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ESPN’s 30 for 30 brings depth to unsung sports stories

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Wayne Gretzky in “Kings Ransom” from 30 for 30 on ESPN.

In celebration of its 30th anniversary, sports cable network ESPN has commissioned an ambitious project more typical to the likes of HBO: a series of 30 short films, directed by a number of successful filmmakers and documentarians, chronicling a range of significant but lesser-known sports stories from the years the network has been on the air. ESPN is no stranger to behind-the-scenes sports documentaries, but in its best moments, 30 for 30 (Tuesdays, 8 p.m.) transcends mere TV storytelling and becomes a genuine home for documentary filmmaking, telling riveting stories that can easily capture the attention of even the sports-averse.

The first seven segments air over the next two months, with more to come throughout 2010. Of the four episodes available for review, only one (the premiere, Peter Berg’s “Kings Ransom,” which aired last week) botches its tale; two others (Barry Levinson’s “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” and Albert Maysles’ “Muhammad and Larry”) succeed artfully, while a fourth (Mike Tollin’s “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”) entertains but never escapes its made-for-TV feel. That’s a pretty good track record, and if the show can keep it up over 26 more installments, ESPN will indeed have built something remarkable.

The Details

30 for 30
Three and a half stars

It’s a shame to start off with Berg’s lazy, half-hearted “Ransom,” though, a lackluster take on the move of hockey great Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. Berg never teases out the underlying issues behind the event, only offering glimpses of what Canadian Gretzky meant to the people of Edmonton, and relying mostly on unrevealing interviews with the principal players. Worse, his interview with Gretzky takes place as the two play golf, giving the impression of a tossed-off encounter rather than a serious consideration.

Levinson immediately sets things right, though, with the fascinating feel-good tale of the Baltimore Colts marching band, which refused to disband after its namesake football team decamped for Indianapolis in 1984. Unlike Berg, Levinson has a great feel for what sports figures mean to the people of his hometown, and he frames the story of football leaving and returning to Baltimore (in the form of the current Ravens team) with the likeable, indomitable members of the band, who held out for 12 years before being able to retake their place as the official musicians of an NFL team.

Tollin, who was a TV producer for the short-lived United States Football League, makes “Small Potatoes” into a breezy, personalized account of the league’s rise and fall, but his style is functional at best, and his choice to focus all the blame on Donald Trump makes “Small Potatoes” feels a little lopsided. Still, it has passion for its tale, which is a quality that ties all these films together. Legendary documentarian Maysles (Salesman, Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) gives a you-are-there feel to his take on the brutal 1980 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes, combining footage he shot of the two training and smack-talking in 1980 with present-day interviews with Holmes and various sports commentators and Ali associates.

Each piece has a distinct style, from Tollin’s first-person account to Maysles’ direct cinema, and the hourlong time slot (translating to about 50 minutes of content) allows for stories to be told concisely without padding to feature-film length. It’s easy to think of ESPN as just a place for quick sports scores and glib commentary, but 30 for 30 proves that TV about sports can be artistic, thoughtful and moving.

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