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Dr. StrangeGlove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lockouts: ESPN’s 30 for 30

By Dan Saipher | TV | July 7, 2011 |

By Dan Saipher | TV | July 7, 2011 |

We’re headed towards unknown waters, sports fans; for the first time ever (?) the country will possibly be staring at its two highest profile professional sports leagues (I don’t count NASCAR until they start loading .50-cal machine guns on the hood) locked out. Trying to disseminate what is bullpucky and what is financial reality has little bearing on us, the consumer. However, there’s been an exceptional amount of progress on the NFL front; by the end of Friday, we may have the
framework in place for an agreement. The incentive is now even greater for the NFL to beat the NBA by getting back to business, even if that means skipping most of the preseason to usher out-of-shape behemoths onto the field in an asthmatic overture of pulled groin muscles and strained hamstrings. Knock on wood, let’s get this one done boys.

The hope, and perhaps the real financial bottom line, is that only time can sober up players and owners drunk on c-notes and due diligence reports. Everyone involved has yet to hit the days where they are supposed to be getting paid; the players yet to start bleeding savings accounts on, and the owners yet to figure out how to fuel up the G-5 without personal seat license monies. (*side note: there should be a Constitutional Amendment against PSLs*)

Regardless of how either league shakes up, we’re stuck on weekend afternoons flipping through pro bowling tournaments and wondering how many tchotchke tables at the flea market it takes before attempting to concuss oneself against the funnel cake truck.
So before we start finding throngs of sports fans locked up behind the window shades, scribbling ciphers and storing heavy weaponry in golf bags, let us endeavor to find solace in the sporting television programming that we can count on through the summer months and into the fall.

ESPN’s 30 29 for 30

No bigger monopoly exists on television (other than those Fascist blue-shirts at The Weather Channel!) than ESPN’s cobra clutch on sports. After spending so many years as the only game in town, ESPN has made it impossible for other networks to even make a dent in their success; they either have to cater to one specific piece of the market (i.e. NFL Network and regionalized channels like YES/NESN) or settle for B-List hosts and personalities with smaller budgets (FOX Sports).

ESPN has grown up, far past the flubbed lines and fourth-wall breaks of the early SportsCenter days and into a global beast. You can’t go more than 30 seconds with a sponsored tie-in (the “Bud Light Hot Seat,” “Coors Light 6-Pack,” “Steven A. Smith Yells At Things,” “Rachel Nichols Repeats Athletes Verbatim”). After being acquired by Disney, the channel moved away from a grassroots outfit in nowhere, Connecticut, and into a marketing beast. They now excel at promoting the superstar image, selling out every second for advertising space and driving you to with additional content and insulting, idiotic popularity polls (remember “Who’s Next”?).

But if there is one worthy, passionate, and unbiased project they have created in the last few years, it’s the 30 for 30 series. Conceived by Bill Simmons, ESPN launched a documentary series that handed creative control over to the director rather than the marketing team. The stories could be anything; notable moments or players seemed likeliest subjects, but something fresh and inventive happened instead. With an ESPN budget and zero corporate control, filmmakers told stories that meant something to them personally, stories that explored subjects without filters. They ranged from the Ali-Holmes fight of 1980 (Muhammad and Larry) to little league baseball (Little Big Men) to the fall of icons, such as Marion Jones (Marion Jones: Press Pause).

The documentaries air constantly amongst the family of ESPN networks, but now exist in collector’s box editions. With such a diverse group of directors no two films are the same.

Let’s hit on some of the highlights (and one exceptional low…):

“Into the Wind” by Steve Nash and Ezra Holland

This is the story of the Terry Fox Run, an amputee’s arduous quest to raise cancer awareness by running across the width of Canada in 1980. You can debate the truth of fate and a higher purpose, but the simplest construction is that Terry Fox was diagnosed with osteocarcoma, losing his right leg just above the knee at the age of 19. In all likelihood, the world would have been as ignorant of Terry Fox as the other 99.9% of living folks, but in the worst of situations rose an indomitable will to overcome, and to help others persevere.

After fighting with the medical ramifications his quest would entail, then-22 year old Terry set off from Newfoundland through North Atlantic maelstroms and spring snows west. That Terry succumbed to the shin splints and the tendinitis and cysts that developed about his prosthetic leg before finishing his run are tragic; that he inspired both the afflicted and the healthy is worth of heroic admiration. The Terry Fox Foundation

“The Best That Never Was” by Jonathon Hock

Every time you catch a YouTube highlight of a teenage prep star Mack Truck-ing his way through tackles on his way to a Florida or Texas or USC football scholarship, you want to believe that kid can be a transcendent star. But the one person you don’t want him to be is Marcus Dupree. Before the age of televised Signing Days and AAU-level meat markets, there was a demi-god from Philadelphia, Mississippi lining up seven yards behind the quarterback. The great treasure of 30 for 30 is that sometimes filmmakers find the unfound; in this case the high school reels that show us what looks to be Walter Payton playing Pee Wee Football.

