One of the goals of ESPN’s year-plus “30 for 30” documentary series was to break the sports documentary genre out of the effective but familiar rut it had been placed in by HBO, which had dominated the field for years. Each HBO documentary tells its story and tells it well, but virtually always in the same way. If you know a bit about the subject matter, you’ll know going in exactly how the movie will unfold.
Not every “30 for 30” film managed to transcend the conventions of the form – talking head/talking head/archival clip/talking head/archival clip/sad music over B-roll footage/talking head – but the best ones did. But the first major post-“30 for 30” doc that ESPN is debuting (from many of that series’ producers) is very much done in a conventional style – which is particularly striking as it debuts a night after HBO airs its own HBO-style film on a very similar subject.
Sunday at 9 p.m., ESPN presents “Fab Five,” a two-hour film about the Michigan men’s basketball team that famously started five freshmen – including future NBA mainstays Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard – and lost the NCAA championship in back to back years in the early ’90s. The night before at 9:30 p.m., meanwhile, HBO has “Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV,” about the basketball team that went to the title game in the two years immediately before the Fab Five debuted.
Though ESPN’s film runs about a half-hour longer (when you factor out commercials), the two are remarkably similar in both subject matter and approach. Two controversial teams from the same era, each of which lost a tough championship match to Duke (though UNLV also managed to beat Christian Laettner and company one year), and each of which had legacies involving NCAA infractions that ultimately led to both their coaches leaving. And each film tries to position its subject team as the one responsible for a generational change in college basketball, from an era of buttoned-down, respect-your-elders tradition to a more hip-hop-flavored one where upstarts showed deference to no one.
“Runnin’ Rebels” takes a longer view of the UNLV basketball program, starting from back when Jerry Tarkanian was hired to run it in the ’70s (there are some early anecdotes about Frank Sinatra being both a fan of and celebrity recruiter for Tark the Shark), where “Fab Five” is almost entirely about the two years this specific team played together.
Because of the tighter focus and longer running time, I’d say “Fab Five” is the stronger film: even with Webber declining to participate, you really get a sense of how the five of them came to play together, how they got along during those two years, and how the various controversies the team went through brought them closer together.
Webber’s absence is most glaring in the section about his relationship with booster Ed Martin, which ultimately led to a messy grand jury investigation and Michigan deciding to vacate all the wins the team won with him on the team. But the other four all develop into vivid characters – particularly Rose (who’s also an NBA analyst for ESPN and, like Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, credited as a producer on the film), who’s both blunt (he says at the time, he felt Duke “only recruited black players who were Uncle Toms”) and charming (his description of the “crackhouse” controversy he fell into during his freshman year is the most I’ve ever liked him). With no Webber, other than in archival footage – including his long, pained, expletive-laden walk to the locker room after his infamous phantom timeout in the 1993 championship game – Rose comes out of the film seeming like the real star of the team.
Larry Johnson’s absence from “Runnin’ Rebels” is less glaring, if only because that film isn’t as interested in the specific players from that era as it is in the whole phenomenon of the team itself over the years. “Fab Five” is more emotional, where “Runnin’ Rebels” (which features a lot of commentary from Vegas native Jimmy Kimmel) is just a good time.
ESPN had originally hoped to do a more unconventional film featuring the entire Fab Five being interviewed together, but Webber’s decision not to participate forced a more traditional approach. And watching the two films back-to-back serves as a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with that approach, other than the familiarity of it. If you go into the films knowing nothing about why these two teams mattered, athletically and culturally, you’ll come out with a clear picture. And if you go in remembering that period as vividly as I do, they’re still effective trips down memory lane that offer insight and perspective that wasn’t available at the time. While most of my favorite “30 for 30” films were ones that broke the mold (and I look forward to the occasional “30 for 30”-style films ESPN plans to keep producing, like Alex Gibney’s upcoming film on Steve Bartman), a few of the series’ best films were also among its most HBO-like, like “The Best That Never Was,” about football phenom Marcus Dupree.
Ultimately, a good story well told is a good story well told. If you can find a new way to tell it, so much the better, but the old ways have stuck around for a reason.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org