Tennis legend Jimmy Connors, boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard and figure skating rivals Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding are among the latest subjects to get ESPN's 30 for 30 treatment.
ESPN Films vp Connor Schell was on hand Wednesday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour not only to announce the series' next installments but also to offer a deeper look at two, Big Shot and This Is What They Want. The acclaimed documentary series, which also will turn its lens on the legend of surfer Eddie Aikau, the St. Louis Spirits in the mid-1970s and the showdown between boxing heavyweights Leonard and Roberto Duran, will return Oct. 1 for six consecutive weeks.
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"We don't really chase stories [anymore]," Schell says of the critically acclaimed series, a brainchild of ESPN personality Bill Simmons. Having made 50 episodes at this point, the exec suggests that subjects who might previously have shied away from participating now recognize that the 30 for 30 series is designed to present balanced stories, even if those stories are often being told by subjective sports fans. He adds: "It's a platform where we're going to be fair to the subject matter."
Not that every subject jumps aboard. In fact, Schell acknowledges that he and his team have yet to convince Kerrigan to sit for the planned November doc, aptly titled Tonya and Nancy, which will tell the now-legendary story of the 1994 event in which Harding clubbed Kerrigan. The ESPN team has interviewed several close to Kerrigan and are still hopeful that she'll agree to participate in the way Harding has.
In the case of Big Shot, a Kevin Connolly-helmed documentary about John Spano, the Dallas conman who tried to buy the New York Islanders for $165 million nearly two decades ago, Spano required convincing. To hear the Entourage co-star tell it, he was swayed by Connolly, who made it clear that he was prepared to tell the story with or without him. "I just wanted to understand why he would do this and what was his endgame, " he says, adding that he was drawn to the story as a diehard Islanders fan.
The process of making the half-hour film, for which he had Spano's full participation, became a particularly personal one, notes Connolly. The Long Island native admits his take softened as he got to know Spano, who spent eight years in prison for his actions. "At first I was a gung-ho crazy Islanders fan, and then the real-life side of me saw him as a person. And when that happened I was able to tell a more balanced story, " he says, suggesting that Spano would say Connolly made good on his promise to present a fair portrayal.
For its part, What They Want, directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, will focus on Connors' 1991 U.S. Open run at age 39 and has Connor very much involved. The co-directors, both of whom suggest they're most interested in the 30 for 30 segments that skew more emotional, say they opted to focus on Connors because they wanted to know how -- and why -- the colorful tennis icon was able to turn himself into a warrior again and again. This idea that he'd still have the desire and edge to compete at nearly 40 was compelling, and they wanted to understand what was driving that. Also of interest was the color Connors brought to the sport, a color that both men say no longer exists in a game that has become increasingly corporate. "The guys now are so respectful of each other," says Koppelman, adding: "When you talk about [John] McEnroe and Jimmy, they really hated each other."