No one celebrates themselves quite like ESPN. Even ESPN's most devoted fans have to admit the penchant for near non-stop self-aggrandizing and self-promotion. Besides professional athletes and Dwight Schrute, who puts out bobbleheads of themselves? Like ESPN's Bill Simmons admits, "We're the dude in college who throws himself birthday parties." However, ESPN's latest fete for the network's 30th anniversary is one I can forgive. Their "30 for 30" documentary series takes an in-depth look at 30 stories from this 30 year time frame with the help of some imported Hollywood filmmakers. Ever infatuated with rankings, the creative minds behind "30 for 30" resisted that temptation for this series and even chose the stories to be produced based on the filmmaker's personal connection or investment in the story rather than assumed importance.
This past Tuesday marked the first documentary in the series. Peter Berg's "King's Ransom" is a look at the trade that sent Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988. Berg, a huge hockey and Gretzky fan, does a phenomenal job of delving into one of the most incomprehensible trades in sport history. Berg's storytelling expertly reveals the emotion and impact that still remains from the trade and its repercussions. The piece is both riveting and heart-wrenching as we are forced to watch this awful decision, one based solely on economics, and the inexorable change it had on the future of the greatest hockey player of all time as well as the Edmonton Oilers, the epitome of the small-market, community-based sports franchise. To watch the drama unfold is excruciating, no moment moreso than Gretzky's farewell press conference in Edmonton where he breaks down in tears and cannot finish saying goodbye. The pain on the face of Peter Pocklington, the Oilers owner at the time, was much worse. The fan reaction is equally fascinating. Pocklington and Gretzky's new wife, actress Janet Jones, were vilified. Appeals were made to the Canadian government to stop the trade from going through but to no avail, the NHL would be changed forever. Many have tried to put a positive spin on the move saying Gretzky was a selfless hockey missionary taking the game to parts South and West in the United States. For me, the continuing struggles of hockey franchises that do not call the Northeast or Midwest home only makes Gretzky's supposed selflessness seem more painful and pointless especially considering his estimate that that Oilers team could have won another four Stanley Cups in addition to the four they won with him in the 1980s. Imagine Gretzky's legacy had he stayed with the likes of Messier and the rest of that impressive team. Gretzky unconvincingly says he would do it again if the trade were proposed tomorrow. Pocklington has come to grips with the repercussions of that trade but he certainly endured some painful years between 1988 and his reconciling with the necessity of the move for the health of the franchise. The piece benefits from hindsight and is a remarkable behind-the-scenes look into the role economics plays in the success of franchises, the lives of those involved including fans.
Truly a monumental moment in sports history, this documentary hopefully hints at the 29 still to come. I am truly looking forward to the rest of the series especially the stories examining the special bond between Loyola Marymount stars Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, the handling of Allen Iverson's trial as a Virginia high schooler and the racism that tainted it, the short-lived USFL and the list goes on and on. If only all of ESPN's self-promotion was this enjoyable.