The best basketball movies don’t need to alter the sport much to tell great stories for the screen. That’s because basketball is generally (sometimes unnecessarily) a spectacle. Michael Jordan battling the flu in a hostile environment to will his body and team to a victory in the NBA Finals is reverentially referred to as “The Flu Game.” Bill Russell had to withstand barrages of racist epithets hurled at him by the fans of the same Boston Celtics he helped win 11 NBA titles. Players have thrown games to win gambling parlays, colleges have bought player commitments, and I’m pretty sure former NBA referee Tim Donaghy screwed the 2002 Sacramento Kings out of an NBA title. The best basketball movies just have to insert compelling characters, and the sport will do the rest.
Love & Basketball is just another teenage love story of childhood friends who secretly pine for each other. The one-on-one pickup game with their relationship at stake and the juxtaposition of their individual journeys to become professional basketball players help it stand out. White Men Can’t Jump is another movie about gambling degenerates and how their selfish addiction hurts the lives of those they love. Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) losing all the money he just won because he can’t quite complete a dunk is a tragic way of showing a man who can’t accept his limits.
There’s also a level of absurdity accepted in basketball that is fertile ground for great comedy. New York Knicks fans are traditionally cocky enough to believe they can run the team better than the owners. So, Whoopi Goldberg going from irate fan to head coach in Eddie isn’t that far of a stretch. Gatorade drilled into the heads of anyone with eyes and ears in the 1980s that they should drink the same Gatorade Michael Jordan did if they wanted to “Be Like Mike.” Shad Moss doing that with a pair of magical sneakers (because it clearly must be the shoes) is just generations of people living out a fantasy they’ve had since they were kids.
The best basketball movies help you realize how dramatic the actual game can be. And they remind you why you love it so much.
Teen Wolf (1985)
In one of his most memorable roles, Michael J. Fox plays high school student Scott Howard, a teenager who turns into a werewolf and does things on a basketball court that would inspire even Michael Jordan. The central focus of this ’80s classic coming-of-age comedy isn’t his basketball talents. Still, Teen Wolf is forever one of the best basketball movies for introducing crossover dribbles and windmill dunks to werewolf mythology. Nearly 40 years later, a werewolf going full Julius Erving on a basketball court is still one of the lasting images anyone has of this film.
The 6th Man (1997)
The ghost of a deceased basketball player returning to aid his former team to victories is far-fetched to anyone except basketball fans who believe there are basketball gods making miracles happen on the court. The 6th Man is that belief turned into a film. Antoine (Kadeem Hardison) and Kenny Tyler (Marlon Wayans) are brothers and teammates on the Washington Huskies collegiate men’s basketball team—until the former suffers a fatal heart attack during a game and his spirit returns to support his brother in winning games. The premise is ridiculous, and some special effects haven’t aged well. Still, it is one of the most underrated basketball films ever on the strength of Wayans and Hardison’s chemistry as brothers. It’s a comically executed thought experiment of what it would be like if unseen forces decided the basketball games that we basketball fans sometimes already think they are.
Just Wright (2010)
Physical therapists and NBA players aren’t usually the romantic core of a basketball movies, but Queen Latifah and Common are anything but typical actors. In this romantic comedy, Leslie Wright (Latifah) and New Jersey Nets player Scott McKnight (Common) go through an NBA-style courtship where an in-game injury brings them closer together. Of course, the film is full of NBA superstars like Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Rajon Rondo, which adds a level of basketball realism to the film. But it’s Wright and McKnight’s tender bonding experience as he works to recuperate and the surprisingly accurate NBA action that makes this a slam dunk basketball film anyone can watch.
Space Jam (1996)
Look, we all know Michael Jordan can’t act, but that’s not Space Jam‘s point. This live-action/animated sports comedy has never left the hearts and minds of millions of people since its 1996 debut because of how deeply it merged our childhood idols (Looney Tunes characters) with our adolescent idols (NBA players) at a time when both were at the height of their respective popularities. Space Jam scratched a similar curiosity itch Marvel’s What If… did, thanks to the greatest basketball player ever taking his already mind-boggling talents to a realm where the hyperbole around him can run free. In real life, Jordan’s iconic free-throw line dunk in the 1987 dunk contest made us think that man could defy gravity. Space Jam played to that absurdist expectation by having him win an inter-dimensional battle against monsters by achieving a half-court dunk with a cartoonishly outstretched arm. You don’t always need to make sense to make history.
