The Top 10 HBO Sports Specials of All Time

Recognized as sports television’s best storyteller, HBO produces acclaimed documentaries, which feature HBO Sports’ trademark blend of archival footage, home movies, revealing interviews and unique storytelling.

Choosing to avoid the formulaic pitfalls that most sports film makers tend to fall prey to, HBO doesn’t take the “easy route” on anything. You won’t find the run of the mill stories about the “professional athlete raised by a single mother” or a type of tabloid journalism seeking to take advantage of the latest tragedy marring the sports landscape.

HBO provides viewers the opportunity to revisit some of the most provocative moments from a very diverse range of sports events and personalities. Anything short of brilliant has always been deemed unacceptable.

HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg put it best.

“We know we’re emotionally attacking the viewer…And they know where they’re watching these films. It’s like walking into a gallery and seeing a David as opposed to something I chipped out when I was 10.”

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

Airing on HBO in 2005, using the late-2004 retirement of three key players—Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Joy Fawcett—as its jumping-off point to tell the story that stretches back two decades.

The team was assembled in 1986 by coach Anson Dorrance, who scoured the nation’s high schools and youth leagues looking for good players. Among his finds were the three players just mentioned, plus eventual superstars Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, and Michelle Akers. This team played in the first-ever Women’s World Cup in 1991—and won it.

From the beginning, the players were energetic and happy, but they were plagued by one thing: indifference. Americans generally didn’t care about soccer at all, let alone women’s soccer. The 1991 World’s Cup in China was a big deal there; when they got back to the United States, no one was interested. They won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics—the first time women’s soccer had been included—but no one saw it because NBC was showing another event when it happened.

It was the 1999 Women’s World Cup, hosted by the United States, that finally thrust the team into America’s consciousness. The film spends a lot of time on it, showing how the players made as many goodwill appearances at local soccer fields as possible to drum up support and to provide inspiration to the young girls who loved the sport.

Sure enough, all of the World Cup events played to sellout crowds (one commentator observes that they were a bigger draw at Giants Stadium than the Giants had ever been), and of course they won the tournament.

The image of Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt in victory became legendary.

9. Michigan vs. Ohio State: The Rivalry:

Since 1897, the universities of Michigan and Ohio State have faced off in what has become the most hotly contested rivalry in college football, if not all American sport.

This HBO Sports documentary takes a look at the origins of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, as well as how the contest evolved through the decades into the all-encompassing rivalry it has become today.

Within the first 15 minutes viewers are treated to rare footage of the 1950 “Snow Bowl” in Columbus, a game versus the maize and blue that was so marred by a blizzard that the teams punted 45 times and Michigan was able to win 9-3 without ever making a first down.

But as one could expect, much of the documentary is spent on the period known as “The Ten Year War,” in which legendary coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler spent a decade duking it out with each other for the upper hand.

Many former players from both teams that played during this era are interviewed, including Archie Griffin, who is more than happy to whip out the three Golden Pants he won while at Ohio State.

Schembechler himself gave a long form interview for the documentary… and passed away not a day later. A particularly poignant sequence deals with Columbus’ reverent reaction to Schembechler’s death.

No matter what the ranking, the football programs at these two schools gear up every year with a common goal: to beat their archrival on the third weekend in November, and gain bragging rights for a year.

8. Perfect Upset: The 1985 Villanova vs. Georgetown NCAA Championship:

Georgetown. Georgetown. Georgetown. Coach John Thompson and senior superstar Patrick Ewing were seemingly on top of the world in March 1985 as a repeat NCAA basketball title seemed imminent. The only formalities were the national tournament and the championship game on April 1.

Out of nowhere Cinderella crashed all the plans. Villanova Wildcats, led by Italian coach Rollie Massimino and scrappy players Ed Pinckney, Harold Pressley, Harold Jansen, and Gary McLain shocked the sports world with a wild 66 to 64 victory, shooting an incredible 79 percent from the field (missing only one second-half shot) that truly put an exclamation mark on March Madness in 1985 and forever altered the lives of all involved.

But not everything is about basketball as this excellent HBO documentary examines a struggling U.S. economy that turned around by the mid-1980s, Reagan’s first term as president, Georgetown’s pop icon status of the time period, Thompson’s ability to recruit in rough inner-cities, and McLain’s admission of being a cocaine addict in college.

A Briskly paced sociology lesson that doubles as an intriguing U.S. and sports history documentary.

7. Joe Louis: America’s Hero…Betrayed:

A touching retrospective of the life of the legendary boxer and his tremendous impact on segregated America.

