'30 for 30': Highs and lows of ESPN

On the afternoon of June 17, 1986, Len Bias was selected by the defending champion Boston Celtics as the second pick of that year's NBA draft. In the early hours of June 19, Bias, a University of Maryland All-American, rounded up some friends and celebrated in his dorm room with cocaine. A lot of cocaine.

Around dawn, while sprawled on a mattress, Bias closed his eyes and began breathing in great, awesome gulps. His 6-foot-8, 210-pound frame quivered and shook and slumped on the bed. Then his heart stopped beating.

Bias' death unleashed a wave of shock and horror that swept over the university athletics department, trapped a score of lives in its wake, dashed hopes of a Celtics dynasty and changed the public perception of casual drug use. The cocaine binge and its consequences are the subject of "Without Bias," one of 30 sports documentaries commissioned by ESPN to mark its 30th anniversary.

The series "30 for 30" pairs filmmakers with stories that have significantly altered or elevated the world of athletics over the last three decades. "We were interested in topics that had resonated at one time but had faded from memory," said Keith Clinkscales, ESPN's senior vice president of content development.

The project exemplifies ESPN's turn away from dramas and mini-series like "The Bronx Is Burning" to focus on more documentary fare. Five years ago ESPN buckled under pressure from the NFL and, after a single season, canceled "Playmakers," a pro football melodrama that featured nudity and drug use. That show complicated ESPN's relationship with the NFL. (The network pays $1.1 billion a year to broadcast "Monday Night Football.")

Rather than generate controversy, the "30 for 30" films recycle it. "The stories we're telling are dramatic enough that we don't have to rely on putting scripted programming on our air to be provocative," said Joan Lynch, ESPN's vice president for content development.

From more than 150 nominees of such momentous sports stories, the staff of "30 for 30" eliminated intriguing contenders like the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe tennis rivalry and the Mike Tyson-Robin Givens marriage rivalry.

The network pitched the project to an all-star roster of sports-mad filmmakers and celebrities. All were encouraged to pursue their own style. In the final reckoning, Clinkscales said, passionate commitment outweighed past achievement.

The director Barry Levinson ("Diner," "Wag the Dog") was still reeling from the stealth move of his hometown Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in 1984. He longed to tackle the Baltimore Colts Marching Band, which played on for the 12 years the city lacked a football team.

Mike Tollin, a producer of HBOs "Arli$$," the feature film "Coach Carter" and other TV shows and movies, was just as eager to revisit the short-lived U.S. Football League. Tollin broke into the business 25 years ago with that renegade outfit and was sitting on three years' worth of archival footage.

Other entries in the series, which will run through December 2010, include "The Steinbrenner Family Business" by Barbara Kopple ("Shut Up & Sing," "Harlan County U.S.A.") and "Marion Jones: Press Pause" from John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood," "Four Brothers").

Kirk Fraser, the 33-year-old director of "Without Bias," grew up near the Maryland campus. "Everyone in the neighborhood had their own take on what they thought had happened that fateful night in the dorm room," he said. "I wanted to be the person to tell Len's story. I hoped to give others closure."

"Without Bias" is perhaps the most elegiac in the opening block of six documentaries, most of which play out like melancholy tone poems. That initial slate will run Tuesdays, kicking off this week with "Kings Ransom," directed by Peter Berg, a bittersweet look at the 1988 hockey trade of Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings from the Edmonton Oilers.

The Trade, as it came to be called, stunned Canada, left Gretzky's actress wife, Janet, vilified and proved that a franchise could succeed in a city with no hockey tradition.

"I was in France when the deal went down," said Berg, the creator and executive producer of the TV football drama "Friday Night Lights" and the director of the movies "The Kingdom" and "Hancock." "My best friend phoned me and said, in a trembling voice, 'Gretzky's coming to L.A."'

To Berg, a Kings season-ticket holder, the moment felt both unsettling and epochal. "It was as if a country's identity were at stake," he said. In a sense, it was. A Canadian legislator demanded that the government block the trade of a "national treasure."

The Ontario-born Gretzky had dominated his sport as few athletes have. Though he led the Oilers to four Stanley Cup championships, their cash-squeezed owner, Peter Pocklington, wanted to dump salary. When he dispatched Gretzky and his hefty contract to Los Angeles, Oilers fans burned Pocklington in effigy outside what was then known as Northlands Coliseum. "Kings Ransom" recounts the event in one chilling sequence.

Interviewed over five hours on the driving range of a golf course, Gretzky talks wistfully, if somewhat stiffly, of the Trade and its cultural impact. He says he regrets not winning another Stanley Cup but seems gratified by having helped broaden the game's appeal in the Sun Belt. (The success of the National Hockey League's strategy is mixed; though the Tampa Bay Lightning and Anaheim Ducks have won the Stanley Cup, the Phoenix Coyotes lose tens of millions of dollars a year and are the subject of a particularly nasty bankruptcy proceedings. Gretzky recently resigned as coach of the Coyotes.)

The most powerful passage of "Kings Ransom" involves Gretzky's final Edmonton press conference, which Berg shows in real time. Weeping openly, Gretzky, No. 99, flees the stage, too distraught to finish his valedictory. "For all its tragic elements, Wayne Gretzky's life is not a tragedy," Berg said. "He's still the Great One."

The same cannot be said for the Greatest, Muhammad Ali, whose penultimate prizefight is called an abomination in "Muhammad and Larry," an updating of a 1980 British television special by Albert and David Maysles. For three weeks the Maysles brothers ("Gimme Shelter" and "Grey Gardens") had shadowed Ali and Larry Holmes at their respective training camps in Pennsylvania. Refusing to rest easy in retirement, Ali, at 38, was aiming for a fourth heavyweight title against the 30-year-old Holmes, his friend and former sparring partner.

Ali assures the Maysleses that his quickness and ring smarts will outlast Holmes' youth. "I'm gonna shock the world," he promises. But from the opening bell, Holmes stabs Ali with snappy jabs to the head and keeps him against the ropes. Slow of reflex and with diminished endurance, sapped by a thyroid medication he didn't need, Ali survives until Round 11, when his corner throws in the towel.

The Greatest leaves the ring old, slow and punched out. In a freshly shot interview with Albert Maysles, now 82 (David died in 1987), Holmes is deferential: "I just didn't want to hurt Ali, but to hurt him enough to make him quit."

Ali was too proud to quit. And Albert Maysles said he was too respectful to follow-up with Ali, whose Parkinson's disease was probably brought on by repeated head trauma. "He's not in good enough shape to talk," Maysles said. "It would have been too sad."