Air Bud (1997)
I don’t have the stats to back this up, but I was there in the late ’90s, and I vividly remember a basketball-playing Golden Retriever being the second name people associated with “Air” after Michael Jordan. Air Bud didn’t need to make sense; it made you feel. A runaway dog named Buddy and a child named Josh Framm’s (Kevin Zegers) bond to fill the voids in their hearts is a touching ode to how integral a kid’s first relationship with a canine is to their confidence development. I’m willing to bet people started throwing basketballs at their dog’s faces hoping they’d respond as Air Bud did and easily sink jump shots (or are they nose shots?) after this movie became a hit. Also, this movie features human adults finding loopholes in basketball rules to allow a dog to play on their team and a crowd of other adults finding nothing wrong with it. That makes this both a landmark basketball movie and an unintentional commentary on how we’ll do any and everything to have our dogs integral to our lives.
Like Mike (2002)
Shad Moss stepped away from his Lil Bow Wow rap persona and into a pair of magical Michael Jordan sneakers that allowed him to hang in the air and cross grown men out of their kicks in the kid-friendly comedy Like Mike. Although the film is packed with actors who were current and future cinematic titans—Eugene Levy and a teenage Jesse Plemons—the most enduring aspects of Like Mike are the on-court exploits of the tiny Calvin Cambridge (Moss). Superstars like David Robinson and prime Allen Iverson subjecting themselves to being dunked on and crossed by a child never gets old and, at some point, awakens even the most dormant childhood dreams. That’s the true appeal of Like Mike— it gives generations of people who grew up wanting to be like Mike a look into what that would be like.
Die-hard New York Knicks fans are generally sentient opinions with limbs, and Eddie is the closest they’ll ever get to living out their dream of coaching the Knicks. The Whoopi Goldberg-centric sports comedy is absurd enough to mirror the wildest NBA fan’s fantasy and grounded enough to attract people who could care less about the Knicks. A superfan named Eddie (Goldberg) wins the assistant coaching job by making one free throw and endears herself enough to the pernicious Knicks fanbase with wild antics to inspire opportunistic Knicks owner “Wild Bill” Burgess (Frank Langella) to make her the head coach. She then leads the team to a playoff berth while thwarting Burgess’s plan to sell the team to St. Louis. Add in hilarious appearances from NBA players like Dennis Rodman and Larry Johnson, along with Goldberg ripping refs’ toupees off and kicking unruly fans in the nuts, and you have a great basketball movie that doesn’t have to sacrifice too much realism to entertain.
Just when you thought all of the great basketball movies had been released, Adam Sandler uses some of the money from his huge Netflix deal to shoot his shot. In Hustle, Sandler plays NBA scout Stanley Sugerman, who serendipitously uncovers a diamond in the rough, Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), during a pick-up game in Spain. The movie is packed with dozens of NBA players like Dirk Nowitzki, Tobias Harris, Trae Young, and Julius Erving, to name a few. But, beyond the names, Hustle doesn’t cut corners with its raw depiction of the sacrifices and pitfalls that comes with loving the game of basketball. The duplicitous agents, the paradoxical lack of time with the family you’re chasing modern basketball dreams to support, and the cultural roadblocks for international players coming to America are paramount and authentic thanks to the leveraged NBA star power. Also, Anthony Edwards as cocky upstart Kermit Wilts is surprisingly compelling with the natural flair for villainy you’d expect from a player who openly called a three-time Defensive Player of the Year unimpressive. The NBA is a league, but the dream is a hustle, and this movie immerses you in the grind.
Rule of thumb: Will Ferrell can do no wrong. This 2008 sports comedy is a no holds barred laugh fest centered around Jackie Moon, a ridiculous singer-turned-owner of the fictional American Basketball Association team, the Flint Tropics. Everything about this film is basketball absurdity on the highest level. Not only is Moon the owner of the Tropics, but he’s also the team’s head coach, pre-game announcer, and starting power forward. He open-hand slaps his players, traded a washing machine for an NBA-caliber player, and beats an opposing player with a shoe during a game. The central plot is Moon’s attempt at saving his Tropics from being dissolved as the ABA merges with the NBA. But, in all honesty, none of that actually matters. Semi-Pro is one of the funniest basketball movies of all time because Ferrell is in rare form for the entire movie and birthed an iconic character that real-life NBA players like Klay Thompson copy from time to time.
