ESPN’s SportsCentury Documentaries: My 100 Favorites

Here is my list of my 100 favorite ESPN SportsCentury documentaries.  ESPN started the series in 1999 on ESPN Classic to commemorate some of the greatest athletes or sporting events of the 20th century.  The series continued for several more years. ESPN did such a great job with the interviews, the footage, the descriptions of the players’ lives from the beginning to the end, the music, and putting everything together.  I believe that SportsCentury is the best documentary series I’ve ever seen.  It is truly inspiring.  VH1’s Behind the Music comes in second.

ESPN did documentaries on the top 100 athletes of the 20th century.  They also featured top coaches, all-time great games, and other sports figures who were notable for other reasons besides their athletic success.  Altogether, there were 265 total episodes.

I started this list with the intention of listing my favorite 25 episodes but the project just kept growing and growing.  In order to get a high ranking on this list, there has to be an interesting story.  This is not a list of great players with the best at the top.  Many of the stories center around athletes who were involved in some kind of controversy or problem, recovered from or died from various illnesses, or beat some type of odds.

Note that there are great players whose episodes I rank much lower than they would have been had this list been solely based on their sports careers rather than their stories, such as Wayne Gretzky (49), Willie Mays (64), Lawrence Taylor (74), Barry Sanders (77), Mario Lemieux (81), Jerry Rice (99), and Pete Sampras (100).

At the same time, there are athletes whose stories are so compelling that their episodes ranked much higher than you would have thought, including Brian Piccolo (4), Moe Berg (13), and Jim Bouton (23).

So here’s my list, and like any list, it’s totally subjective.  I saw a lot of them back in 1999 and again this year when ESPN Classic replayed them.  To be honest, there are probably several I haven’t seen but I include anyway because of a combination of their sports careers and their life stories.

