That ESPN’s documentary series The Last Dance, a ten-part recollection of the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, has become a worldwide phenomenon is a perfect storm of events. We are in the middle of an international pandemic that has stopped all sports dead in their tracks, it is largely the story of possibly the most popular athlete in the world in Michael Jordan, and the documentary promised audiences never-before-seen footage of the legendary competitor (as Jordan has been, understandably if you have the privilege, controlling about access to him, The Last Dance doesn’t dig that deep into scandals and rumors about the team, but he does come across as quite a bit more of a jerk than he did in, say, Space Jam).
But I’m an unabashed fan of the 30 for 30 series of documentaries that ESPN has produced since 2009, and while The Last Dance isn’t technically a part of that series, it fits many of the same beats that make that series great. And while it is nearly impossible to fathom a series that would have the mass appeal in 2020 of one about the second three-peat Chicago Bulls, I would be more than willing to watch a lesser version of it. Many times over. Even when sports come back.
To this point, ESPN has only released one 30 for 30 documentary that focuses largely on a St. Louis team—Free Spirits, a look into the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis basketball team (that mostly focuses on the post-ABA television deal that the team’s owners worked out. Last week, another largely St. Louis-centered story was announced as a future 30 for 30—one about the 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa (in the meantime, if you want a look into just how deeply the world buried its head in the sand with regards to that season, check out Race for the Record on YouTube—I owned it on VHS when I was nine years old and in retrospect it is hilarious). But let’s make some more.
Here are the ten St. Louis or near-St. Louis teams, exempting the St. Louis Spirits and the 1998 St. Louis Cardinals, that I would like to see made into extended 30 for 30 documentaries. I’m mostly dreaming, and I will admit there are plenty of non-local teams that can lay claim to many of the features of the St. Louis teams, but the name of this website isn’t World Bullpen, so I’ll leave that task to somebody else.
Honorable mentions: 2011 St. Louis Cardinals and 2018-19 St. Louis Blues–The drama with these teams are entirely on-field/ice and nobody outside of St. Louis would be expected to care about these deep dives. But I would care. Bonus points if you could guarantee me Colby Rasmus truth serum.
8. 2003-04 Missouri Tigers men’s basketball—Before any Illini fans out there complain that I overlooked the 1988-89 team or the 2004-05 team, let me assure you that you should be glad you avoided making this list. Those were merely really good college basketball teams with future NBA talent like Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, and Deron Williams being really good at basketball. There isn’t really much juice beyond being good at sports—great as a fan, less great for documentary viewers. The 2003-04 Missouri Tigers were not a very good team, finishing 16-14 and missing the NCAA tournament, and the main story of the season is the reason this documentary can be justified—Ricky Clemons. The highly sought-after junior college transfer first received negative headlines in January 2003, when he was arrested for domestic assault and was suspended for one game before being reinstated. In April, after Clemons pled guilty for two misdemeanor charges, the team suspended him for the upcoming season but continued to honor his scholarship until July, when he was officially dismissed after an ATV accident at the university president’s house. A month later, Clemons’s ex-girlfriend told reporters that he had received improper benefits from the Missouri coaching staff. This is a somewhat typical story of NCAA corruption, but what adds to this story is the dichotomy of Clemons, who stopped getting second chances once he was no longer useful to the basketball team, and coach Quin Snyder, who got second chances all the way to his current position as head coach of the Utah Jazz in the NBA.
7. 1967-68 St. Louis Blues: The 1967-68 Blues represent a unique situation in the history of St. Louis sports—an expansion team. Perhaps the Blues would be better suited as merely part of a longer series about the NHL doubling in size in 1967, but the Blues make sense as the primary focus. They were, after all, the team of mostly afterthoughts and past-their-prime veterans that made the Stanley Cup Final, and the story of their existence, owing a debt of gratitude to their bitter rivals, the Chicago Black Hawks (who, to be clear, weren’t doing this for altruistic reasons—their owners owned St. Louis Arena), is one that merits retelling.
6. 1950 United States men’s soccer team: Okay, so this isn’t technically a St. Louis team, but its ties to St. Louis are undeniable. The only American reporter to attend the 1950 World Cup was from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Five of the team’s starters (only eight of whom were actually American citizens—that’ll add some intrigue to the series) were from St. Louis. When the team went to Brazil for the World Cup, expectations were extremely low, both for the Americans and for the soccer world at large, as England, long assumed to be the world’s foremost squad, was finally participating in the World Cup for the first time. And while Team USA lost to both Spain and Chile, they pulled off a massive upset of England in their second game, winning 1-0. There has already been a film adaptation of this story, The Game of Their Lives, starring the likes of Gerard Butler, Wes Bentley, and the singer from Bush for some reason, but let’s dig a little deeper.