Louis was the original crossover athlete, a star in both white and black America, at a time when the country was falling into war and desperately needed heroes. When the “Brown Bomber” entered the ring, the world stood still. His 1938 defeat of Germany’s Max Schmeling was interpreted as democracy’s defeat of Nazism, boosting public morale and transforming Louis into a true American hero.

Joseph Louis Barrow began life as the grandson of slaves in Lafayette, Alabama, and ended up holding the world heavyweight title for 11 consecutive years, successfully defending it a record 25 consecutive times.

In the process, he became the poster boy for the American way of life who showed the world what a person of color could do if given the opportunity.

Later in life, Louis maintained his dignity through several setbacks, including serious financial trouble with the IRS. He died a poor old man in Las Vegas, supported with a monthly check from Frank Sinatra.

6. Broad Street Bullies:

Watching this one, four themes seem to emerge immediately.

The team and the city were made for each other. The rugged, “us against the world” mentality that seems to permeate daily life in Philly just oozed off the team and is found in every nook and cranny of this film.

Their thuggery was matched only by their skill. While many like to think of the ’76 team as nothing more than the NHL’s version of the Hanson Brothers, nothing could be further from the truth. The team had an edge, but it was their ability on the ice that set them apart from the rest.

They were loved in one place; hated everywhere else. Philly adored them, the rest of America hated them. Fans in cities all over North America packed arenas for the chance to boo the villains in Orange and Black. And that was just the way they wanted it. No other team in professional sports history has embraced the “bad guy” image quite like this one. Sorry Oakland, your teams were a WWE caricature when compared to these cats.

And lastly, no player from the mid-70’s Flyers will ever apologize for a single thing. Not one. This was no doubt fostered by coach Freddy “The Fog” Shero. Known for his inspirational messages, Shero knew how to push his players’ buttons:

“I got a team that loves to fight, so I let them fight.”

5. Rebels of Oakland: The A’s, the Raiders, the ’70s:

Part of the imprint the teams made on the city came from contrasting forms of leadership: The city seemingly had none (although the Black Panthers had originated an American voice there that demanded to be heard); the despised Charles Finley ran the A’s from Chicago and Gary, Ind.; and Raider hero Al Davis was not only active in the community, he fielded teams that resembled the folks in the stands.

Not surprisingly, the Raiders are remembered as a collective, the A’s as individual superstars. And in the long run, the image of those Raiders teams led by coach John Madden and QB Ken Stabler permeates the franchise’s image to this day.

The A’s, however, have gone through several transformations since the breakup of ’76 and superstar Reggie Jackson is today more known for his Yankee achievements than his early years in pro ball.

History’s rear-view mirror, too, has favored the talent on Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine as being superior, despite losing to Athletics.

Jackson, who delivers a wonderful recollection of Finley’s arbitration technique, is among the many stellar talking heads: Madden and his Raiders Phil Villapiano, Gene Upshaw and Ben Davidson are joined by A’s Sal Bando, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers plus columnist Ray Ratto, some Hells Angels and a few prominent fans, among them Tom Hanks.

Raiders footage, needless to say, overflows with personality. A’s clips aren’t as prominent, but the collection of characters in them radiate off the screen when they appear.

No cities sports landscape better defined the 1970s than the Bay areas.

4. Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals:

The succinctness of the title speaks volumes about “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals.”

Sports fans won’t need prompting to know what’s to come when they pop in this relatively new HBO Sports documentary.

They will immediately recognize Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird as the objects of examination in this riveting 90-minute documentary.

“We got this connection that’s never gonna be broken,” Bird says of the intertwining of his life and legacy with those of Johnson. “I mean, right to our graves. They’ll be talking about this 100 years from now.”

Some may argue that the thing about “100 years” is an overstatement, but I don’t.

Memories of the on-court and off-court exploits of these hoops legends still are fresh even as fans follow the blossoming careers of contemporary standouts LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Kevin Durant.

As is argued persuasively in “A Courtship of Rivals,” the stage shared by James, Bryant and other members of today’s generation of basketball superstars was built by Johnson and Bird.

The astute student of basketball history might be thinking to himself or herself, “I’m not sure I buy that premise without Michael Jordan getting equal billing with Magic and Bird.”

Bryant Gumbel weighs in on that issue early in “A Courtship of Rivals.” Now with HBO Sports, Gumbel was a rising star at NBC in 1979 when that network televised the NCAA Tournament title game between Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores.

“One of my pet peeves always is when people say, ‘Oh, Michael Jordan saved the NBA.’ (Expletive). Magic and Larry saved the NBA.”

Watch this little gem and you won’t disagree.

3. The Curse of the Bambino & Reverse of the Curse of the Bambino:

You just can’t have one without the other. You just can’t.

