow a lot of money on useless crap," explained director Bill Corben. "But that's barely the tip of the iceberg."
What it's really about: Stepping into someone else's shoes. No one has to feel bad for a guy whose made and lost more money in a few years than most of us will see in a lifetime, but fans owe it to themselves and the players they love to understand the problem. Like everyone, athletes make bad investments, they give in to pressure from family and friends, they live beyond their means. The ego that drives them can also ruin them, and when the money is gone, so too are the freeloaders. It's great to dream about hitting a home run or scoring a touchdown, but few consider the downsides of being a sports hero, and don't realize "how easy it is to go broke."
Ali: The Mission
What it's about: Ali will always be remembered for the way he fought in the ring, and for the stance of peace he took against the Vietnam War, giving up his title and three years of his prime to be a conscientious objector. He is the greatest, for more reasons than a film will often allow. This 30 for 30 short focuses on the much lesser known, often unheralded story of when Ali flew to Iraq in 1990, just six weeks before Desert Storm, to broker the release of 15 American civilians being held as "human shields" by Saddam Hussein to deter U.S. strikes.
What it's really about: Diplomacy. Ali was asked by a young boy once what he would do when his career was over. Beyond sleep, his response was simple: "He [God] wants to know how do we treat each other, how do we help each other, so I'm going to dedicate my life to using my name and popularity to helping charities, helping people, uniting people." He lived up to his word, and many, much more than these 15, have him to thank.
Of Miracles and Men
What it's about: Every American knows the story of the 1980 USA hockey team, a shabby crew of college kids elevated to national heroes for (somehow) taking down the unbeatable Soviets — and going on to win the gold in a come-from-behind victory against the Fins. It's arguably our sports greatest moment; an echo of the underdog Americans triumphing over larger, more sophisticated rivals in red, this time amid the Cold War. For every winner there is a loser, for every hero a villain. This film tells their story.
What it's really about: Empathy. We thought these so-called Soviet "robots" were specifically bred to defeat Americans on the ice, "but given the beauty and creativity of their game," said director Steven Hock, "that never made sense to me." These, instead, were real men, good men, talented men whose roboticism was our misunderstanding of a sport perfected. Some of them went on to play in the NHL, most eventually lived lives outside the rink, but none on history's greatest hockey team ever really escaped the spectre of losing to a bunch of ragtag college kids from America.
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