On the eve of another NBA season, our staff handpick a wide spectrum of basketball films that got it right.
In April, we ran a feature on the best baseball films of all time. If I had to try and articulate the main difference between movies that take place on the diamond and those set on the hardcourt, I’d break it down like this. Baseball often acts as a backdrop, a context for the relationships we hold dear – maybe an unforgettable summer spent with friends on the sandlot or a father-son bond measured out over the years in an endless string of tosses across a backyard.
Basketball, though, isn’t mere background music. The sound of chain nets rattling and dribbles reverberating are themselves the orchestral swell that demand our attention. The game itself stands as a life-changing act with stakes to match – a way up, a way out, a way to forget, the means to our dreams. Fault-lined blacktop courts are the settings for modern Shakespearian tragedies, the stages where men never soared so high or fell so hard. The hope being that if our shot is pure enough, our lives will somehow follow suit. Baseball may mark our lives, but it’s through basketball that the type of life we want becomes possible.
Those who call basketball “just a game” never saw these movies.
Or Space Jam.
10. Space Jam (1996)
Coach: Joe Pytka
Starting Lineup: Michael Jordan, Billy Murray, Bugs Bunny, and the Looney Tunes gang
Nothing But Net: Look, Space Jam is not a good movie. It’s not even a movie, technically. It’s an 87-minute press conference for Michael Jordan to make a literal animated return to the NBA, which he did a year prior after gambling with a “baseball career.” But what makes this ridiculous NBA/Looney Tunes crossover so intriguing is how it’s so emblematic of a specific time in the history of the sport.
Joining the Chicago Bulls hero on-screen are Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, and Larry Bird, who all poke fun at their respective strengths and weaknesses to a hideously dated soundtrack and a series of cornball jokes. It’s so ludicrously self-aware that they might as well be looking at the screen and shrugging in disbelief.
“It wasn’t a dream, it really happened!” You’re right, Barkley, it did, and the fact that this film netted around $230-250 million worldwide only proves how obsessed the world was with Jordan and basketball in general. Because, by comparison, 2003’s Jordan-less Looney Tunes: Back in Action air-balled with $68.5 million worldwide. But hey, maybe it was Wayne Knight.
MVP: Jordan, right? Not exactly. Bill Murray’s WTF cameo adds a certain panache to the proceedings, especially since he’s the only one in the entire film who can sell the green screen action. “Producer’s a friend of mine,” he tells Daffy. “He sent a Teamster to drop me off.” Three points, Venkman.
Slam Dunk Scene: It’s lame and ultra hokey, but the introduction featuring a young Michael Jordan (Brandon Hammond) and his father James R. Jordan, Sr. (Thom Barry) is kind of touching. It’s no He Got Game — spoiler alert: more on that in a bit — but as a young kid, it’s an effective little nod to the god’s humbling roots. But then, it hits the paint hard with a showy title sequence that shakes from Quad City DJs’ iconic theme and shines with a heart-racing collection of Jordan highlights. The latter was a big deal for a ’90s kid without YouTube.
09. Above the Rim (1994)
Coach: Jeff Pollack
Starting Lineup: Duane Martin, Tupac Shakur, Leon, and Marlon Wayans
Nothing But Net: Okay, so Above the Rim might not be the most realistic basketball movie in the world, but I don’t hear anybody complaining about freaking Space Jam. Nutso free-falling to his death in the opening scene pretty much sets the bar for believability, which has to be pretty low in a film that also includes a (very poorly edited) two-handed slam by Marlon Wayans.
Whatever. Above the Rim is a sweet basketball movie. It’s got everything you could want: trash talk, tough choices, Tupac Shakur, and a game-winning shot to finish things off. It also succeeds in capturing a New York City streetball culture that feels authentic, even if it’s a little overcolored. Oh, and let’s not even get started on that all-time-classic Death Row soundtrack, which features the likes of Pac alongside Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and other titans of ‘90s hip-hop.