Finding Forrester (2000)
Finding Forrester is a rare basketball movie where someone’s prowess on the court is a detriment to their brilliance off the court. Black teenage writing prodigy Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) can transfer to a prestigious, predominantly white private school thanks to his excellent test scores as long as he plays for the school’s basketball team. In the film, basketball is used as a class stratification tool by a racist educational institution that values Jamal’s basketball talents over precocious writing talents. It’s used similarly by Jamal himself. He uses basketball to fit in with his inner-city friends, who he doesn’t want to leave behind, which has a level of juxtaposed complexity seldom seen in basketball movies. His touching friendship with venerable recluse author William Forrester, played immaculately by Sean Connery, is central to the film’s appeal. But, it’s the complicated relationship between basketball and identity that truly makes it a timeless masterpiece.
Blue Chips (1994)
Before he was a four-time NBA champion, Shaquille O’Neal was a fictional star college basketball prospect named Neon Boudeaux being (illegally) wooed to play for the struggling Western University Dolphins. Blue Chips tells a the story of a real-life problem in college sports as Dolphins coach Pete Bell (Nick Nolte) struggles with the open secret of other teams breaking NCAA laws by offering prospective players and their families gifts in exchange for them joining their teams. Nolte plays Bells with the volatile emotions of a coach trying to do what’s right in a rigged game he’s also trying to succeed in. Outside of the scintillating drama and athletic exploits of Shaq and Penny Hardaway, Blue Chips remains a relevant and honest indictment of the unchecked desecration of fair play that produced decades of competitive imbalance in the NCAA that remains a talking point even today.
High Flying Bird (2019)
Basketball is a sport, the NBA is a business, and this Steven Soderbergh-directed drama shows what happens when these two aren’t in sync. In High Flying Bird, the NBA is in the middle of a work stoppage lockout, and crafty sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) stumbles upon an ingenious plan to save his job and agency by disrupting the power dynamics between players and owners. After an impromptu one-on-one game between Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg) and his teammate Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley) goes viral on social media, Burke dangles the possibility of streaming games set up by players on streaming services and social media, eschewing the money from TV deals that have put the owners and TV networks at a standstill. Burke has the confident charisma to make anyone, including people watching, believe players can band together and revolt against the people who “own” their livelihoods and the game they grew up loving to play. Holland, Zazie Beetz, Kyle MacLachlan, and Gregg all shine in this film, but it’s the revolutionary premise and constant real-world threat of another NBA work stoppage that makes High Flying Bird an endlessly entertaining basketball film.
Glory Road (2006)
There was a time when the biggest colleges wouldn’t play in the NCAA tournament if it meant playing against Black players, and Glory Road transports you to that time with frustrating accuracy. Following Texas Western College head coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas), the first coach to field an all-Black starting lineup in NCAA history, Glory Road doesn’t hold back on unearthing the NCAA’s dark segregation past and the pitfalls of progress. You can’t watch one of the Black players be bloodied in a bathroom by racist white patrons before being dunked in a toilet full of urine and not feel the temperature of your blood reach a boiling point. That’s especially true when you see the despondent hopelessness on his face afterward. Glory Road is an all-time great basketball movie, but more importantly, it’s a reminder that basketball has always been a product of the times, for better or worse.
White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
White Men Can’t Jump is a gambling movie first and a basketball movie second, but it excels in both genres. Sidney “Syd” Deane (Wesley Snipes) and Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) are hustlers at heart who would gamble away their dying grandmother’s pension payments if it meant a shot at feeling the rush of winning; basketball just happened to be their choice of sport. It’s that human foundation that allows the pickup games, and Hoyle’s failed attempts at dunking a basketball have direr stakes than a final score. Racially insensitive (and inaccurate) title aside, White Men Can’t Jump is one of the truest depictions of people putting their hopes and dreams into a game. Now, let’s hope Jack Harlow can do it justice in his reboot.
Sunset Park (1996)
From the movie being titled after a New York City neighborhood to the film being shot all over the city, Sunset Park is an intimate look into New York City’s basketball culture and how this game is interwoven into the lives of New Yorkers. In one of his first starring roles, rapper Fred “Fredro Starr” Scruggs Jr embodies the New York City grit that created blacktop warriors like Julius Erving and Stephon Marbury. At the same time, the film never shies away from juxtaposing the fierce competition on the court with the players’ daily battles with surviving in the ghettos of NYC. The authenticity, in addition to one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time, makes Sunset Park required viewing for all New Yorkers and film buffs.
