It started out as a one-paragraph e-mail in 2007. And only because I love documentaries. The goal of a well-written column and a well-done documentary is fundamentally the same: you pick a story that hasn't been fully explored yet, you throw yourself into it and you make it sing. I know how to write; I don't know how to make documentaries. But I know what makes for a good story. And in 2007, I wanted to see ESPN create more stories. So I sent my bosses a short pitch that hinged on three ideas rolled into one:
1. Our 30-year anniversary is coming up. We should do something.
(Note: ESPN loves celebrating ourselves. We're the dude in college who throws himself birthday parties. "Hey, I'm turning 20! Let's get a keg!" So I knew this would grab them.)
2. We should produce documentaries about 30 stories from that 30-year time frame, but with a slight catch. It can't be "SportsCentury: 30 Years of ESPN." We already did "SportsCentury." This needs its own wrinkle. So what if we imported a few well-known Hollywood filmmakers and give them complete creative control?
(Note: I had no idea how much this would cost to have Hollywood make all of them. I thought it would cost something like eleventy million dollars. But if we could land four or five filmmakers, that seemed slightly more realistic.)
3. The series should be called "30 For 30."
(Note: Great title. You have to admit. Rolls off the tongue. I remember trying to chest-bump myself when I thought of it.)
My bosses liked the idea. So did my friend Connor Schell, who was working as a production assistant on "Cheap Seats" at the time. Or maybe he was working as an executive for ESPN Content Development. I can't remember. Connor had an even better wrinkle: What if outside filmmakers made all 30 documentaries?
He swore we could pull it off. I didn't believe him. We started talking on the phone a lot. Actually, we were already talking on the phone a lot, but those conversations were about fantasy baseball and "The Real World." Now we were getting real work done. We made a master list of potential stories that we wanted to see ... and they had to be stories, not just a laundry list of "we'll do Jordan, we'll do Tyson, we'll do Magic" and so on. We were especially attracted to stories that resonated at the time but were eventually forgotten for whatever reason. Like the unique connection between Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble. Like Tim Richmond taking NASCAR by storm, disappearing just as quickly because of an "illness" (later revealed to be AIDS), then having his story covered up and dismissed. Like O.J.'s car chase, Escobar's own goal and Jimmy the Greek's career imploding in just a few sentences. Like the 2004 Red Sox winning four incredible games in four nights against the Yankees; even if the big picture theme had been beaten to death, the small picture theme (every remarkable twist from Game 4 through Game 7) had never really been told. We wanted people to say, "Wow, I forgot how [fill in a word: great, amazing, poignant, crazy, depressing, unbelievable] that was" or "I can't believe I never knew that whole story." We didn't want to check off a laundry list of the 30 biggest stories from 1979 to 2009. That's what our viewers would expect from us. We wanted to surprise them.
While we were coming up with ideas, we made a list of respected filmmakers and celebrities who also happened to be sports fans. This list kept expanding as we kept learning things like, "Hey, did you know so-and-so has been a Knicks season-ticket holder for 30 years?" and "Did you know that so-and-so has a crazy passion for NASCAR?" Then we made another list of filmmakers that we desperately wanted whether they liked sports or not, just because we respected them so much. (Important note: All copies of this list have been destroyed Oliver North-style and I now deny that it ever existed.) By the time we were done, it had turned into a mix-and-match game of those three lists, so we recruited John Dahl, Mike Tollin, Joan Lynch, Chris Connelly and the ESPN Films group to help us find the 30 best matches between stories and filmmakers. If there was no fresh take on the O.J. trial, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, Magic's HIV-driven retirement or any other "iconic" story from that time, then screw it -- we weren't going to assign those topics just to have them in the series. We wanted the best 30 matches. Period.
We hoped to land a few respected names early for a "domino effect" of sort. Everyone else would get a sniff and want to be involved. That's what we thought. We all started going out on meet-and-greets, and that's when something crazy happened, something we never anticipated: these people had been waiting for us. They had stories to tell. They just never thought they'd have a chance to tell them. Tollin broke into Hollywood by working in the USFL and happened to be sitting on three years of rare USFL footage. Yes, he wanted to direct a film. The great Albert Maysles followed Muhammad Ali around before the Holmes fight, filmed two months worth of incredible footage, even cut a 30-minute documentary about it ... but nobody wanted to purchase it because the fight itself had been so depressing. The film had been sitting in a warehouse for 27 years gathering dust. Yes, he wanted to be involved.
To our eternal amazement, the dominos started falling. Peter Berg's obsession with Wayne Gretzky is real. Ron Shelton brings an unequaled passion to minor league baseball. We found out that Steve Nash grew up idolizing the late Terry Fox, that Barry Levinson never really recovered from the Colts leaving Baltimore, that Steve James grew up in Virginia and remains haunted by the racism there and, specifically, how Allen Iverson's trial was handled. They all jumped aboard. Now the project was humming. These wouldn't be typical documentaries with highlights and talking heads and a chronological theme. These would be stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. That's what we wanted.
In many cases, the filmmakers did the brainstorming while we did a lot of nodding. Dan Klores had been fascinated not just by Reggie Miller's connection with Madison Square Garden, but how Reggie inadvertently became the most memorable thing about Patrick Ewing's prime with the Knicks. Has that ever happened before? An opposing player briefly hijacking the identity of another team? Our friends at NBA Entertainment wanted to make a film about how Yugoslavia's basketball team was ripped apart by the Bosnian War -- not just because it was a terrific story, but because they were sitting on a treasure chest of footage that nobody had ever seen. The talented crew from Rakontur Productions wanted to tackle the University of Miami in the same spirit with which they nailed "Cocaine Cowboys." How do you say "no" to any of those stories? These ideas would put the onus on the viewers, make them think, make them use their brains, make them wonder what might happen next. Everyone already knows what happened with the 1980 US Olympic hockey team. But how many people know what happened the night Mike Tyson knocked out Bruce Seldon in Las Vegas? That's what we wanted.
And that's how it went. We thought we would be shaping "30 For 30" like matchmakers on eHarmony.com -- let's give this idea to him, and this idea to her, and this one to them -- but really, the filmmakers shaped the series for us. Many of our we-gotta-do-these ideas never ended up happening: the rise and fall of Doc and Darryl; the Borg-McEnroe and McGwire-Sosa rivalries; the stormy marriage that submarined Mike Tyson's career; even the tragic death of Lenny Bias. We thought all of those concepts were locks. None of them made the cut. We were fine with that. You can't force this stuff. We ended up with 30 riveting stories for 30 years. We did not rank them. We did not count them down. We did not attempt to place them in any sort of context. We feel extraordinarily confident you will remember them.
Remember when I mentioned how we were hoping for a domino effect of sorts? It happened. And then some. This is the greatest collection of filmmakers ever assembled under the same umbrella. There has never been anything on television like "30 For 30" before -- a network handing over 30 stories to gifted talents and trusting that they will deliver. Which they will.
And if they don't deliver? Then please know this was all Connor's idea.