Why would major Hollywood directors want to enter the sports arena by helming documentaries for the ESPN series “30 For 30“? According to sports journalist, author, and executive producer Bill Simmons, it was a hard sell at first.
“I don’t know if people trusted ESPN with creative documentaries like that,” Simmons admitted. “The first five or six (directors) were the toughest ones. Once we got them, it was like dominoes… ‘Oh, this is real! I want in on this!'”.
ESPN, not known for contending at the primetime Emmys, is entering “30 For 30” into the Best Nonficiton Series race. Last year’s champ was the PBS series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” from filmmaker Ken Burns.
“30 For 30” profiles major and minor sports figures covered by ESPN in its first three decades. Among those hired to tell these stories were feature helmers Peter Berg, Barry Levinson, Frank Marshall, Ron Shelton and John Singleton and documentarians Barbara Kopple and Albert Maysles.
Chatting with Gold Derby senior editors Rob Licuria and Chris Beachum, Simmons revealed that the episode “Once Brothers” from NBA Entertainment will represent the series at the Emmys. It traces the rising tension between two NBA players — Serbian Vlade Divac and Croation Drazen Petrovic — who went from friends to enemies after their coutries went to war. Petrovic died in a 1993 car accident, an event that profoundly changed Divac, who narrated the special. Simmons said the choice of Divac as narrator, “was a stroke of genius. He has a great voice…kind of husky. You can hear the cigarettes in his voice.”
Other documentaries in the series included: “The Two Escobars” (Colombian soccer & the drug cartels), “Jordan Rides the Bus” (Michael Jordan giving up basketball for baseball), “The House of Steinbrenner” (George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees), “4 Days in October” (the Boston Red Sox improbable comeback against the Yankees), and “The Best That Never Was” (college football’s Marcus Dupree). Of Dupree, Simmons said, “He was really the epitome of unrealized potential. To bring him back to life… we kind of reinvented his story.”