Basketball has played a huge role in cinema. It can be as simple as the backdrop in a budding relationship, an escape to a better life, away from the inner city, or the only way to save the world from alien invasion. Basketball in cinema is riveting, inspirational and fantastic.
So, welcome to the SLAM PH Movie Week! The team breaks down their favorite basketball movie (or movie with any semblance of basketball).
Earlier this year, Kobe Bryant became the first NBA player ever to win an Oscar, when he made Dear Basketball—an animated love letter to the sport that had defined and consumed him for more than half of his life.
I loved the win for two reasons:
1. It proved that basketball players have so much more to offer than just dunks and dimes. Good luck getting the rest of the NBA to ‘shut up and dribble’ now. But more importantly
2. It was Kobe’s final middle-finger to Shaq who, despite starring in 17 feature films and directing an episode of Nickelodeon abomination Cousin Skeeter, has zero Oscars. (Shaq actually has 3 Razzie nominations, which funnily enough, is the Shaqtin’ A Fool MVP of movie awards. I’m currently petitioning to officially change the Razzies to the Shaquies.)
So in honor of Kobe’s unprecedented accomplishment, let’s hand out awards for all the other basketball movies that have made a lasting impression in our hearts. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Oscars (Robertson)™.
I promise, Space Jam isn’t gonna win every award.
BEST ACTOR IN A BASKETBALL MOVIE
Wesley Snipes (Billy Hoyle), White Men Can’t Jump
Woody Harrelson (Sidney Deane), White Men Can’t Jump
Denzel Washington (Jake Shuttlesworth), He Got Game
Leon Robinson (Shep), Above the Rim
Bow-wow (Calvin Cambridge), Like Mike
This award goes to the actor that displays excellence in playing basketball in a movie. Their performances on the court are entertaining, believable, and most importantly, non-crappy. Sometimes you see an actor and just know—from whether it’s the way he dribbles, his dorky follow-through, or most egregiously, the way the ball is edited to always go in—that this dude cannot ball to save his life. These dudes are not these dudes.
And although all of them can play, only of one of them can win. Based on on-court skill alone, I’d narrow it down to Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes. But things get even dicier when you find out what was going on behind the scenes.
For starters, Wesley Snipes was never a fan of basketball, only learning how to play when he got the role. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from the way he was crossing dudes and dunking on fools. Snipes was. Just. That. Athletic. Marvel at those Dwight-esque deltoids.
Denzel Washington, on the other hand, had to face Ray Allen in a game of one-on-one for the movie’s final scene. What the audience (and Ray Allen) didn’t know, was that Spike Lee told Denzel to go off-script and score on Jesus Shuttlesworth. Denzel, who played JV basketball, actually catches Ray Allen off-guard, nailing jumpers and fadeaways right in his grill.
With his ego threatened, Allen starts taking the game seriously and shuts down Washington. But the damage had already been done—Denzel had legitimately scored on an NBA player in his prime multiple times. What else is there to say but Denzel got game?
And the Oscar (Robertson)™ goes to: Denzel Washington
BEST ACTRESS IN A BASKETBALL MOVIE
Sanaa Lathan (Monica Wright), Love & Basketball
Lola Bunny (Lola Bunny), Space Jam
Halle Berry…I guess. (Catwoman), Catwoman
Welp. You know it’s bad when an animated bunny and the worst superhero movie of all time get nominated by default… and you still don’t have enough nominees to make it to five. Sanaa Lathan obviously gets the nod here—Love & Basketball is actually a decent movie that you should totally watch—but wow is it frustrating that there aren’t any more sports movies with women at the center. Instead, we have… this:
You ever play basketball so badly that the kids start rioting? Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry has. But that’s nowhere near good enough to get her an Oscar (Robertson)™.
And the Oscar (Robertson)™ goes to: Sanaa Lathan
BEST PLAYER IN A BASKETBALL MOVIE
Michael Jordan (Michael Jordan), Space Jam
Kyrie Irving (Uncle Drew), Uncle Drew
Kevin Durant (Kevin Durant), Thunderstruck
Shaquille O’Neal (Neon Bordeaux), Blue Chips
Ray Allen (Jesus Shuttlesworth), He Got Game
What if we flipped it around: which basketball player gives the most authentic, most believable, and most moving acting performance in a basketball movie? Let’s break it down.
Michael Jordan in Space Jam is iconic. But not because he was a great actor or anything. Jordan could’ve starred in Steel, hammed it up, and it still would’ve made a billion dollars on opening day. Which isn’t to say that MJ didn’t know how to act in Space Jam. If anything, he was acting too much. Jordan tried so hard to convince us that he was this nice, kind-hearted man for others and not an ultra-competitive, borderline psychotic, merciless conqueror who would’ve murdered the Monstars. MJ gambling away the lives of the Looney Tunes before the final possession seems like an actual thing MJ would do, but other than that, get this fake, clean-cut MJ outta here.
Kyrie Irving as Uncle Drew was surprisingly okay. His comedic timing is pretty respectable compared to his actual, in-game timing. But do I ever believe he was a geriatric baller who played in the 1960s with inexplicable 2018 handles? N O P E.
Thunderstruck is a joke. Real-life KD and his army of burner accounts would’ve feuded with the kid for stealing his talents.
Shaq in Blue Chips had Shaq doing what he does best. Dunking. So I guess that’s pretty good for Shaq, all things considered—from an F-, this was like a D+.
Which leaves us with Ray Allen as Jesus Shuttlesworth. Was there any doubt he was gonna win this one? Ray Allen acts the way Denzel plays ball—meaning he didn’t suck against an all-time great. And that’s good enough for me.
And the Oscar (Robertson)™ goes to: Ray Allen
BEST COACH IN A BASKETBALL MOVIE
Samuel L. Jackson (Coach Carter), Coach Carter
Gene Hackman (Norman Gale), Hoosiers
Nick Nolte (Pete Bell), Blue Chips
Will Ferrell (Jackie Moon), Semi Pro
Whoopi Goldberg (Eddie), Eddie
There are two kinds of people in this world: those that stan Hoosiers and those that stan Coach Carter. Nobody likes those two movies equally, one will always be superior to the other, and that depends pretty much on how much you liked the two coaches involved.
Hackman as Norman Gale is an all-timer performance. Kind, fair, inspiring. This was a coach you would die on the floor for. The movie popularized the four-pass rule, meaning everyone touches the ball before a shot is taken, a rule every benchwarmer (such as myself) owes a life debt to.
Jackson as Ken Carter is a coach on the opposite end of the spectrum. Fiery and confrontational, he would push his players to their limits, teaching them lessons on and off the court. But I’m pretty sure Coach Carter would’ve been a slightly better coach if he were allowed to cuss out his players. I mean, if Samuel L. Jackson started calling Channing Tatum a p**** a** m***********, maybe he would’ve actually made a basket in that movie. You know it’s true.
And the Oscar (Robertson)™ goes to: Gene Hackman
BEST SONG IN A BASKETBALL MOVIE
Space Jam, Space Jam
I Believe I Can Fly, Space Jam
Basketball, Like Mike
Hope, Coach Carter
Get Yo’ Head In The Game, High School Musical
With apologies to Paolo Del Rosario, but nothing in the history of man has come close to the poetry that is ‘come on and slam and welcome to the jam’.
And the Oscar (Robertson)™ goes to: Space Jam
BEST MOVE IN A BASKETBALL MOVIE
Buzzer-beater Half-court Shot, Escape From LA
Stretch Dunk, Space Jam
Literally Anything Air Bud Did, Air Bud
Somersault Dunk, John Tucker Must Die
When Michael J. