Hoop There It Is
Ball is life. Life imitates art. Therefore, ball is art. If you accept the first two premises then there’s no denying the conclusion. It’s no surprise that the beautiful game of basketball has been well-represented on the silver screen for decades. Playing the sport means a lot to me personally, but it’s equally satisfying when basketball is used as a narrative launching point to address larger themes. As you’ll see on this list, the 1990s dominated the basketball genre. This is not unusual, since many proclaim the ’80s and ’90s to be the “Golden Age” of the game. Hollywood capitalized on this feeling by producing some of the most memorable hardwood and blacktop movies that are widely touted today as classics. While the modern game has certainly advanced basketball in terms of athleticism, analytics, and entertainment value – the basketball of thirty years ago was aggressive, gritty, and societally seminal. Don’t reach young blood.
1. White Men Can’t Jump (1992) – dir. Ron Shelton
1992’s White Men Can’t Jump is an example of the quality you can produce by taking a well known cultural stereotype and having some fun with it. Everyone is familiar with the idea of the “white boy” baller whose only value to a team is great jump shooting. Everyone including Billy Hoyle, who manipulates this misconception to his financial advantage. Woody Harrelson plays this former college basketball player-turned street hustler with feigned naivete and just enough swagger to be engaging. Acting as a counterweight to him is the brash and loud Sidney (Snipes) whose cockiness and trash talk is his greatest strength, and ultimately, his biggest weakness. WMCJ is a comedy with expected laughs and unexpectedly great basketball set pieces, cementing the legacy of basketball as bravado.
NBA Cameos: Gary Payton, Marques Johnson, Freeman Williams
2. Hoop Dreams (1994) – dir. Steve James
What initially began as a 30-minute documentary short for PBS, Hoop Dreams blossomed into an eight year epic that serves as testament to the power of documentary filmmaking and eventually came to define the genre as a whole. Steve James’ three hour masterpiece follows the trajectory of two teenagers, William Gates and Arthur Agee (pictured in cover photo), who try to fulfill their lifelong aspirations of playing in the NBA. They are both recruited by St. Joseph High School whose most notable alumnus is Detroit Piston-great Isiah Thomas. Both Gates and Agee grew up in poor African-American neighborhoods in the North and West Sides of Chicago. Along with similar upbringings, what they share in common is the unshakable desire to excel at the sport they love and use it as a means to lift their families out of poverty. Hoop Dreams is one of the most sobering films you’ll ever see, as you watch the two boys mature through high school and attempt to make it at the college ranks over the course of nearly a decade. Accompanying this solemn sense of reality is the ever increasing realization that their “hoop dreams” are slowly fading out of reach. This is a story that deserves to be told.
NBA Cameos: Isiah Thomas, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose
3. Celtic Pride (1996) – dir. Tom DeCerchio
Here we shift from the gravitas of documentary stories to the levity of basketball fandom. Celtic Pride is admittedly a wacky and improbable movie but boy is it a lot of fun. Stern and Aykroyd play two Boston Celtic super-fans whose only dream in life is to see the Larry O’Brien trophy once again lifted by their boys in green. When the Celtics drop game 6 of the NBA Finals to the visiting Utah Jazz, Mike and Jimmy devise a scheme to abduct the Jazz’s best player Lewis Scott (played by Damon Wayans) before Game 7 and keep him from ruining the Celtics’ final season in the old Boston Garden. As stupid as this setup sounds, the movie manages to generate moments of genuine comedy and takes a hilarious (and cleverly satirical) look inside the mind of over-dedicated sports fans. After their foolishly simple-minded plan takes some unexpected turns, Mike and Jimmy are forced to play by the rules of their captor…which may end up proving scarier than any jail sentence.
NBA Cameos: Larry Bird, Bill Walton, Bob Cousey, Marv Albert
4. Space Jam (1996) – dir. Joe Pytka
The movie that defined a generation for ’90s babies. Space Jam had a rather simple formula: Take the greatest living basketball player at the time and pair him with one of the most famous cartoons of all time. The result was a live action/animation slam dunk. Michael Jordan was in the midst of his prime as a player after his two year hiatus and equally as marketable as a celebrity, the culmination of which being a role in his only feature length film to date. Along with a bevy of NBA stars and the cast of Looney Tunes, Space Jam epitomized the ’90s style of fun. Not to mention setting the gold standard for sports movies by becoming the highest grossing basketball movie of all time ($230 million worldwide). For all its zaniness and childlike sentimentality, it still remains as energetic as ever and thoroughly enjoyable.
NBA Cameos: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Shawn Bradley, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues
5. He Got Game (1998) – dir. Spike Lee
Leave it to lifelong New York Knicks supporter Spike Lee to create arguably the greatest basketball movie of all time. What makes this film particularly special is not just the casting of a 23-year-old Ray Allen (who holds his own acting-wise) nor the powerful performance by Denzel, but the emotional impact delivered by the narrative structure. Tasked by the governor to recruit his nationally ranked son to the governor’s Alma mater, convicted felon Jake Shuttlesworth finds that reconnecting with his estranged son is a challenge both on and off the court. He Got Game has much more to say than what you see on the surface. Honestly, loyalty, integrity, societal pressure, familial love, and then some basketball. This really is more than just a game. Kudos to Spike, who gives the city of New York a basketball product to be proud of.
NBA Cameos: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Rick Fox, Travis Best, Walter McCarty, John Wallace, Rick Pitino, George Karl
This list was tough to whittle down to just 5 but I chose the 5 that I think are representative as a whole. CC and various other “savior coach” movies could have made the list but I couldn’t squeeze them in.