What's the best sports documentary ever? Here's the pantheon 'The Last Dance' is trying to join

Yahoo Sports

ESPN’s “The Last Dance” docu-series on Michael Jordan’s career has captured a quarantined America’s attention, giving the sports documentary form one of its widest mass audience moments. More than halfway through its 10-episode run, it is churning toward a place in the annals of the sports world’s most memorable documentaries.

With that it mind, we asked Yahoo Sports’ team of writers and editors to make a case for the films or series that stand in their minds as the best of the genre.

‘Survive and Advance’

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Fans love the NCAA tournament because each year anything can happen. Brackets are busted, money is lost and earned, and it’s easily one of the best sporting events every single year. 

During the 1982-83 season, N.C. State went on a roll winning the ACC tournament and miraculously winning the NCAA tournament a few short weeks later — becoming the first Cinderella story. “Survive and Advance” takes fans through the season from the players’ point of view with the entire team sitting around telling stories of that unforgettable run.

Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dick Vitale all give their accounts of this Wolfpack team in the ’80s and share personal stories of the late Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993. Valvano’s energy is portrayed throughout the documentary including his memorable ESPYs speech where he told everyone in the audience to laugh, think, and cry each day, saying, "Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” 

Some people forget what this N.C. State team had to go through to even make the tournament. The Wolfpack were sitting at a 17-10 record going into the postseason and went on to beat Michael Jordan and North Carolina, Ralph Sampson and Virginia twice and finally, the Wolfpack took Olajuwon and Phi Slama Jama down to the last second to win the NCAA championship. This is one of the best stories in all of college basketball and former players Thurl Bailey, Sidney Lowe, Terry Gannon, Cozell McQueen and Dereck Whittenburg all make appearances telling a beautiful story of dedication, hard work and a little bit of that tournament magic. - Krysten Peek

‘Hoop Dreams’

The 1994 film chronicles the journeys of basketball prospects William Gates and Arthur Agee, who aspire to escape inner-city Chicago for a better life and ultimately the NBA. To say it’s a movie about basketball is to say “The Godfather” is just a film about a family.

“Hoop Dreams” is an evisceration of America’s systemic inequality and its relentless exploitation of talent and commodities. The cruelty and injustice of the system serve as the backdrop of success, heartbreaking setbacks, shocking betrayals and the obstacles that push the Gates and Agee families into familiar cycles of generational struggle.

Before AAU superteams and traveling basketball powerhouses, there were street agents searching for the next Isiah Thomas and guiding promising players to suburban programs as struggling neighborhoods fell victim to the crack epidemic. You see a knee surgery right up close and the mental hurdles of recovery. Every deal is too good to be true. New families are formed, some are fractured, but director Steve James — who went on to make another brilliant documentary, “Stevie” — never robs his subjects of their dignity.

It’s a film I always come back to, not because of the familiar squeaks on the hardwood or the relentless thump of the blacktop, but because of its depth and unwillingness to compromise. But it is no somber slog. There is happiness. There is joy. There is triumph. All that just so happens to come alongside the disappointments of everyday American life, which, for many — like this film — is in standard definition.

“Hoop Dreams” is a powerhouse work of art that tells the unflinching truth about the pursuit of the so-called American Dream — and the exact toll it extracts. - Joe Garza

‘O.J.: Made in America’

As time has passed, I’ve moved “O.J.” ahead of “Hoop Dreams.” My appreciation for director Ezra Edelman’s task has grown. He had to take a story everyone knew very well and present it in a new and interesting way, and he pulled it off.

The 1994 O.J. Simpson murder trial and the cultural phenomenon that swirled around it came to life in Ezra Edelman's acclaimed "30 for 30" documentary. (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
The 1994 O.J. Simpson murder trial and the cultural phenomenon that swirled around it came to life in Ezra Edelman's acclaimed "30 for 30" documentary. (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The running time of about eight hours was a challenge, not a benefit. He needed to fill all that time without the documentary dragging, and it never did. I’ve seen every “30 for 30” and all other notable sports documentaries, and I think there’s a big gap between “O.J.: Made in America,” “Hoop Dreams” and the rest. I wouldn’t argue too much if someone picked “Hoop Dreams,” but I lean on Edelman’s masterpiece. - Frank Schwab

‘Palio’

A foreign-language documentary about a horse race is a tough sell so right off the bat I’m going to tell you that “Palio” has some of the most incredible athletic visuals you’ll see on a screen — ever. (The existence of Free Solo forces me to couch that slightly.) I dare you to watch the trailer without holding your breath. You don’t have to be an accomplished equestrian to understand the potentially fatal stakes inherent in racing around bareback and reckless like that — but as someone who did grow up riding horses, the doc also serves as an incredible testimony to that visceral experience. 

Palio benefits from premise. The sheer fact of an 800-year-old horse race in the heart of an Italian city is compelling. Before I watched the doc I didn’t know this race existed and now it’s on my bucket list to see it live. Beyond that, what’s so successful about the film is its ability to create narrative tension around the race itself. In 92 minutes (the ideal length for any movie), Palio gives you just enough of centuries of backstory and convinces you to be invested in key characters so that the climatic scene feels like any sports event you’ve ever been heavily invested in. - Hannah Keyser

‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’

This Netflix documentary made me care about what is essentially a Double-A soccer team. It takes you behind the scenes of Sunderland AFC in their quest to earn promotion back to the Premier League. Along the way, you realize what this team means to this hard-scrabble, blue-collar town: everything. By the end, you are thoroughly invested in their quest. And now, two years on, I follow every game as their quest continues. (Note: Season 2 is out, and it’s good, but not as good as Season 1). - Jay Hart

‘One Day in September’

The image is as seared into the memory of those who lived and watched it play out in real time as it is for those, like me, who can look back only through news clippings and archive footage: A hooded terrorist, armed, and cautiously peering around the balcony of a dormitory where members of the Israeli Olympic team were held hostage.

It was the Munich Olympics of 1972, the event the German organizing committee hoped would help to erase the painful memories of Hitler’s Berlin Games of 1936. That juxtaposition of hope and optimism vs. peril and fear is palpable throughout the film. Director Kevin Macdonald deftly oscillates between artful montages of Olympic competition with Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin providing the soundtrack and haunting strings accompanying footage of terrorist training camps and one of the surviving attackers detailing the buildup.

Once the siege begins, we’re carried through with interspersed news flashes of ABC’s Jim McKay and Peter Jennings reporting on events as they unfolded. The tense scene at the site of the kidnapping and hostage negotiation, along with what today would be unthinkable: the Games continuing to go on and not even 500 yards away athletes and spectators freely moving throughout the village, sunbathing, exercising and playing games.

It is uncomfortable and difficult to watch at times, but also underscores the importance of the Olympic movement and ideals. The anecdote Ankie Spitzer relayed about her late husband’s absolute joy in being able to approach, converse and connect with members of the Lebanese delegation is particularly powerful.

At 3:34 a.m. local German time, after the ordeal was done, ABC Sports’ Jim McKay poignantly summarized the last 24 hours: “My father used to say, ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were 11 hostages; two were killed in their rooms ... yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. 

“They're all gone.” - John Parker

‘When We Were Kings’

Amid divisions in politics, race, religion, economics, patriotism and morality, sometimes differences are settled not subtly, but by how hard and often one man hits another in the face.

When We Were Kings” is a documentary that chronicles the run-up to the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. Bankrolled by dictators, promoted by Don King, scored by James Brown and B.B. King, narrated variously by Ali and Foreman’s dog Dago and watched by perhaps a billion people on television, the Rumble in the Jungle was the sporting event of the last century.

The film ignores the controversies of loose ropes and quick counts. It ends shortly after the images of Foreman on his back for the first time in his career, of Ali’s teeth clenched and right fist coiled, of the crowd chanting “Ali, bomaye!”

Instead, “When We Were Kings”, released 22 years after the fight, recounts the journeys of two men in the weeks leading to the shaken jar that was that nation, that stadium, that ring for the better part of eight rounds.

A youthful — though 32 and presumed on the downside of his skills — Ali stirring the sentiments of Africans, summoning the spirits of heavy underdogs, playfully sparring with locals and reporters as he ran the streets of Kinshasa.

A dark and brooding Foreman, 25 and apparently invincible, unarmed as Ali cast him relentlessly as evil and godless, summoning in Foreman the rage that would lead to his vanquishment.

Before the Parkinson’s got Ali, before the grills and the many Georges and the sweet laughs that would be Foreman, there was this jackhammer rattle of a night. There was a time and place in a world that sweat through its sequined jumpsuit, that considered what made us different, what made us the same, what lurked in our hearts, and set it all aside.

What the world needed instead was to see grown men strike each other in the face, as hard and often as they could.

And to see who went down. And who stood in the end. - Tim Brown

‘Icarus’

Choosing my favorite sports documentary wasn’t an easy task because there have been so many great ones. There are at least 20 excellent ones about Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer and my favorite athlete of all time.

My first instinct was to choose one of those, praise Ali like I do every opportunity I get, and be done with it.

But the more I thought about it, the 2017 documentary “Icarus” is the one that moved me in so many ways. Even if it were a fictional film, it was an entertaining story. The fact that it is about real-life events — real-life events that frequently impact my work as a combat sports journalist — made it all the more significant to me.

The story begins with a cyclist, Bryan Fogel, reaching out to Russian Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, hoping to find a way to take performance-enhancing drugs to produce better results.

While he gets better, it’s not what he expected. And the film takes a turn, and uncovers Rodchenkov’s efforts to help Russian athletes dope. That’s where it becomes meaningful.

MMA fans who have followed UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones’ issues with failed anti-doping tests over the years will find the film fascinating. Rochenkov is the doctor who discovered the pulsing phenomenon that has low-levels — picograms — of a banned substance show up in an athlete’s system for years after it got into his/her body.

It’s a combination of a thriller, a brazen look at government-sponsored cheating in sports and a more thorough understanding of anti-doping and its processes.

It hits on so many levels and is informative as well as entertaining. And so while there are many great Ali documentaries that were worthy of consideration, “Icarus” is the one I’ve chosen as the best sports documentary I’ve seen. - Kevin Iole

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