  1. Ernie Davis.  All-American Syracuse running back died of cancer his rookie year with the Cleveland Browns.
  2. Jackie Robinson.  First black player in major league baseball encountered unbelievable racism and handled it gracefully.
  3. Disciples of Jackie Robinson.  Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays and others still had to endure racism years after Jackie Robinson’s career was over.
  4. 1972 Olympic Basketball Final.  The U.S. team got ripped off in a very controversial loss to the Russians.
  5. Brian Piccolo.  Piccolo, a Chicago Bear running back, died of cancer.  His life was made into a famous movie, “Brian’s Song.”
  6. Hank Greenberg.  One of the few Jewish players in the major leagues in the 1930s and 1940s had to endure discrimination and was a role model for Jewish people.
  7. Marvelous Marvin Hagler.  One of the greatest boxers of all-time was so devastated by the controversial loss to Sugar Ray Leonard that he moved to Italy.
  8. Jim Brown.  The greatest football player ever also was a spokesman for civil rights and did a lot to prevent gang violence.
  9. George Foreman.  One of the most feared boxers ever underwent a transition from Grizzly Bear to Teddy Bear.
  10. Winter Olympics at Lake Placid:  USA beats USSR in hockey (1980).  The Miracle on Ice – a bunch of U.S. amateurs upset the vaunted Russians.
  11. Mark Fidrych.  One-year wonder baseball pitcher became ultra famous his rookie year.
  12. Georgetown – Villanova.  One of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.
  13. Michael Jordan.  Greatest basketball player ever.
  14. Moe Berg.  Baseball catcher was a spy for the U.S.  Life reads like a movie.
  15. Pete Rose.  Hall of Fame career became Hall of Shame after betting on baseball.
  16. Connie Hawkins.  Playground basketball legend was banned college basketball and the NBA for alleged point shaving despite never being charged with anything.
  17. Roy Campanella.  All-star catcher suffered a car crash that paralyzed him from the waist down.
  18. Wilt Chamberlain.  Otherworldly center put up stats that couldn’t be touched today.
  19. Pele.  Greatest soccer player ever.  Sold out Giants stadium in New York regularly at the end of his career.
  20. Jesse Owens.  Olympic Sprinter won 4 gold medals in 1936 in Berlin and disproved Hitler’s theory of racial superiority.
  21. Magic Johnson.  Best point guard ever announced in 1991 he had contracted the HIV virus.
  22. Pete Maravich.  Magician with the basketball died young of a heart attack.
  23. Ball Four (Jim Bouton).  Wrote tell-all book about drugs and sex in baseball and was ostracized from the game because of it.
  24. Alonzo Mourning.  All-star center came back from a kidney transplant to win an NBA championship.
  25. Joe DiMaggio.  Famous for 56-game hitting streak, obsession with how he was perceived, and marriage to Marilyn Monroe.
  26. Bill Walton.  College player of the year won an NBA championship but career was nearly destroyed by devastating foot injuries.
  27. Dolphins – Chargers 1981.  One of the greatest NFL games ever with classic image of Kellen Winslow being carried off the field.
  28. Jim Thorpe.  Possibly the greatest all-around athlete ever overcame discrimination as a Native American.
  29. Maurice Stokes.  One of first black players in NBA, star’s career and life were cut short by an injury.
  30. Babe Ruth.  Greatest home run hitter ever led a colorful and mythic life.
  31. Arthur Ashe.  First black man to win Wimbledon was also involved in humanitarian causes.
  32. Bo Jackson.  One of the greatest athletes ever was a two-sport star.
  33. 1997 NBA Finals, Game 5.  Michael Jordan had a great performance in a win over the Utah Jazz despite having a terrible episode of the flu.
  34. Bobby Hull.  One of the greatest scorers in hockey history wasn’t so great off the ice.
  35. Bob Knight.  Great coach with a very bad attitude.
  36. Dennis Eckersley.  Talented starting pitcher remade himself into Hall of Fame reliever after recovering from alcoholism.
  37. Mickey Mantle.  Hall of Fame slugger could have been even better if he hadn’t been an alcoholic.
  38. Lance Armstrong.  Recovered from cancer to win 6 Tour De France titles.
  39. Ali vs. Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” (1980).  Spectacular fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
  40. Denny McClain.  Baseball’s last 30-game winner was disgraced after being imprisoned for racketeering and other charges.
  41. Muhammad Ali.  One of the greatest fighters of the 1960s and 70s changed his name, gave up his career to protest the Vietnam War, and became the most famous athlete in the world.
  42. Larry Bird.  The hick from French Lick was one of the greatest NBA players ever.  His father committed suicide, and Bird didn’t talk to his daughter for many years.
  43. Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon thriller (1980).  Two of tennis’ all-time greats with contrasting styles and personalities play a match for the ages.
  44. Bill Russell.  One of NBA’s best ever centers won 11 championships and fought racism in Boston.
  45. Jerry Lucas.  One of NBA’s top 50 all-time players was also an intellectual genius.
  46. Johnny Unitas.  Helped put pro football on the map as one of games greatest quarterbacks.
  47. Walter Payton.  NFL’s all-time leading rusher died of a liver ailment.
  48. John McEnroe.  7-time Grand Slam winner was the bad boy of tennis.
  49. Rick Pitino.  Successful college basketball coach struggled after best friend/brother in-law died in 9-11 attacks.
  50. Wayne Gretzky.  The Great One.
  51. Jack Johnson.  Became the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world in 1908.  Needless to say, encountered a great deal of racism.
  52. Hank Aaron.  All-time home run king overcame terrible racism during history-making run.