MVP(s): Tupac Shakur as Birdie, the hard-ass neighborhood gang leader who changed how I look at razor blades forever. Though they don’t appear in the film, Warren G and Nate Dogg share runner-up status for contributing “Regulate” to the soundtrack.
Slam Dunk Scene: It’s gotta be that Bombers-Birdmen matchup, in which Shep briefly gets the shit kicked out of him before putting on a clinic of finger-roll layups, midrange jumpers, and yeah, maybe a knee to the crotch. Shep’s a cold-blooded assassin, but the best part of this scene is Tupac’s Birdie, who mean-mugs with a cigar in his mouth and actually looks like he’s going to kill the ref at one point.
08. Glory Road (2006)
Coach: James Gartner
Nothing But Net: Glory Road tells the story of Texas Western coach Don Haskins (Lucas), who, in 1966, led a racially integrated men’s basketball team to the NCAA championship. By no means is this a perfect film. The movie has received its fair share of criticism for playing loose with the facts of that season. For instance, the terrifying scene in which the players find threats and racial epithets painted on their hotel walls never actually took place. Other moments come across as needlessly didactic. For example, in the closing seconds of the championship game, a black Texas Western player knocks over legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp (Voight), the film’s embodiment of racial prejudice, while scrambling for a loose ball. Okay, okay, we get it. The times they are a-changin’.
However, Glory Road does get a lot right, too. The tension between the black players and the alien college town of El Paso, Coach Haskins, their teammates, and the squads from other universities never feels anything but authentic. For its faults, the film does make the viewer sincerely ponder the complexities and dangers of breaking the basketball color line in a hostile, segregated South. Glory Road also features some of the finest on-court acting and action you’ll ever see in a basketball movie. Rarely, if ever, does a stilted performance or a clumsily shot game sequence distract from the team’s historical barrier-breaking journey.
MVP: Derek Luke as point guard Bobby Joe Hill, the glue man of not only the Texas Western Miners but also the entire film.
Slam Dunk Scene: After one of the team’s black players gets assaulted in a diner restroom while on a road trip, the entire team storms out of the establishment looking for blood. Cooler heads prevail, but it’s a powerful moment that shows that the entire team, regardless of race, are now invested in the mission at hand.
07. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
Coach: Ron Shelton
Nothing But Net: Let’s talk Ron Shelton’s take on hoops after his successful look at baseball with 1988’s Bull Durham. White Men Can’t Jump is first and foremost a movie about a couple of hustlers (Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson) looking to make it big at streetball. The movie works well not only because of the chemistry between the two leads (who would team up again for the not-so-good Money Train), but because of the games on the court.
The opening challenge that introduces us to Sidney (Snipes) and Billy (Harrelson), as well as the two to one another, does a great job at setting the table for what’s to come. The trash talk is fun and infuriating in equal measure; no one can really trust one another, and was I the only one waiting for Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie to show up and guide these two knuckleheads? You’ll cheer on these screwups all the way to the bittersweet end.
MVP: Rosie Perez as Gloria, Billy’s long-suffering girlfriend. After years of notice for her opening dance in Do the Right Thing and choreographing In Living Color Fly Girls, Perez proved she could act alongside the vets. She’d receive an Oscar nom a couple years later for Fearless.
Slam Dunk Scene: I love the no-look shots from Sidney in the beginning, but the scene is obviously the one that proves the film’s title is a crock of B.S. Thanks to the magic of the movies (lowering the basketball hoop six inches), Billy dunks the ball to win the game in the end. As former NBA commissioner David Stern once declared, “I love this game!”
06. Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault (1996)
Coach: Eriq La Salle
Nothing But Net: Rebound really begins about 30 minutes in with New York’s two brightest high school basketball talents about to square off in the All-City Shootout. It’s a matchup that never happens, and the two stars begin down divergent paths. One of those players is Lew Alcindor, who will later become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and go down as arguably the greatest college and professional basketball player of all time. The other player, who missed the game due to suspension, is Earl “The Goat” Manigault. What, never heard of “The Goat”? That’s kind of the point.
