If you’re a sports fan, you’re likely a sports documentary fan as well. Good sports documentaries tell you things you didn't know and tickle the nostalgia bone that will always produce a warm and fuzzy feeling. They are also great for providing information that was impossible to understand in the moment.
Prior to 2009, that genre had mostly been the realm of HBO. Thanks to the dulcet tones of Liev Schreiber, you were lulled in for an hour as you learned about UNLV in the 90’s, the 1972 US Basketball Team, and so on. Then, ESPN decided they were going to celebrate their 30th anniversary in 1979 with 30 sports documentaries. They have since become the standard bearer with well over 100 films made with a wide variety of subjects, almost all of them must-watch for one reason or another.
If you go to the main page, the sheer enormity of the subjects covered will overwhelm you. Every major sport all across the world, pretty much every major moment that sports fans would know of in the past 40 years has some sort of deep exploration one way or the other. Some even got two documentaries, as Survive and Advance and Phi Slama Jama took both sides of the 1983 NCAA title game. The announcement of a new one is the announcement of new required viewing, and any time I question my ESPN + subscription, I just pull up the ESPN Films vault and realize the value it provides.
All of this is to say that perhaps one of the biggest story drivers of the past 40 years, Carolina Basketball, has never had its own 30 for 30.
Carolina Basketball has been the subject of documentaries, mind you. In 2015 Showtime created a nice, if relatively forgettable, documentary about Dean Smith, and HBO gave Carolina and Duke their treatment with the Battle for Tobacco Road in 2009. If you were a fan of either program, however, neither documentary gave you that much more than what you knew. It wasn’t until the 30 for 30’s came along that you could see what could be done when the stakes keep being upped, and yet somehow Carolina has never been a subject.
That’s not to say Carolina has been shut out of the series. In fact, they’ve frustratingly been at the periphery of several films. The 2011 Fab Five documentary went deep into the 1993 NCAA title game, but never spoke to a single Tar Heel for their perspective, rather Carolina was basically presented as a team that was lucky to win that title because of Webber’s mistake. Survive and Advance made a passing reference of NC State’s 1983 win over the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament, Phi Slama Jama mentioned the Houston loss to the Tar Heels in the 1982 Final Four. Requiem for the Big East further dug into the ‘82 National Championship thanks to Georgetown. I Hate Christian Laettner danced around parts of the rivalry. Lastly, the Celtics vs Lakers talked both about James Worthy and Michael Jordan contributing to the histories of both teams.
As a UNC fan and alumnus, however, it’s been frustrating to watch Carolina be at the intersection of so many subjects, and yet somehow not being worthy of getting their own 30 for 30 treatment. Seeing rival schools both get one, as well as John Calipari get one as if he invented the concept of a player leaving school early and being magnanimous enough to want the player to succeed in the NBA, just adds to this frustration. When would Carolina finally get the spotlight instead of being a bit player?
Finally, on Sunday, people started to see Carolina as a major player as opposed to just a bit part. Thanks to The Last Dance, viewers got to not only see Roy Williams bring the full Roy, but they also got a glimpse into how the program helped shape the greatest basketball player of all time. The first two episodes were very clearly set up as background for the remaining eight episodes, and in order to understand the team you have to understand Jordan. Most of what was discussed wasn’t new, but it still presented people with a glimpse of Carolina they weren’t used to. It caused Roy Williams to actually trend on Twitter during most watched documentary ESPN has shown, and the tweets were good:
Roy Williams says freakin’ better than anyone can say an actual swear word pic.twitter.com/fg517sUwNT— Big Cat (@BarstoolBigCat) April 20, 2020
everything roy williams says is wildly charming— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) April 20, 2020
I want to watch the full footage of the Roy Williams interview— Charlotte Wilder (@TheWilderThings) April 20, 2020
So the big question here is: why hasn’t Carolina been the focus of one of these? Since ESPN’s inception in 1979, there are a ton of subjects that would be worthy of inclusion. There’s examining Dean Smith getting his players to the pros before they were seniors. You could do one, Phi Slama Jama-style, on the 1982 Tar Heels that had Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Matt Doherty, Sam Perkins, and Jimmy Black with Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge, Eddie Fogler, and Roy Williams on the bench. Seriously, look at those nine names. A view of the 1993 Tar Heels, in the view as one of those teams that doesn’t get their full credit, would also be fascinating for how opposite of ‘82 they were in a lot of ways.
Need more? How about an examination called From Dean to Roy? The time span of 1997 to Roy’s return in 2002 is one of the most tumultuous in Carolina history, and with Doherty’s interview on the Carolina Insider pod recently, there are stories ripe to mine that could fit in a documentary. A documentary on Roy Williams itself would be fascinating, as almost the entirety of his career has happened during the ESPN era, and how he went from an assistant straight to a Blue Blood program, and the controversy around both times he was up for the UNC job. For a program that, in a lot of ways, has been described as the “IBM of college basketball,” there are a ton of stories that the 30 for 30 directors could mine.
So why haven’t they? Honestly, the biggest answer may be in the simple thing that makes Carolina so good: the family. In order to have a truly good documentary, you have to get subjects willing to talk truthfully, warts and all. It’s been a big issue for Jordan, who’s come out to warn that people may not like how he looks. The simple fact is that everyone in the Carolina Family feels like that if you have issues, you keep it in the family. How real would the subjects get if they felt like they were hurting the current head coach, or if they felt like they would hurt some of their former teammates? You’d have to find an angle that would allow the subjects to be compelling, but also not hurt how the current program looks. It’s tougher than it sounds.
We may not be quite done with Roy Williams in this documentary, as Jordan’s first retirement may be explored a little more, and Roy may also be used to speak about how MJ currently helps the program. That said, fans should enjoy the small snippets they were able to get. Despite there being a rich mine for filmmakers to go into, the access to that mine may forever be blocked off enough to where a compelling documentary in this style could be made. It’s a shame, because it doesn’t take long to realize just how integral Carolina Basketball has been to sports over the life of ESPN.
Carolina fans will just have to get their satisfaction in where they intersect with the other subjects, usually playing spoiler.