Look, I think we all miss basketball right now. This is supposed to be the time for the NCAA tournament, and to a lesser extent, the NIT and other lower-level tournaments which give a team a chance at post season basketball. Instead, we’re left to wonder who would win this year’s ultimate crown. Maybe soon there will be a hypothetical NCAA tournament, but today it’s about the silver screen and the best basketball movies.
About three years ago, I did a column on my opinion of the best sports movies, so this is similar but not really. There is no set order to this but you’ll probably see a few classics and a few headscratchers on this list.
When talking about basketball movies, everyone always has the same one at the top of the list. A based-on-a-true story tale about a small school with a troubled-past head coach. A mysterious lights-out shooter, a shrimp who fashions himself more of an equipment manager and a loveable town drunk that is an amazing coach when sober.
If you can’t figure it out by now, it’s Hooisers. The gripping drama of Norman Dale, played by one-time Storm Lake resident Gene Hackman, who has come back to basketball in small town Indiana to take over a team with only six players initially. We all know this movie, and I’m pretty sure we all love this film.
From Jimmy Chitwood’s beautiful jump shot to “not watching the paint dry on the picket fence,” Hoosiers is an all-time basketball classic. If there’s one fault with this movie, it’s the at times forced love story between Dale and another teacher who disapproves of the game and how people treat it.
Does anyone really like that scene in the field? No? Good. Regardless, even though this isn’t in any order, Hoosiers should always be at the top of a basketball movie list.
One of my personal favorites, that not many others seem to agree on, is Blue Chips. Blue Chips stars Nick Nolte (who studied Bob Knight for this role) as a cranky, sports-media-hating, program-on-the-downturn coach at a fictional university. Sounds like Bob Knight’s later years at Indiana.
Nolte’s character, Pete Bell, is under pressure from the boosters to turn the program around or he’s out of a job. He wants the program to remain clean, but gives in and eventually buys top players around the country. The basketball action is fantastic in this movie as Penny Hardaway, Shaq and other real life players were on the court for most of the action.
Again, there is a tepid love-like story between Bell and his ex-wife but it ends up working out in the end once she finds out what happened with the program. Nolte’s speech at the end of the movie is fantastic and still holds true today. Also, be on the lookout for Ed O’Neill playing a nosy sports reporter.
Another good mixed-review basketball “joint” as the director prefers to call his films, is Spike Lee’s He Got Game. Lee’s look at how a young phenom gets recruited, paired with a redemption tale of a family, is a solid way to spend a couple of hours even if it can be depressing at times.
Lee got budding NBA star Ray Allen to play the role of Jesus Shuttleworth, the best high school hoops player in the country, and his father Jake Shuttleworth? Played by the one and only Denzel Washington.
The basic premise is that Jake has been in prison after the accidental murder of his wife, Jesus’ mother and Jesus cannot stand that. Jake has a week to get Jesus to sign with the governor’s school of choice and he can get his prison sentence reduced. Not sure how realistic that is, but we’ll go with it.
While there’s not much on-court action, basketball is the driving force of the entire movie. From shady recruiting tactics using enhanced co-eds to lure Jesus to a college, to an agent promising him big money if he jumps to the NBA, Jesus’ story of trying to make the best decision is interesting. Jake’s path to try to get back in his son’s life feels like Captain Ahab trying to chase the white whale.
The final game, a one-on-one contest between father and son, features one of Denzel Washington’s all-time great lines.
One of the more fun basketball films to spend some time with is the hilarious White Men Can’t Jump. Starring Woody Harrelson, as Billy Hoyle, and Wesley Snipes, as Sidney Deane, this one explores the concept that white guys, well, they can’t play street ball. Hoyle banks on this fact and is a hustler, using his skin color to be underestimated.
Both Hoyle and Deane have their reasons for playing street ball for money and the most enjoyable parts are when they team up together on the court, trash-talking their opponents, one another and even attempting to hustle the other.
Hoyle has debts to some bad, bad men and Deane is trying to get his family out of the projects, so these two are humanized and we want to see them get out of their situations. The best speech might come from Rosie Perez in this one as she explains how sometimes when you lose, you really win.
The next couple of films are more comedy-based and you could easily call them guilty pleasures. Semi-Pro is a Will Ferrel-led yarn about the ABA’s Flint Tropics and the lengths they go to get absorbed by the NBA and also sell tickets and entertain fans. Ferrel plays the owner/coach/starting power forward Jackie Moon, who got rich after a one-hit-wonder song titled “Love Me Sexy,”they actually made into a song and is heard in the movie. If you’re going to do a bit like that, go all the way with it like they did.
The Tropics are a bad team. Bottom of the standings, no money (as one fan found out after hitting a three-fourths court shot) and no chance at going to the NBA. Getting an aging point guard who had a cup of coffee in the NBA in Ed Monnix, played by Woody Harrelson. Monnix turns the Tropics around and gets the selfish Sugar Dunkerton/Coffee Black/Downtown “Funky Stuff” Malone (played by Andre Benjamin) to embrace team ball.
It’s a rather silly film but it’s a lot of fun if you don’t mind that brand of humor.
The second guilty pleasure is Celtic Pride. Two Boston Celtic superfans, played by Daniel Stern and Dan Akyroyd, kidnap the star player of the Utah Jazz ahead of game seven of the NBA finals to assure another Boston championship.
The mishaps and blunders that the duo goes through to make sure that Lewis Scott, played by Damon Wayans, stays in their grasp switches between comical and cringe-worthy. Scott messes with the two and tries to get them to turn on one another as they slowly realize how much trouble they’d be in once the news gets out that they kidnapped someone.
Perhaps some of the best moments in the movie happen early as the Celtics are losing game six and our star duo attempts everything to get the team’s luck to change by having people switch seats, change sections and every other insane idea to get their team back in the game. As sports fans, we’ve all thought we have a bad luck seat or if we watch, and they start losing, it’s bad luck.
So, there you have it, some of the best basketball movies to spend some time with. Also an honorable mention to a TV show as season one, episode five of The Office, simply titled “Basketball.”