For so many reasons, on the way to superstardom and the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, the human bullet train that was Marcus Dupree was derailed. The fragile, shy, 18-year old was unprepared to deal with Barry Switzer, head coach of an Oklahoma Sooner dynasty, and after a slew of injuries he tried to flee back to his home of Mississippi, naively unaware that you can’t just treat yourself like a college free agent.

The film dives into the darker side of sports; the old-fashioned handling of injuries and concussions that now appear to be as medically sound as bloodletting. There’s the manipulative uncle who Marcus trusted with his finances, repaired knees and an eventual NFL comeback. But the sense of wonder and amazement that comes with Jonathon Hock showing Marcus, and those who watched him in high school, archival footage found in a run-down shack is the sports equivalent of finding a Picasso in a storage unit.

“The Two Escobars” by Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist

The home-run of the bunch for me. If you are unaware of Andres Escobar, he was a soccer player for the Colombian National Team, infamous for scoring an own-goal against the United States in the 1994 World Cup. It was our biggest moment in the sport as a country; upsetting a fabulously talented team from South America that included phenomenal players such as Carlos Valderrama and Rene Higuita.
Two weeks after the mistake he made on the pitch, Andres Escobar was shot in a parking lot in the city of Medellin.

This film goes so far beyond simply talking about “soccer” that you have no need to understand the game. In parallel to Andres’ story is a deep social commentary that brings all the excesses of Scarface with none of the embellishment. It is a chronicle of Pablo Escobar (unrelated), a man who went from a mud hut with no electricity to cartel leader with a quarter-trillion dollar empire. It follows Escobar’s passionate support of soccer, his Robin Hood-like traits that helped build up Medellin and Colombia, and his instigation of the once-highest murder rate in the world. The Zimbalist brothers go further with their storytelling than even they thought possible, wondering if they were pushing far enough to find themselves in the crosshairs. Not only do they reveal much of Escobar the man, they are taken into a Colombian jail in front of his most trusted assassin, bonding through the interview process, past the sport of soccer and into the mindset of a people split by love of Medellin’s billionaire benefactor who just happened to moonlight as Colombia’s most dangerous domestic terrorist.

“The House of Steinbrenner” by Barbara Kopple

And now for the strikeout . How bad is this documentary? I’m a Yankee fan, and I’ve bled for the Bronx Bombers my entire life and thrown beers at Sawx fans in the right field bleachers (thank you to the Bostonian that retorted with an ice tea in the 6th, it was refreshing). But this film, this self-fellating ride through the greatest franchise in sports (it is, use it to hate us more), actually made me feel less proud to be a Yankee fan.

How bad is it? This film is to Yankee-haters as a Leni Riefenstahl film festival in Tel Aviv. It is forcing the Pope to watch gay porn. It combines all the ignorance of selective history with the iconography of those 28 World Series banners excusing Yankee fascism around the stadium concourse..

I dare you to watch it. Watch the glossing over of Steinbrenner’s legacy, one that was rife with fifteen years of drought through the 80’s, topped by Steinbrenner’s suspension for hiring a Mafioso to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield and a revolving door for a manager’s office. Watch Yankee fans caught flat-footed in front of the Old Yankee Stadium waxing poetic for the old cathedral. Sure, it smelled like piss, foot fungus, and sauerkraut cooked in a sweaty Persian’s armpit on a burning July day, but it was our stench. Don’t try to convince the rest of the world it don’t stink.

So, friends, how are you going to pass the fall months in absentia of modern Colossi crashing into each other with hardened plastic body armor ten seconds at a time? How will you get your fix when they close the gates of the Coliseum in your neck of the woods? Will the fervor of collegiate athletics suffice? How do you fill the void of fantasy sports when the spreadsheets table nothing but zeroes? Do you branch out into unknown channels of competition with wickets and googlys or the Geelong Cats versus the Saints of St. Kilda? Dr. StrangeGlove will be out there, searching for a reprieve from lockout fever.

Dan Saipher enjoys viewing “Around the Horn”, because everyone should get home and watch something that makes them feel smarter than a paid panel on the squawk box.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.