What if I told you that ESPN's 30 for 30 is in the upper echelon of television series? It's true.
ESPN's 30 for 30 series has been good since it started, but Sunday's "Survive and Advance" documentary on the 1983 North Carolina State NCAA Championship team elevated the documentaries to new heights. Directed by Jonathan Hock and produced by NC State player Derek Whittenburg, the documentary chronicled the miracle NC State team that entered the ACC Tournament with 10 losses and needed to beat Wake Forest, North Carolina and Virginia to get to the NCAA Tournament and did. The team continued its magical run to the Final Four where it beat Georgia to advance to the National Championship Game against a formidable Houston team featuring future NBA All-Stars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, which it also upset to win the title.
There were interviews with several members of the team including Thurl Bailey, Whittenburg, Terry Gannon (who is now a broadcaster for ESPN and NBC), Cozell McQueen and others. The only ones missing were Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993 and Lorenzo Charles, who scored the winning basket against Houston and died in a bus accident in 2011.
Director Hock captured the feeling of that special run brilliantly. As usual in the 30 for 30 films, there was no narrator. "Survive & Advance" relied on interviews and archival footage and it worked extremely well in this case. The team's memories flowed off the screen as they talked about key moments in each game of the nine game run to the National Championship. The star of the documentary is Gannon who was very funny and weaved some great tales. His best story was about taking a charge from Drexler in the National Championship Game and then crossing paths years later.
The 30 for 30's have generally been very good, but "Survive and Advance" goes to the top of the category along with "The Two Escobars." It's not just a very good sports documentary, but an excellent documentary regardless of category. Not only are your drawn to the subject, the interviews are engaging and you see how the late Jim Valvano captured the imagination of his team when he became coach of NC State, not only convincing them that winning the national championship was possible, but also practicing cutting down the nets before each season. The details of NC State's title run and dramatic nature of their tournament comebacks against Pepperdine were likely unknown to younger generations whose only knowledge of the 1983 NC State team is Jim Valvano running around the court. The depth in storytelling brought a new and more meaningful perspective to one of the most celebrated teams in history.
"Survive & Advance" briefly touches upon Valvano's resignation from NC State and the book "Personal Fouls" that led to an NCAA investigation over rules violations, but it never mentions problem player Chris Washburn by name nor the author of the book, Peter Golenbock. But the documentary was more of a celebration of Jim Valvano and the 1983 team rather than a takedown, so the problems at NC State in the late 1980's were glossed over rather quickly.
The film also delves into Valvano's battle with cancer and how the team came together for one of his last public appearances, at the 10th year reunion of the 1983 team in Raleigh, NC. Try to watch that sequence where Valvano gives a hint of his famous ESPY speech without getting misty.
There are many areas where ESPN has fallen short, but 30 for 30 is the network's star. It's quality television and it raises ESPN over the cesspool of debate programs that have riddled the network. The 30 for 30 films come and go far too quickly, but their appearances are truly appreciated.
"Survive & Advance" reairs this Friday on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET and again on Sunday at 6 a.m. Take the chance to watch it. You won't be sorry.