By Kevin Sullivan
If you miss sports and are tired of watching replays of great games when you already know who wins, here is an incomplete, alphabetical list of my favorite sports documentaries. Most are inspirational and uplifting, and all are entertaining - perfect for these unsettling times and worth streaming while you wait for Sunday’s premiere of the highly anticipated ESPN documentary series “The Last Dance,” which chronicles Michael Jordan’s final season with the Bulls:
Andre the Giant (HBO): The most-watched doc in HBO Sports history, ATG earned a 94% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Tells the story of André René Roussimoff and his life with gigantism. Even if you are not a fan of sports or wrestling, this is incredibly compelling.
Battered Bastards of Baseball (Netflix): Chronicles the tale of the defunct Portland Mavericks minor league baseball team. Narrated by Kurt Russell, who played for the team. Really funny. Made some “best films of 2014” lists when it came out.
First Pitch (ESPN 30 For 30 Short): The story of President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 first pitch before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium, six weeks after the attacks. Derek Jeter, Billy Crystal, Joe Torre and Condoleezza Rice are among those interviewed.
The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain (Amazon Prime): In 2005, QB Mitch Mustain was the consensus high school football player of the year. He began his college career by leading Arkansas to eight straight wins. And then everything changed. A compelling story well told and another one that appeals to the non-sports audience. Narrated by Nolan Richardson.
The Russian Five (Amazon Prime): This one falls in the best-kept-secret category. I love the description from the film’s website:
Throwing off conventional wisdom, the new (Detroit Red Wings) GM looked to America’s mortal enemy in the Cold War, the Soviet Union itself. Through a plot that sounds like a spy novel, the Red Wings organization brought on one Russian after another, sneaking them out under cover of night and whisking them to the Motor City, only to find that the new players faced another problem: Integration. The film follows the stories of the five Russian players that emigrated to America, took root in Detroit, Michigan, and struggled to fit in, all while training day and night to become Stanley Cup champions.
Once Brothers (ESPN 30 For 30): There are so many great docs in the 30 For 30 library and this is my favorite. From the ESPN description: Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac were two friends who grew up together sharing the common bond of basketball. Together, they lifted the Yugoslavian National team to unimaginable heights. After conquering Europe, they both went to America where they became the first two foreign players to attain NBA stardom. But with the fall of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991, Yugoslavia split up. A war broke out between Petrovic's Croatia and Divac's Serbia. Long buried ethnic tensions surfaced. And these two men, once brothers, were now on opposite sides of a deadly civil war.
Posterized (ESPN 30 For 30 Short): This is the story of how 7-6 Shawn Bradley came to grips with being considered a disappointment by others. The title refers to the many YouTube videos that feature the 7-6 Bradley being dunked on by opponents. Bradley, who played for the Dallas Mavericks when I worked there, initially refused to participate in the film. Ultimately, he does a terrific job reminding us that there are more important things in life than basketball. P.S.: Bradley had a solid career that included a magical night in April 1998 when he became the first player in NBA history to record 20 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks off the bench.
Qualified (ESPN 30 For 30): The mostly forgotten story of Janet Guthrie, the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. As a kid, I followed the Indy 500 closely each year and while I thought I knew this story, there was so much I didn’t know. A very timely and inspirational story of triumph over long odds and unfair obstacles.
This Was the XFL (ESPN 30 For 30): Like the Shawn Bradley doc, this one is personal for me as I lived through the XFL saga as VP of Comms for NBC Sports. I make a two-second cameo in footage from the Jesse Ventura news conference – one of the toughest days I experienced at NBC, but that’s a story for another time. Charlie Ebersol did a terrific job telling the story of this wild ride. Given the failure of the Alliance of American Football and the re-booted XFL, this one is bittersweet all the way around.
Willie (iTunes): Subtitled, “How the descendant of escaped slaves changed hockey forever,” this is the story of Willie O’Ree, who in 1958 with the Boston Bruins became the first black player in NHL history. As if he didn’t have enough obstacles to overcome, he was blind in one eye. O’Ree is an extraordinary person and this is an extraordinary story. I had the high honor and privilege of working with O’Ree on his Hockey Hall of Fame induction speech in 2018. His inspirational story will stay with you for a long time.