Despite a dearth of first-rate movies, Hollywood has long tried to score with basketball stories
The Way Back, the just-released—and moderately acclaimed film that stars Ben Affleck as a high school basketball coach with a drinking problem, continues a Hollywood tradition that appears to be almost as old as moving pictures themselves: The lack of great films about basketball.
Baseball, of course, has been the subject of numerous popular and/or important flicks, from 1939’s beloved Lou Gehrig biopic Pride of the Yankees, to 1980s favorites Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, Bull Durham and even Major League--not to mention The Naked Gun, the first of the three hilarious movies starring Leslie Neilsen as the hilariously inept police detective, Frank Dribben. The movie climaxes during a rib-tickling Seattle Mariners-California (now Los Angeles) Angels game (at which Reggie Jackson is revealed as the zombified would-be assassin of Queen Elizabeth.
While not necessarily as frequently, football has likewise served as the basis for many memorable films including Knute Rockne: All-American (co-starring Ronald Reagan as doomed Notre Dame star of the 1920s, George Gipp), the Alan Alda-headlined Paper Tiger, everyone’s favorite never-say-die story, Rudy and the Marx Brothers’ brilliant—and brilliantly subversive—Horsefeathers (The 1932 comedy’s satire of the exalted place football holds in the collegiate world is oddly relevant almost 90 years later).
But basketball? Not so much. To be sure, there’s Hoosiers—starring Gene Hackman as the head coach of an underdog high school team in b-ball-crazy 1950s Indiana--which has long been acknowledged as one of the sports genre’s all-time best. And White Men Can’t Jump has its loyal fans. But after that, the pickings are, in a word, slim. It’s not that Hollywood hasn’t tried; Google “films about basketball” and you’ll come up with plenty of titles. But most have been eminently forgettable.
What follows isn’t a “best” list. Instead it is a six-pack of basketball-themed movies that, for various reasons, are worth noting:
Like any passionate movie fan, I never missed a Julius Erving-Jonathan Winters flick. But seriously, this bizarre comedic tale about a floundering (sorry) pro basketball team that turns to astrology as a way to reverse its fortunes falls squarely in the so-bad-its-good category.
And yes, Dr. J is in it—as a major character, no less (other ballers of the era who appear include Connie Hawkins,Cedric Maxwell, Spencer Haywood, Bob Lanier, Lou Hudson and former Villanova star and 76ers head coach, Chris Ford). And he plays against type; his character, Moses Guthrie is a difficult, self-centered jerk (who ultimately learns the value of teamwork).
By the way, the Good Doctor’s acting here unambiguously explains why he didn’t enjoy a post-playing-days Hollywood career.
As mentioned above, Hoosiers is almost universally acknowledged as the gold standard of b-ball flicks. The mostly fictional story is based on the true tale of an underdog high school team that won the Indiana state championship in 1954.
While the plot is generic almost to the point of cliché, director David Anspaugh’s taut direction and Hackman’s tour de force performance as the team’s coach elevate Hoosiers to a well-deserved place in the pantheon of sports films.
This comedy-drama stars Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrleson as hustlers cutting a swath through Los Angeles’ street-ball culture of the early ‘90s. Directed by Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) and co-starring Rosie Perez as Harrleson’s girlfriend, WMCJ was named by Esquire magazine as the greatest basketball movie of all time.
Based on the 1978 memoir by New-York-City high-school-hoops-star-turned-poet/punk-rocker Jim Carroll, this relentlessly downbeat picture could be considered the anti-Hoosiers: Rather than overcome adversity, its protagonist (a monumentally miscast Leonardo DiCaprio) winds up a heroin addict.
Perhaps its most interesting (if unintentional) aspect is that it may be the earliest example of a film addressing the subject of Catholic Church pedophilia which would explode into multiple scandals in subsequent years.
Michael Jordan as Looney Tunes star? That’s exactly what this phenomenally successful live action/animation mash-up made the hardwood deity. It takes place during his early-’90s “retirement;” he is recruited by the Looney Tunes crew to play on their team against the squad sponsored by the evil Mr. Swackhammer, owner of the extraterrestrial amusement park, Moron Mountain. Swackhammer seeks to make the revered cartoon characters attractions at Moron Mountain against their will, and their only hope of escape is to win the climactic game with Jordan’s help.
With international box office receipts of $230 million, Space Jam stands as the highest-grossing basketball film of all time. And its soundtrack, which features the likes of Coolio, Seal, Busta Rhymes and the duo of Barry White and Chris Rock (on a version of Cheech & Chong’s “Basketball Jones”) went six-times platinum, representing sales of six million albums.
Dan Aykroyd and Daniel Stern star in this uneven comedy as two over-the-top Boston Celtics fans who decide to help their beloved team win the NBA Championship by kidnapping the star player (played by Damon Wayans) of the Celts’ opponents, the Utah Jazz.
Because it is heavily dependent on the stereotype of the Beantown sports fanatic, the film, co-written by burgeoning comedy overlord Judd Apatow and standup star Colin Quinn, often feels like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. But in its own loopy way, it is a valentine to sports fandom in general and Boston fandom in particular.