Posted July 13, 2012 by Andy Foster in Television

Top 10 HBO Sports Documentaries

Runnin Rebels of UNLV
Runnin Rebels of UNLV

HBO’s critically acclaimed series Sports of the 20th Century and its 21st Century counterpart, Legends and Legacies, have produced some of the foremost sports documentaries of the past 25 years.  The network’s record for producing sports-related feature films has been exemplary, and a case can be made for most to merit inclusion on a list such as this.  Here are ten of the best:

1)  Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team

Do you believe in miracles; five words made famous by announcer Al Michaels in the closing seconds of the 1980 Winter Olympics hockey semifinals.  In defeating the Soviet Union, the U.S. team pulled off arguably the greatest upset in the history of sports.  To think they had any chance of winning, you would have had to believe in miracles.  The show follows the team from its inception, where Coach Herb Brooks assembled a group of college kids to compete against older, seasoned professionals; through their remarkable run culminating with a 4-2 win over Finland to win the gold medal.  It details the team’s rigorous training schedule and Brooks’ plan to change the team’s skating philosophy, which he felt was essential to defeat the Soviets.

Two things set this documentary apart, with one being the event itself.  At a time when the United States was seemingly unable to dictate policy beyond her borders, and American prestige and perceived might throughout the world was at its lowest point of the Cold War, the efforts of this unlikely group of heroes gave its country a badly needed shot in the arm.  The other great appeal is the story telling process.  Much of the narrative is first hand accounts from Brooks, Assistant Coach Craig Patrick, nine of the U.S. players, and three from the Soviet team.
2)  Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush

Another of HBO Sports outstanding productions and the 2007 Emmy Award winner, the documentary provides a tremendous insight into one of professional baseball’s most storied franchises, with a cross-over appeal that even non-sports fans would find entertaining.  Before moving to Los Angeles in 1958, the Dodgers called the New York City borough home for 67 years.  The behind-the-scenes, political maneuvering and negotiations that would eventual stall and consequently force the club to relocate are brought to light within the story line.

The memory of the Dodgers has been preserved by Brooklynites over the years, mainly on the strength of the team’s success during the 1940s and ‘50s.  Their impact can’t be confined to just baseball however, because the Brooklyn Dodgers transcended sports.  They represented an identity, that of a proud community with over 2.5 million occupants.  They represented a time, the post-World War II era of prosperity that was also the sport’s heyday; and baseball’s ground zero was New York City.  They represented social progress, disregarding baseball owner’s hand-shake agreement prohibiting African-American players by signing Jackie Robinson; the first step towards integrating baseball and a trigger that helped kick start the Civil Rights Movement.  They represented persistence, perennial runners up who finally won their first World Series title in 1955.

Brooklyn Dodgers The Ghosts of Flatbush

3)  Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV

Another HBO masterpiece and Emmy nominated special, chronicling the rise of an obscure university to the pinnacle of college basketball success, taking a sports starved community along for the ride.  Everything UNLV basketball was a reflection of its renegade coach, Jerry Tarkanian, hired in 1973 to create a respectable program.  Tarkanian’s success as a coach left a substantial imprint in areas far removed from the basketball court.  He built a program from scratch into one of college basketball’s elite, guiding the Runnin’ Rebels (Just ‘Rebels’ prior to his arrival) to the Final Four in his 4th season.  Unknowingly he put UNLV on the national map and transformed Las Vegas into a sports town.

Tarkanian was under the thumb of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), college sport’s governing body, for much of his 19 years at UNLV.  Their idea of governing most closely resembled that of a fascist dictatorship; slapping Tarkanian down for speaking his mind, exacting their revenge at every opportunity, and denying him any semblance of due process once accusations of wrongdoing were made.  At one point, even the UNLV administration was conspiring against him and the basketball program.  It all came together in 1990 however, when a team of mentally tough, abundantly talented athletes left their adversaries in the dust and made it to the mountain top.

4)  Ted Williams

Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox’ hall of fame slugger and the subject of HBO’s 2009 Emmy nominated documentary, set out to accomplish one thing during his time in professional baseball.  He wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived.  Few people having such lofty aspirations ever measure up to them, but Williams is the exception.  He became exactly what he set out to be, and he remains that to this day.  And if a more objective measure is required to bestow this acknowledgment, base it on hitting over .400 for an entire season; a feat last accomplished by Williams in 1941.

The show illustrates how Williams made a science out of hitting a baseball, was a man of principle and conviction in all aspects of his life, and had the most phenomenal eye-hand coordination.  His love of hitting was exceeded only by his patriotism, having surrendered 4 1/2 of his best baseball years (Ages 24-26 and 33-34) to serve his country during World War II and the Korean War.  Despite this, Williams still put up hall-of-fame numbers including 521 home runs and a .344 lifetime batting average.

5)  Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team

Another in the long line of HBO Sports films nominated for Emmy awards, it documents the surge in popularity of women’s soccer and the remarkable group of young women that were responsible.  Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, Brandi Chastain and their teammates were not only ground breakers in the sport, they also had a hand in the overall advancement of women’s athletics worldwide.

During the U.S. national team’s historic run through international and Olympic competition, their revival turned revolution evolved into a coast-to-coast phenomenon, culminating in the 1999 FIFA World Cup where they sold out 90,000+ seat stadiums en route to the championship.  While their success couldn’t rescue the upstart women’s professional leagues that went belly up, these exceptional role models not only became the faces of women’s sports, they also paved the way for many of their young fans to play organized soccer.

