Although ESPN continues expertly the chronicle the day's current sporting highlights and although "Outside the Lines" continues to be the "60 Minutes" of in-depth sports reporting and although the network has diversified its portfolio with scripted movies and miniseries programming, I've always considered the SportsCentury program to be the network's pinnacle.

In 1999, ESPN dedicated more programming hours than I would dare count to listing the 20th Century's 50 Greatest Athletes, doing a different biography every week, while also looking at the century's great games, coaches. I don't remember any one special individually, but I remember the breadth and depth of the initiative, as well as the debate it spawned. Is Secretariat and athlete and how can Secretariat possibly be a better athlete than Mickey Mantle? Does O.J. Simpson's off-field behavior make his on-field achievements less significant? How do you compare a Jim Thorpe to today's athletes? And who's #1? 

With SportsCentury, ESPN set itself an ambitious plan and followed through admirably.

It may be too early to know for sure, but if the initial installments are any indication, ESPN may have topped itself in scope and artistry. With ESPN celebrating its 30th anniversary, the cable network contacted 30 acclaimed filmmakers (and a few interesting non-filmmakers) and said, "If you could tell one sports story from these 30 years, what story would you tell?"

The results are astounding. The complete list of films is up on the "30 For 30" website and my immediate reaction was, "There's not a single one of these 30 films that doesn't interest me on some level." Even the stories I don't care about have a hook that draws me in. Do I really need to watch a story about the Steinbrenner family? No. But if it's directed by "Harlan County USA" Oscar winner Barbara Kopple? Sure. Another documentary about Michael Jordan? No thanks. A documentary about MJ's minor league baseball season from "Bull Durham" director Ron Shelton? Why yes, please.

[More thoughts on the first four "30 For 30" hours after the break...]

As much as I think I watched every second of ESPN's SportsCentury coverage -- I'm a junkie for lists -- those were just well-researched, casual interest documentaries: Here's what the athlete did. Here's what their legacy was, statistically. Here's why several talking heads think this athlete was important. 

Good stuff, but basic stuff. General stuff. 

Where "30 For 30" thrives is in skipping the general and concentrating on the specific, actually asking the filmmakers to emphasize an angle on a familiar story that genuinely matters to them. And if the "30 For 30" producers did their job, they selected filmmakers smart enough to take those general stories and use them to illustrate larger trends, without ever coming right out and lecturing you on how their little story fits into the broader canvas.  

The series premieres with "Kings Ransom," Peter Berg's ("Friday Night Lights") story of the 1988 trade that brought Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings.

For good reason, Wayne Gretzky was No. 5 on ESPN's SportsCentury list of the Top 50 Athletes of the 20th Century. But Berg isn't interested in just worshiping at the Great One's feet, waxing rhapsodic about his scoring touch and his Stanley Cups. Instead, he concentrates his attentions on how the trade impacted two different cities -- Edmonton, which lived for the NHL and sometimes little else, and Los Angeles, which took Gretzky's arrival as an excuse to have a brief fling with hockey-love. Berg looks at the sense of betrayal that long-suffering fans feel, but he also examines the economic realities and clashing egos that made the trade possible and maybe even necessary. Mostly, he looks at Gretzky and the way the trade impacted his legacy and the second half of his career. 

In "Kings Ransom," Berg and Gretzky both appear on-camera chatting while golfing. My first instinct was to feel like Berg was an unnecessary distraction, but his presence and the unexpected milieu are part of why the hockey legend feels comfortable enough to be surprisingly candid at times. 

Even better than "King's Ransom" is Barry Levinson's "The Band That Wouldn't Die," which premieres on Oct. 13.

As you may possibly have noticed, Levinson is a Baltimore guy and anybody who's seen "Diner" knows that he's also a huge sports guy. It would have been one thing for Levinson to look at, say, the history of the Baltimore Colts. Too broad. Or to look at that day in 1984 when the moving vans took the team out of Baltimore and moved them to Indianapolis. Too broad. Instead, he focuses on the Colts Marching Band, how one tiny (and passionate) group of fans held onto the music and the NFL faith despite losing their team, facing adversity as dire as having to root for a short-lived Canadian Football League team. 

Like "Kings Ransom." "The Band That Wouldn't Die" is very much tapped into our current sports landscape, to the struggle that smaller market teams face in this economic climate, where everyday fans find themselves at the mercy of wealthy owners who don't care about tradition or even fielding a competitive team sometimes, in favor of just protecting their own business interests. It's the best think Levinson has been involved with since "Wag the Dog," or possibly even longer.

The third exemplary doc, premiering on Oct. 27, is "Muhammad and Larry," from director Albert Maysles ("Grey Gardens"). With Muhammad Ali generally unable to speak for himself in documentaries on his life, the "Muhammad without Muhammad" doc has become a genre of its own. "When We Were Kings" won the Oscar, but I was a huge fan of "Thriller in Manilla," which I saw at Sundance and which subsequently aired on HBO.

"Muhammad and Larry" is more like "Thriller in Manilla" in that it concentrates more on the other boxer in a famous Ali fight, in this case Larry Holmes, who pummeled Ali in a 1980 fight most experts agree was a bridge too far for the adored champion. Relying heavily on previously unseen footage shot by Albert and brother David in the time leading up to the fight, "Muhammad and Larry" is a tragedy, a look at one man who never should have been in the ring that night and another man whose place in the spotlight was forever obscured. This is an entirely different Ali from the one depicted in "Kings" and "Thriller," an older, slower Ali, a tragic Ali. 

In between "The Band That Wouldn't Die" and "Muhammad and Larry" is the only disappointment among the first four "30 For 30" installments, Mike Tollin's "Small Potatoes:  Who Killed the USFL?"

It would be too easy to say that of the four initial filmmakers, Tollin ("Summer Catch") is the least artistically gifted of the group and thus is film is the least successful. 

The reality is that Tollin fell into exactly the trap that the other three filmmakers dodged. Tollin was so enamored with his subject, the short-lived USFL, that he decided to make a documentary that covered an entire era, rather than finding one good story within that era and concentrating on it. 

Certainly the USFL, with its star players, its flamboyant gimmickry and it's sad flameout, is an entertaining subject, but it's probably a subject that could spawn 30 of these docs. Tollin attempts to over all of the stories and does none of them justice. The best part of "Small Potatoes" is Tollin's sit-down with an uncooperative Donald Trump, who refuses to acknowledge any of the mistakes he made, much less their role in killing the USFL. The Trump story is the one Tollin covers best, but he's limited by Trump's participating, which was limited. 

At their best, these "30 For 30" docs tell stories the viewers won't know. That's where Tollin fails. If you don't know about the USFL, "Small Potatoes" will certainly be informative and engaging, but it lacks for new insight and focus.

Still, the first month of "30 For 30" has three big winners and one qualified (but hardly awful) dud. If the series can keep up any where near that pace, I'm going to have to lead a grassroots campaign to get "30 For 30" a Program of the Year nomination for the 2010 Television Critics Association Awards. It's that good.

 

ESPN's "30 For 30" premieres on Tuesday, Oct. 6 with "Kings Ransom." Subsequent installments air on Tuesday nights at 8 p.m.