Best: 'Pony Excess' caps ESPN's '30 for 30'

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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ESPN is the Yankees of sports television - rich, powerful and not given to losing quietly.

Which helps explain how one of its most prominent personalities, ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons, came to spur a documentary series eventually known as "30 for 30.''

One of the motivations: "HBO was killing us [on documentaries]," he said Friday. "We're allegedly the 'Worldwide Leader.' Why were we letting them win?''

Fifteen months later, it concludes Saturday with "Pony Excess'' - about the SMU football program - as one of the most critically lauded projects in ESPN history.

And the rivalry has been all good for viewers, because HBO continues to roll out its own quality films. Saturday, it offers "Lombardi,'' about you know who, at 8 p.m. Then ESPN will show the SMU film at 9.

"Maybe it invigorated them a little bit, too,'' Simmons said. "Competition is good.''

At least the two outlets are playing nicely these days.

In October 2009, Simmons told me HBO's work was "consistently good'' but "really predictable'' and out of touch with younger viewers. HBO was unamused.

Since then, Simmons has spent time with HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg and said: "I have a great deal of respect for him. He's the biggest reason we created this series in the first place.''

Still, HBO is predictable in some ways, including its use of designated narrator Liev Schreiber.

The best thing about "30 for 30'' was its box-of-chocolates approach, in which every piece reflected the personal vision of a filmmaker.

"We were OK with having a couple that maybe weren't as good as others, because we wanted to take chances," Simmons said.

Among the best were long, serious entries such as "The Two Escobars,'' about a Colombian soccer star and an (unrelated) drug lord; "Once Brothers,'' about Vlade Divac and the late Drazen Petrovic, and "The Best That Never Was,'' about former running back Marcus Dupree.

But "30 for 30" also showed a deft light touch, especially in "Winning Time," about the 1990s rivalry between Reggie Miller and the Knicks.

The series even veered into a controversy over "The House of Steinbrenner," which was panned not only by critics but by Yankees president Randy Levine - aggressively so.

That inspired a tweet from Simmons in which he referred to Levine with a (relatively mild) expletive. "I regret that," he said. "I should have just handled that behind the scenes."

The first 15 films are being sold as a boxed set beginning Tuesday, with the rest due early next year. And there will be more beyond "30 for 30." One entry for 2011 is "Steve Bartman: Catching Hell," which originally was part of the official series.

The story of the scandal-plagued SMU program is a worthy capper, and the timing is delicious: right after controversial Auburn quarterback Cam Newton probably will win the Heisman Trophy.

Eric Dickerson and Craig James, the school's famed "Pony Express" backfield, both said they thought the film taught them things they hadn't known. As in the film, Dickerson was coy Monday about what, if anything, he received to play at SMU.

"It's a dead subject," he said. "The past is the past. I've never been a guy in any situation to kiss and tell. That's just not me."

Dickerson did say, though, that whatever he got at SMU "didn't come close to some things that I was offered from other schools."

As with many "30 for 30" entries, "Pony Excess" recalls events largely familiar to baby boomers but news to people born after ESPN was born in September 1979. That was part of the point.

"I don't think all of them were great," Simmons said. "But I think going into it, if we had said, 'Would you take half of these being good ones?' I'd have taken it. I think we exceeded that."