In one of his first prominent roles, Don Cheadle stars as the greatest basketball player you never heard of, a shy and likable kid whose poor decisions and drug addiction robbed him of his basketball career by his mid-twenties. Cheadle’s stunning performance grittily captures every dribble of Manigault’s story, from floating above the iron against the all-time NYC greats to shivering in a jail cell trying to beat his addiction cold turkey. In the end, Rebound leaves us wondering why some soar and others seem destined to nosedive.
MVP: Don Cheadle as Earl “The Goat” Manigault
Slam Dunk Scene: After his release from prison, Manigault goes to a local drug dealer and asks to take over Holcombe Rucker’s old park, once the lifeblood of Harlem hoops. Cheadle’s steely determination during this rooftop scene makes the stakes utterly clear. Manigault can only redeem himself by using the game he loves to save others from repeating his mistakes. There’s no compromise. He can’t leave that roof without the park.
05. The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Coach: Scott Kalvert
Nothing But Net: Don’t be fooled by that name: The Basketball Diaries is only marginally a film about basketball. It would be more accurate to call it a film about horrific drug abuse that happens to have some basketball in it. Draw a line between Hoop Dreams and Requiem for a Dream and you’ll find The Basketball Diaries right in the middle. Based on the actual journals of poet and punk musician Jim Carroll, this biopic is less a paean to the game’s saving grace than a testament to everything that can go wrong outside the gym. And it’s moving precisely because it’s so unsentimental — a rare distinction for a “sports” movie to carry. A young Leonardo DiCaprio plays Carroll almost to perfection, and his descent into New York City’s heroin-filled underbelly is hard to watch at times. There may be no rousing victories or inspiring speeches here, but that’s pretty much the point.
MVP: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jim Carroll
Slam Dunk Scene: You’ll probably want to take a shower immediately after watching the scene in which Carroll finally hits rock bottom and comes begging for money at his mother’s door. It’s an absolutely brutal depiction of heroin addiction and how it can tear apart even the bonds between a mother and her son. “I’ll be a good boy,” Carroll screams through tears as his mother calls the cops on him. Um, can we go back to Space Jam now?
04. Salaam Dunk (2011)
Coach: David Fine
Starting Lineup: Coach Ryan and the AUIS girls’ basketball team
Nothing But Net: “Basketball helped me to … forget,” explains team captain Laylan in the final moments of Salaam Dunk. She and many of her teammates on the American University of Iraq Sulaimani (AUIS) girls’ basketball team have plenty they’d like to forget. Living in post-invasion Iraq, they’ve seen their country transformed, felt their lives constantly uprooted, and, in some cases, lost loved ones to security threats. Salaam Dunk follows Coach Ryan, a visiting American English professor, and the team through their second season together, offering a glimpse at a part of Iraqi society that Westerners rarely see.
Of course, Ryan, Laylan, and the rest of the team are doing far more than working on their jump shots. Each time they take the court, they’re breaking down barriers. Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christians can be seen working together as teammates, and women, long excluded from playing sports in many parts of Iraq, proudly take the court and compete as fiercely as men for a chance to be victorious. Basketball may very well be just a game, but for these girls, it’s a game that makes the type of life they want possible. As Laylan explains, “Basketball gave me a lot and didn’t take anything. It just keeps giving me good things.”
Co-MVPs: Ryan and the AUIS girls’ basketball team
Slam Dunk Scene: Ryan is scheduled to return to the United States once the season ends. In the huddle following the team’s lopsided defeat in their final game with their coach, emotions run high, and we truly feel what this experience has meant to both the girls and Ryan. They’ve gone on a genuine, life-changing journey together.
03. He Got Game (1998)
Coach: Spike Lee
Nothing But Net: Basketball is the glue that holds a few short stories together in Spike Lee’s oft-forgotten courtside drama. Denzel Washington just wants his kids back, except not really: He wants a get-out-of-jail-free card, which could be his if he convinces his basketball prodigy son, Jesus Shuttlesworth (a young Ray Allen), to play for “Big State.”
