Directors: Steve James
Length: 232 minutes without commercials (3 hours and 52 minutes). Will be aired in four segments, three of which will be one hour with commercials and one 90 minute installment.
Airs: Part 1 and 2 premieres Tuesday, June 6th, starting at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. Part 3 and 4 premieres June 13th at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Most Similar To: You Don’t Know Bo, Survive and Advance
Grade/Ranking: Mid-teens out of 122 30 for 30 Installments, which I’d give a high A on my 30 for 30 grading curve.
Review: The question you need to ask is not if “The Luckiest Guy in the World” is good (it’s really damn good), but more so do you have the time and the interest for a nearly four hour documentary on Bill Walton? I was obviously an enthusiastic yes on that front having long viewed Walton as a much welcomed distraction in sports media.
The nearly four hour film is part of a growing trend of ESPN investing in extended docuseries. The past few years ESPN has had 30 for 30’s focusing on Michael Vick, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius, and the New York Mets that all clocked in at around four hours of screen time. These docuseries are a new sweet-spot as their extended length will keep sports fans subscribed to ESPN+ (where the films are available on streaming) longer when subscribers might otherwise be looking to unsubscribe for a few months until whatever sports season they initially signed up for is back in season. While Vick, Armstrong, and the Mets likely had more drawing power and name recognition to ESPN viewers than a 70 year old that many may only know because of his announcing career versus his playing career, “The Luckiest Guy in the World” is the best of that group and one of the better installments of the last five years.
Directed by one of the most accomplished documentary makers ever, Steve James, the film is not rushed in its approach to retracing Bill Walton’s eventful career and colorful personality. Walton initially signed on to do a film focusing on the 1977 Blazers but after some nudging and becoming more comfortable with James, the focus widened considerably.
Walton’s up and down years with the Blazers are indeed the primary focus with a reunion with teammates allowing for a lot of light hearted moments retracing the memorable season. James does a really good job bringing that story to life utilizing interviews with Walton, a group reunion of Blazers teammates, an impressive roster of individual interviews, and a lot of archive footage. That’s a long ways of saying that if you’re adverse to long-form content, “The Luckiest Guy in the World” moves pretty efficiently with a lot of engaging stories and footage and doesn’t ever hit any notable lulls along the way. If you give it a shot, you’ll be rewarded versus hitting the eject button somewhere along the way.
Between Bill Walton’s career at UCLA and relationship with John Wooden, his time with the Blazers, his triumphant comeback with the Celtics, Walton’s involvement in activism, his broadcasting career, and his relationship with the Grateful Dead, there are plenty of really worthwhile threads to pull that pay off and more than fill the time. James did very well in securing an extensive list of interviews, relying on some existing interviews for individuals no longer with us, and mixing in a robust and surprising amount of archival footage that brings to life an era of basketball that many viewers have no real grasp of. Nothing feels neglected or rushed and with the mix of storytelling devices and thus it’s pretty easy to sink into and get invested in Bill Walton’s unique story.
Without giving away spoilers, there really isn’t much more to say. Walton’s life, career, and personality is one of the more unique stories of anyone covered within the 30 for 30 universe. Steve James is a masterful director and did an amazing job with the project. For the majority of viewers, especially younger ones, a lot of this is going to be a mostly fresh story that has a lot of compelling components to it.
If I had a small nitpick it’s that James and Walton have a few moments throughout the project where James challenges Walton on something he said, or more so tries to get Walton to open up beyond whatever carefully measured comment Walton made on a more sensitive subject. James probes a few times trying to get Walton to crack open and letting viewers inside his complicated mind. While Walton does on occasion give into volunteering more to James, my sense is that there is still an internal layer of Walton we didn’t quite get to in the film. Walton shares considerably about the ups and downs in his life and there are some tense and emotional moments, but it’s likely there are just some subjects and thoughts he leaves to his autobiography versus sharing here.
This is a very good story and it’s told very well. Those are the two criteria I have for reviewing a film. While not for everyone, those who do have a passing interest in Bill Walton, basketball, or just contrarian individuals, “The Luckiest Guy in the World” delivers on high expectations given the director and the subject matter and is very much a much welcomed distraction as the sports calendar begins to slow down.