Coach Carter (2005)
More than a basketball film, Coach Carter excels at being a student-athlete film giving an uncompromising look at the difficult balance of the two identities. Based on a true story, Samuel L. Jackson plays no-nonsense Richmond High School’s basketball coach Ken Carter who not only makes his players sign contracts vowing to maintain at least a 2.3-grade point average but has the undefeated team forfeit multiple games when they don’t meet those standards. In a world where schools value players’ performances on the court rather than in the classroom so much they’d willingly commit academic fraud, Coach Carter still feels like a fresh look into what’s possible when the student is more valued than the athlete and a coach treats them like young men rather than players.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
This groundbreaking documentary film chronicles the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two Black teenagers from the inner-city trying to chase their dreams of playing in the NBA while being held back by their realities. For every gravity-defying dunker or three-point sniper dazzling you on the court, there are thousands of dreams deferred by the obstacles of life that Hoop Dreams gives audiences a fly-on-the-wall view of in soul-crushing detail. Agee and Gates have to take 90-minute commutes to school, deal with unstable family dynamics while trying to focus on their schoolwork, and struggle with the existential anxiety of believing their only way to a better life is basketball. The doc grossed over $11 million on a $700,000 budget, and has been an essential film for generations of basketball players looking for a true-to-life depiction of what it truly takes to become an NBA player.
It should be some federal law that no list of the best basketball movies ever can be published without Hoosiers being included. As Hickory Huskers coach Norman Dale, Gene Hackman is the prototype of a Hollywood basketball coach: unrelentingly motivational, selectively surly, and a stickler for fundamentals. Dale doesn’t care if someone like Rade Butcher (Steve Dollar) can’t miss a shot; if he’s not playing team basketball, he’ll bench him and play 4-on-5 basketball off principle alone. The movie isn’t just about the Cinderella story of a small town team that shocked everyone by winning a state championship; it’s also about how integral that team is to the small town of Hickory, Indiana. You don’t even realize Hickory, Indiana, doesn’t actually exist, thanks to how central the townspeople are to the enjoyment of the film. When it comes to feel-good stories, Hoosiers is near the top of the list and has been for almost 40 years.
Above The Rim (1994)
In some places, choosing basketball teams is equivalent to choosing life or death. Few films capture the precarious effect environment has on young Black men’s relationship to basketball than Above The Rim. Promising high school basketball star Kyle-Lee Watson (Duane Martin) has to choose between playing in his hometown basketball tournament for his longtime coach Mike Rollins (David Bailey) or local drug dealer Birdie, played with menacing depravity by the late Tupac Shakur. The film’s climactic scene involves Birdie ordering one of his players to avenge the team’s championship loss to Kyle’s team by shooting him moments after the game is finished, a grizzly consequence reflective of a cutthroat world. This is indelibly etched in cinema history partly for being Tupac’s best role outside of playing Bishop in Juice. On top of that, it boasts one of the most talented basketball movie casts—Bernie Mac, Marlon Wayans, Wood Harris— that is topped by only a few others. Its soundtrack is an undeniable barrage of hip-hop classics that have stood the test for nearly 30 years, just like the film.
Love & Basketball (2000)
If Romeo and Juliet never drank poison and instead played basketball, it’d be Love & Basketball. Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps play Monica Wright-McCall and Quincy McCall, respectively, two childhood friends and aspiring basketball players whose love grows from an open secret to all-consuming. Basketball is a team sport built around the intensity of back-and-forth duels of individuals, a fact Love & Basketball figuratively and literally uses to tell a love story of two people going for the same goal of happiness in sometimes conflicting manners. Whether it’s a game of strip basketball on a dorm room door basket or an iconic one-on-one game for someone’s heart, few films have ever told a love story and basketball tale without sacrificing the integrity of either.
He Got Game (1998)
Ray Allen scored 2,973 three-pointers, won two NBA titles and is a member of the NBA’s 75th-anniversary team. And people still refer to him as Jesus Shuttlesworth from Spike Lee’s 1998 basketball drama flick He Got Game. As top basketball prospect Jesus Shuttlesworth, the NBA legend acted opposite the indomitable Denzel Washington, who plays Allen’s ex-convict father, Jake Shuttlesworth, in a classic basketball film centered around a father and son rebuilding a relationship strained by Jake accidentally killing Jesus’s mother. Jake is only released on parole by a governor who stipulates he has to convince his son to play for his alma mater Big State. In his first ever film role, Allen is impressively memorable, balancing emotions of regret, pride, and the idolatry a child has for his father with a deftness that belied his lack of acting experience. When you’re one of the greatest basketball players ever in real life, and people still identify you as a ball player you acted as in a film, that’s when you know you helped make it the greatest basketball film of all time.
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