Yet trouble ensues when Jesus not surprisingly has a backbone, sees right through his father, and refuses to play games. With freedom on the line, Washington remains committed — that is, when he’s not distracted by a shoehorned-in subplot involving a troubled prostitute (Jovovich) — which leads to a spiritual re-evaluation on the court.
True to his style, Lee dribbles some not-so-subtle commentary into the film by tossing the proverbial ball towards the hands of the morally bankrupt fools who shape the game from high school to college to the NBA. It’s an effective condemnation and a haunting image that was later outlined by William C. Rhoden’s 2007 novel, Forty Million Dollar Slaves.
MVP: Denzel gives it his best, but there’s no beating the sharpshooter. At the time of filming, Allen was a fresh-faced 23-year-old and a young Milwaukee Bucks rookie, and his lighting-sharp skills here only foreshadow the genius to come. Though, the second MVP goes to Public Enemy, whose vibrant hip-hop soundtrack remains essential, especially the soulful title track.
Slam Dunk Scene: “You better D-up, Jake,” Jesus warns his father during their fateful matchup toward the end. Of course, there’s no way anyone’s getting around Jesus, and that’s something Lee wants you to know while watching this scene. It’s not about who wins here; it’s about who’s playing, and seeing the father and son slowly bond over a quick one-on-one game is so rewarding after nearly two hours of bitter rivalry. “Payback’s a bitch, huh?” Jesus brags to his father. Yeah, but it’s also a blast to watch. Damn.
02. Hoosiers (1986)
Coach: David Anspaugh
Nothing But Net: For all its David vs. Goliath hardwood heroics, Hoosiers is really a film about second chances. And not the kind of second chance where a player misses a winning free throw at the end of regulation and redeems himself by hitting a shot at the buzzer in overtime. No, Norman Dale, a dozen years removed from being dismissed as a college coach for striking a player, comes to little Hickory, Indiana, for one last chance at putting past transgressions to rest.
Hackman plays the rugged Dale with a complex warmth, strict but fair with the boys and comically stubborn with the basketball-obsessed locals who view him as a trouble-making outsider. There’s also a hint of danger to Hackman’s performance. Dale, presumably mellowed, remains a fiery figure courtside, always teetering between passionate and out of control. There are multiple run-ins with officials and opposing players that suggest how Dale might have crossed that line all those years ago, and we wonder what’s to prevent it from happening again. Beautifully shot and true to the intense basketball culture of Indiana, Hoosiers depicts a man making good on one of life’s precious last chances.
MVP: Gene Hackman as Coach Norman Dale
Slam Dunk Scene: In the subdued scene before the championship game, Dale doesn’t stand and lecture the players as he normally does. He sits among them, speaks softly, and listens. As the team breaks the huddle, he says, “I love you guys.” It’s one of the most moving moments in any sports film, a testament to how the sweat invested during countless hours in a ratty, little gym in a town nobody’s ever heard of can change lives.
01. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Coach: Steve James
Starting Lineup: William Gates, Arthur Agee
Nothing But Net: For eight years, documentary filmmaker Steve James and his crew followed the rise of two young basketball players, Arthur Agee and William Gates. Viewing the attention bestowed upon young athletes can be fascinating, but the time and care James puts into Hoop Dreams is a bar no sports documentary has reached before or since.
It’s more than a movie about being able to get one over on your defenders on the court, drive the lane, or rebound and pass well. Hoop Dreams explores the dedication it takes to try to make it when there are so many other similar players growing up around the country. It takes a look at defying the odds in struggling communities, where drug use is but a family member away. It’s also a fascinating look at kids becoming adults, becoming parents, and realizing when a dream is at an end. Not only a great documentary, but one of the greatest movies ever made.
Co-MVPs: Gates and Agee, of course.
Slam Dunk Scene: There are moments of triumph on the basketball court, but it’s the hardships off the hardwood floors that linger. The hardest to watch comes courtesy of Arthur Agee’s father, Bo. We have the misfortune of witnessing a drug purchase close to where his son is playing basketball. Nothing is left untouched in Hoop Dreams.