Dare to Dream

6)  Unitas

HBO’s Unitas is not just a biographical look at one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to lace up a pair of cleats (Black high-tops).  That alone wouldn’t do Johnny Unitas justice, although his struggles out of poverty and as an undersized signal-caller making it in the National Football League (NFL) are the stuff of true Americana.  His impact on football ran much deeper than a hall of fame career and an entertaining life story.

The documentary sheds light on two events that form the foundation of the Unitas legacy.  In the 1958 NFL championship, considered the greatest football game ever, his Baltimore Colts were tied with the New York Giants at the end of regulation time.  The winning drive Unitas orchestrated in sudden-death overtime was the powder keg that launched professional football’s soaring, present day popularity.  His mastery of throwing the ball down field with marksman-like proficiency over 18 seasons revolutionized football strategy, the once dormant vertical passing game now being a staple of every NFL playbook.

7)  Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals

At a time when the National Basketball Association (NBA) had a serious image problem, marred by racism, drug abuse, and selfish play, two 6’9” basketball virtuosos entered the league who would change all this.  Polar opposites in many ways yet nearly identical in others, Magic & Bird shows the dichotomous pair of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and their fierce rivalry bordering on hatred at its various stages.  Both players re-instilled a “team first” concept that had long since departed the NBA.

Once the dust from their dramatic entree had settled, professional basketball had been rescued from the bowels of financial and social destruction, injected back into mainstream favor and on the road to commercial success.  After squaring off in some of the NBA’s most historic battles, the two adversarial legends eventually became friends.  In retirement Magic and Bird are like Siamese twins, walking the streets of fame, folklore, legend, and immortality as a pair; unable to be detached.

8)  Lombardi

HBO chose Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers’ football coach, as the subject of its first installment of Legends and LegaciesLombardi hit the airways in 2010, and won the Emmy for Outstanding Sports Documentary that year.  His own words best describe what made Lombardi tick: “Winning isn’t everything, but it’s the only thing.”

The show captures this larger than life coaching icon’s mystique, as well as his frailties.  Through interviews and archival recordings, it bares the true essence of his uncompromising will, determination, and utter devotion to coaching; or more aptly, to winning.  The name Lombardi has become synonymous with winning, and for good reason.  The Packers’ success during his tenure can be attributed to his ability to extract every ounce of potential from his players and the sheer strength of his personality.  A relentless task-master who left a positive impression on just about everyone he came in contact with, Lombardi and his championship teams permanently embed the City of Green Bay onto the national radar, under the guise of “Title Town.”

9)  Back Nine at Cherry Hills: The Legends of the 1960 U.S. Open

On a Saturday in June of 1960, at a golf course just outside of Denver, Colorado, three of the sport’s all time greatest and most colorful players found themselves locked in a battle.  The climactic events of that day’s U.S. Open hit the newspapers the following morning, how Arnold Palmer staged one of the greatest comebacks in the tournament’s history to defeat a field that included 4-time champion Ben Hogan and a 20 year old upstart, Jack Nicklaus.  But there was a deeper, underlying story that would come to fruition that afternoon.

The story line depicts how that final round represented a symbolic changing of the guard in golf including the paths these three legends, at different stages of their brilliant careers, had taken to get to that day’s historic encounter.  Hogan was the elder statesman, approaching the twilight of his competitive game.  Palmer was at a crossroads, trying to prove to the golf world that he could win the big tournaments, while Nicklaus was still an amateur getting his feet wet on the professional circuit.  The writing also bridged the sport metaphorically with the political tenor of the day, specifically that transpiring at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Hogan’s immense popularity during the 1950s coincided with President Dwight Eisenhower’s fascination with golf, and parallels were drawn between Palmer and Nicklaus’ emergence onto the golfing scene and John F. Kennedy entering the White House.

Back Nine at Cherry Hills

10)  Broad Street Bullies (TIE)

Arguably the greatest collection of colorful personalities in a sports documentary, with the possible exception of those illuminated in Rebels of Oakland.  The Philadelphia Flyers developed a unique style of hockey, earning them a most fitting nickname in reference partly to their arena’s location.  The “Broad Street Bullies” were despised by the National Hockey League (NHL) establishment for their overly aggressive play; that is, until they were called upon to save the league’s face by beating the Soviet Union’s national team.  Their barbaric form of intimidation caused the NHL rule book to expand from pamphlet size to that of an unabridged dictionary.

If you didn’t hail from Philadelphia, you must have had a masochistic streak to root for the Flyers during the 1970s.  They did silence many critics however with their skill on the ice, skating and scoring at a proficiency level equal to that of their physical domination, and in the process captured back-to-back Stanley Cup titles.  And there’s a certain charm in hearing those same players, now in their 50s and 60s, talk about driving someone’s torso into the boards or burying one of their elbows into an opponent’s face.

10)  Rebels of Oakland (TIE)

An outstanding HBO Sports documentary that seems to fly under the popularity radar for some reason.  Set in Oakland, California, a city with an inferiority complex to its neighbor, San Francisco, and ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement after it turned violent in the late 1960s.  That same rebel mentality was inherent in the two local sports franchises on the brink of greatness; baseball’s Athletics (A’s) and the Raiders of the National Football League.  Both teams were colorful, both teams went against the grain, and both teams won.

They were teams loaded with both character and characters.  The A’s were a quirky, certifiably wacky collection of personalities without question.  In comparison, the Raiders’ players of that era merited having men with white lab coats and clipboards follow them around.  Lined up side by side with the likes of Ben Davidson, Ted Hendricks, John Matuszak, or most anyone else on the Raiders’ roster, the zaniest of Oakland’s baseball zanies were made to look like boy scouts.

Andy Foster

Freelance writer, historian, and educator based in Southern California. Writing interests include but are not limited to history, sports, pop culture, politics, biographies, war stories, documentaries, and cutting edge topics.