  53. Roger Maris.  Broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run record but was not loved by fans or media and later died of cancer, possibly due to the stress of the home run race.
  54. Stan Musial.  One of the greatest baseball players ever, Stan the Man didn’t get the credit he deserved, probably because he played in St. Louis instead of New York.
  55. Ty Cobb.  All-time hit king was a nasty racist.
  56. Reggie White.  Possibly more important to Green Bay’s 1996 Super Bowl championship than Brett Favre, White died of a heart attack due to sleep apnea at 43.
  57. Steve Carlton.  Stellar pitcher became a recluse who would not talk to the media.
  58. Vince Lombardi.  Legendary NFL coach led Packer dynasty of 1960s.
  59. Albert Belle.  Cantankerous slugger made Barry Bonds look like Will Rogers.
  60. Bobby Orr.  One of hockey’s all-time greats.
  61. Cal Ripken, Jr.  Baseball’s record holder for most consecutive games played.  Controversy surrounded whether Cal should have sat down toward the end of the streak to rest.
  62. Julius Erving.  Before Michael Jordan, there was Dr. J.
  63. Billie Jean King.  Made women’s tennis big and participated in famous match vs. Bobby Riggs to help the cause of women’s sports.
  64. Sandy Koufax.  No one was more of a dominant pitcher for a short period of time.
  65. Willie Mays.  Some call him the greatest baseball player ever.
  66. NFL Championship:  Baltimore Colts vs. New York Giants (1958).
  67. Charlie Finley.  Colorful owner of Oakland A’s in 1970s created unique promotions for the championship team which had a rebel style.
  68. Pat Tillman.  Arizona Cardinals safety gave up millions of dollars and an NFL career to join the military but was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
  69. Eric Lindros.  Star-crossed uber talented hockey player was controversial for his father’s involvement as his agent.  Multiple concussions compromised his career.
  70. Terrell Owens.  Supremely talented wide receiver who is followed by controversy everywhere he goes.
  71. Darrell Strawberry.  Great baseball career could have been much better had he not been addicted to drugs and alcohol.
  72. Dick Butkus.  One of the fiercest NFL players ever.
  73. Don King.  Successful boxing promoter was accused of shady deals.
  74. John Daly.  Golfer had troubles with alcohol, gambling, and women.
  75. Lawrence Taylor.  Best defensive player in NFL history struggled with drug addiction.
  76. Billy Martin.  Colorful and alcoholic manager for the New York Yankees was fired three times by George Steinbrenner.
  77. Doug Flutie.  Famous for a Hail Mary Pass that defeated Miami, the Boston College quarterback went on to win 6 MVPs in the Canadian League and would have been a great NFL quarterback had he been given the chance.
  78. Barry Sanders.  One of the greatest running backs ever, like Jim Brown, retired in his prime.
  79. Bob Gibson.  Mean, legendary fastball pitcher.
  80. Willie Jeffries.  First black coach of a Division I-A college football team.
  81. Larry Brown.  Restless coach improved almost every team he coached but usually moved on before he unpacked his bags.
  82. Mario Lemieux.  One of the greatest hockey players ever recovered from cancer.
  83. Ted Williams.  One of the best hitters in major league history homered in his final at bat.
  84. Satchel Paige.  Negro League legend finally made it to the majors at 42.
  85. Jennifer Capriati.  Tennis Wunderkind overcame personal problems to make a successful comeback.
  86. O.J. Simpson.  Great NFL running back is now mostly known for being acquitted of the murder of his ex-wife and her friend.
  87. Joe Namath.  Quarterback helped popularize pro football when his AFL  Jets beat the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, leading to the merger of the two leagues.
  88. Woody Hayes.  Great coach’s career ended badly soon after he punched an opposing player during the Gator Bowl.
  89. Greg Norman.  Supremely talented golfer was most known for collapses in big events including the Masters.
  90. Sonny Liston.  Former heavyweight boxing champion was a feared fighter whose career was controversial at the end, as was his death.
  91. Jayson Williams.  Former NBA All-Star was charged with manslaughter after he allegedly covered up an accidental shooting.
  92. Andre Agassi.  Image was everything for this tennis player early on but he grew into a champion.
  93. Chris Evert.  Icon for her competitiveness and beauty, the ice queen was one of the greatest tennis players ever.
  94. Steffi Graf.  Possibly the greatest female tennis player ever, Graf’s father was imprisoned for tax evasion for his role in handling her money.
  95. Maurice Richard.  The Rocket was one of hockey’s all-time greats.
  96. Charles Barkley.  Outspoken and entertaining basketball player was one of the all-time greats.
  97. Eric Heiden.  Won five gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympics in speed skating and later became a doctor.
  98. Sam Huff.  Former N.Y. Giants linebacker changed the way the game was perceived by fans with a Time Magazine cover story and TV special.
  99. Jerry Rice.  Best wide receiver ever.
  100. Pete Sampras.  Possibly the greatest men’s tennis player in history.

There are a lot of transcendent players who weren’t featured in ESPN’s SportsCentury.  Maybe it’s because players wouldn’t agree to have documentaries done on them, but a couple that come to mind are Joe Montana and Monica Seles.  A feature on Seles would have been great.  Meanwhile, a couple of inclusions that make you go “hmmm” were Andy Roddick and Latrell Sprewell.  They were good players but did they deserve their own SportsCentury episodes?  I don’t think so.

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