In Shark, the new ESPN 30 for 30 sports documentary that premieres today, we see the story of Greg Norman, the Aussie golfer who was one of his sport's top players in the 1980s and '90s. Known for his signature straw hats and the nickname "The Shark" — surely one of the coolest nicknames given to a golfer — Norman spent over 300 weeks as the #1 golfer in the sport, won two British Open titles, and won countless tournaments. And yet what he's best known for is finishing in second place. Norman finished as runner-up eight times in a major tournament, most infamously at the 1996 Masters, where he lost a 6-shot lead in the final round, choking away his best shot at winning golf's most prestigious title.
"Would my life be different if I had a green jacket?" That's the question Norman himself poses in Shark, and it's one that's applicable to countless athletes, not only in how they experience their own lives and careers but in how the public, the media, and history itself views their careers. Greg Norman was one of the most elite golfers of his era, but he'll always be best known for choking at the '96 Masters.
This is rich territory for 30 for 30, ESPN's series of sports documentaries created by Bill Simmons in 2009 that has, to date, produced over 150 episodes covering stories from all over the sports world, from forgotten histories to in-depth profiles to deep dives on infamous moments. Shark slots in with one of the best subgenres of 30 for 30 episodes: the tales of sports failure. So much of sports coverage is winner-focused; we're obsessed with the champions, the MVPs, the GOATs. Michael Jordan versus Muhammad Ali versus Serena Williams versus Secretariat in a debate over who was the most dominant athlete in their sport. These discussions feed our desire for sports to be about greatness and superhuman ability. But the other side of that coin is far more human. ABC's Wide World of Sports had it right: "The thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat." You can't have winners without losers, and it's in the losing that we arrive at so many of our most compelling stories.
30 for 30 has understood this from the beginning. Losing has been in its DNA since the earliest episodes in the series, even when it hasn't been explicitly the theme. The very first 30 for 30 episode, "Kings Ransom," focused on the blockbuster NHL trade that sent Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player who ever lived, from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. The story is about Gretzky and the allure of the bright lights of L.A. and how he was ultimately able to bring a title there… but the most compelling aspect of the story isn't what Gretzky gained, it's what the city of Edmonton — and Canada itself, really — lost when the hockey legend bailed on the team he'd won all those championships with to chase fame and money.
30 for 30 followed that up with "The Band That Wouldn't Die," a heartwarming tale about the old Baltimore Colts marching band that stuck together after the team bolted the city for greener pastures in Indianapolis. Once again, a city had lost their sporting heroes, and the story was in how they responded to that loss. The third episode, "Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?" leveled up to examine the failure of an entire football league.
Failure and/or loss were all over that first batch of 30 for 30 episodes, from basketball greats Len Bias and Hank Gathers dying young to football media personality Jimmy the Greek's fall from grace after making racist statements on TV. "Jordan Rides the Bus" took the most successful NBA star of all time, Michael Jordan, and focused on the two years he spent away from basketball trying — and failing — to make it as a pro baseball player.
In examining these stories, we arrive at a view of sports that sees victory and loss in less stark terms. Films like "The Best That Never Was," about 1980s football prospect Marcus Dupree, whose boundless possibility was never realized at the pro level, serve as a reminder of just how rare it is for an athlete to have both elite talent as well as the right series of circumstances to achieve a legendary career. Films about players like Bo Jackson, perhaps the greatest two-sport athlete who ever lived, linger on the thin line between promise of legendary success and a career forever derailed by injury.
Sometimes that pain and failure comes from off of the playing field entirely. "Catching Hell" tells the story of the infamous Chicago Cubs fan who, in trying to catch a foul ball, inadvertently interfered with a player and cost his beloved team the chance to go to the World Series. That loss was acutely felt by the Cubs and their fans and then channeled in a terrifying laser beam of vitriol, directly onto one fan.
Unsurprisingly, given its status as America's most popular sport (and also the sport where the difference between wild success and face-planting failure is often so thin), the NFL has been the subject of many of 30 for 30's best looks at sports failure. Both "The Marinovich Project" and "Brian and the Boz" focused on big, flashy prospects out of college — USC quarterback Todd Marinovich and Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth — who either never panned out as a pro (Marinovich) or who flashed quickly in the NFL (Boz).
There have been enough 30 for 30 episodes by now that pretty much every sports fan will have one episode that hits them the most personally. For me, it's the 2015 film "Four Falls of Buffalo," chronicling one of the great tales of sports failure in history, my own beloved Buffalo Bills making it to four consecutive Super Bowls — a feat never accomplished before or since — and losing all four. The Bills were one of the great football teams of the '90s and yet they became synonymous not only in the sports world but in popular culture, for abject failure, a label that hasn't ever been successfully shaken off. Narrated by actor and Bills fan William Fichtner, the doc is a classic example of how much more poignant a story can be when it's about failure instead of success.
In many ways, Greg Norman is the Buffalo Bills of golf, a man whose incredible accomplishments in his sport will forever take a back seat to his most high profile failure. How does a man — a team, a city, a fandom — deal with that? How do they make peace with their place among the elites of their sport? It's a question that 30 for 30 will have countless more opportunities to ask.
30 For 30: Shark premieres April 19 at 8:30 PM ET on ESPN. The film will be made available on ESPN+ immediately after its premiere, alongside the rest of the 30 for 30 library.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.