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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 of the upcoming episodes, Big Shot and This Is What They Want. The documentary series, which also will turn its lens on the legend of surfer Eddie Aikau, the mid-1970s St. Louis Spirits and the showdown between boxing heavyweights Leonard and Roberto Duran, will return Oct. 1 for six consecutive weeks.
“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 30 for 30 presents balanced stories, even if those stories are at times 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, titled Tonya and Nancy, which will tell the now-legendary story of the 1994 event in which Harding had Kerrigan clubbed. 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 needed to be convinced. To hear Connolly tell it, he was swayed by the Entourage co-star, 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, ” says Connolly, 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. The Long Island native admits his take softened as he got to know his subject, 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 Connors and many of his former friends and rivals very much involved. The co-directors, both of whom suggest they’re interested in the more emotional 30 for 30 segments, say they opted to focus on Connors because they wanted to know how — and why — the controversial 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 behind that.
“Connors was a guy you either loved or you loved to hate, and we wanted to focus on what made this guy tick, what made him so super competitive that he seemingly hit his he almost refused to step off the stage as a tennis player,” notes Levien. “And when he had reached an age, 39 years old, when most of us are happy to go into or weekend warrior phase, this guys was out there battling 20 year olds and going to the semifinals of the U.S. Open.”
Also of interest was the color Connors brought to the sport, one that both helmers say no longer exists in a game that has become increasingly corporate. “The personal animus is gone now. The guys now are so respectful of each other,” says Koppelman, referring to current tennis stand-outs like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, adding: “When you talk to [John] McEnroe and Jimmy, they really couldn’t stand each other and they brought that onto the court.”
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