5. 1999 St. Louis Rams—Yes, it borders on corny, but it actually happened! And if 30 for 30 could publish that stupid Boston Red Sox documentary that only covered Games 4 through 7 of the 2004 ALCS (executive producer Bill Simmons featured prominently in recorded conversations at a bar), they can look at the full story of the 1999 Rams. The obvious highlight is Kurt Warner, whose unusual path to the NFL was compelling enough when he was merely a second-string quarterback; it becomes unthinkable when he became the NFL’s MVP. The team had three more Hall of Famers (Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Orlando Pace) and a couple more who have a fighting chance down the road (Torry Holt, London Fletcher), plus a Missouri kid (Mike Jones, who is from Kansas City and played his college football at the University of Missouri) featuring prominently in the drama. Plus, there have been theories since it happened that head coach Dick Vermeil was pushed out so that the team could retain offensive coordinator Mike Martz as head coach, a fun little parallel to the Phil Jackson subplot of The Last Dance.
4. 2000-01 Southwest Missouri State Lady Bears basketball—While The Last Dance has Michael Jordan, The Lady Bears has Jackie Stiles, the record-setting shooting guard who set NCAA women’s single-season and career scoring records. While much of women’s college basketball coverage treats the superpowers like Connecticut and Tennessee as almost saintly, the best thing for the growth of the sport is for there to be real goliaths, and Southwest Missouri State were a rare tournament Cinderella story, upending a bigger school on its home court (Rutgers) in the second round before defeating #1 seed Duke in the Sweet 16. The Lady Bears scored 104 points in its Elite Eight victory over Washington to advance to the Final Four in its home state, at what was then Savvis Center. Although the team fell short of a title, they put a significant dent in the sport’s power structure.
3. 2020 St. Louis BattleHawks—You may think this is a joke, but this team that played five games in franchise history and probably isn’t going to play another one merits consideration. Not unlike The Band That Wouldn’t Die, Barry Levinson’s documentary about the Baltimore Colts marching band, this is a story of greed (Stan Kroenke would feature heavily, as Robert Irsay featured heavily in the Baltimore one) and a DIY fan aesthetic—that the BattleHawks demolished the rest of the league, comprised mostly of much larger cities, in attendance and fan support is a point in favor of unbridled passion as being the great equalizer in sports. And, of course, there are an unending parade of stories about players and coaches looking towards the NFL and seeing a chance to hold on to their dreams in the XFL. Also, 30 for 30 already did a documentary about the original XFL and I demand a sequel.
2. 1982 St. Louis Cardinals—The 1982 Cardinals were World Series champions and had an exciting style (even if it wasn’t quite 1985 peak craziness). They had Ozzie Smith, a player who was taking his game to the next level in his first season in St. Louis. But the real reason to tell this story is the thing they danced around in that Whiteyball MLB Network doc a few months ago—the scandals. Joaquin Andujar, Keith Hernandez, and Lonnie Smith were among the biggest cocaine users that were eventually caught up in a league-wide scandal a few years later. And these were indispensable parts of the team—Andujar was the team’s best starting pitcher and took the mound in Game 7 of the World Series, Lonnie Smith was the team’s best player by WAR and its best hitter by OPS+, and Keith Hernandez was just a hair behind Smith’s offensive prowess while playing Gold Glove defense. I’d settle for a one-part doc, but I’d watch infinite hours about this team.
- 2013 Missouri Tigers football—The 2013 Missouri Tigers have many of the superficial qualities of a decent sports documentary. They were a surprisingly successful team—picked to finished middle of the pack in their division by the most optimistic of prognosticators, the Tigers went 11-1 and played in the SEC Championship Game, following a debut season in the conference in which many questioned if they were out of their element. The team was littered with players from Texas (James Franklin, Henry Josey, Marcus Lucas, and L’Damian Washington—the team’s quarterback, leading rusher, and two of its top three receivers—among them) who were overlooked by bigger schoolers in their home state only to find redemption in Columbia. But the biggest draw, by far, is Michael Sam. The first-team All-American defensive end came out of the closet to his teammates before the season, and in an era of omnipresent social media, the entire team kept his secret until Sam came out before the next year’s NFL Draft. ESPN’s SEC Network did release an hour-long documentary about this season, but a deeper dive could easily be justified. A dime a dozen underdog story could make for an adequate documentary; one with the additional humanity of the Michael Sam story could make for a great one.