HBO’s “The Curse of The Bambino” is a wry, enlightening account of 80-plus years of the Boston Red Sox’s travails is a fusion of wit and history.

“Everything’s going fine,” says one of this documentary’s talking heads, speaking of the Red Sox’s legacy of 11th-hour screw-ups. “Then: boom. It’s like watching The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy is ripped apart at the end by flying monkeys.”

Comic Steven Wright compares the team’s history to a Dickens novel, and Denis Leary says love of the Red Sox is “sado-masochism.” The problem is that Boston’s doomstruck organization, fans say, has been in karmic payback since 1920 for then-owner Harry Frazee’s sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

Historians dismiss claims that Frazee used the money to finance Broadway’s No, No, Nanette, and there’s evidence the self-destructive Ruth had actually become a liability for the team. In any case, the symbiotic fortunes of the Yankees and Red Sox is entertainingly summarized here.

With it’s 2004 follow-up “Reverse of the Curse of the Bambino,” finds a happier use for bleak material earlier found in the former piece. Where it told the seemingly endless saga of the Boston Red Sox’s misfortunes since team owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919, “Reverse” picks up the story to include Boston’s stunning victory in the 2004 World Series.

Many of the quotes and archival footage included in the original Curse are here, including anguished commentary from such Beantown enthusiasts as comics Denis Leary and Steven Wright, author Robert B. Parker, and former columnist Mike Barnicle.

Painful recollections of the Yankees’ perennial domination of the Red Sox, of countless screw-ups that snatched world championships from the team’s hands for 86 years, and the redemptive story of Boston’s 2004 comeback in a 3-0 series against the Yankees (and subsequent sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series) make this a uniquely moving (and funny) baseball documentary.

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

You don’t need to know anything about hockey to be moved by this hour long documentary about one of the greatest upsets in sports history:

The United States’ defeat of the vaunted Russian Olympic hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

The film recounts the David vs. Goliath match-up between the Americans (essentially a group of college kids molded into a team by legendary coach Herb Brooks) and the Russians, professionals who had won four straight Olympic golds.

While many of you are probably more familiar with the exquisitely crafted Disney movie “Miracle”, the story is retold here through interviews with the people who lived it, including Brooks and several of the American players, sportscaster Al Michaels (who uttered the iconic title line as the game ended), and key Russian players.

“Do You Believe In Miracles?” holds a special place in my heart, as it no doubt does for many. I can vividly remember being a ten year old kid, lying down on his living room floor, completely mesmerized by the events as they began to unfold.

Too young to understand the tidal wave of emotion that was taking hold of the nation, I was oblivious to the political ramifications of it all.

And for just a little while, everyone else was allowed to revel in that childish innocence too.

1. Nine Innings From Ground Zero: The 2001 World Series:

Whereas the events in Lake Placid were about grasping to a child-like innocence for me, my No. 1 choice deals with an innocence lost.

The poignant HBO documentary “Nine Innings from Ground Zero” makes a persuasive case that the 2001 World Series, three games of which were played in New York, helped heal the American psyche, seemingly wounded beyond repair after the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

After 9/11, the media were, like the rest of us, grappling for some acknowledgment that the country would not be transformed into some angry, joyless, paranoid beast. No one quite knew what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

But in a pop universe that celebrates superficiality and built-in obsolescence, baseball is a pastoral game from a simpler era that has refused to react to the coarsening of our culture. With the exception of various rule changes, the game remains essentially as it was 100 years ago. That kind of continuity between past and present was the reassurance the country needed.

The 2001 World Series, which pitted the New York Yankees against the Arizona Diamondbacks, featured three games at Yankee Stadium, only nine miles from the World Trade Center site. No team engenders hatred like the Yankees, but even opposing players and antagonistic sports columnist had a hard time mustering up their usual level of vitriol.

The trio of games in the Bronx was suffused with emotion and gravitas as a warm and familiar blanket of normalcy descended onto a country in danger of never being normal again.

There are plenty of interviews, clips from the games and even footage of President Bush signing autographs in the Yankee locker room. At one point Bush describes a particularly entertaining exchange with Derek Jeter mere hours before the Yankee shortstop went on to become “Mr. November”.

The documentary is done in the quintessential style. It features new, sit down interviews with major players and stylized footage of the games. In the end, the Yankees lost the series in dramatic fashion, which some took to be an ominous signal to America.

But in truth, the Yankee’s dramatic loss fits the story perfectly. Baseball, with all the heartbreak and triumph within, is unshakable and resilient, elegant and timeless, with a refusal to stick to any set of scripted events.

Just like America.


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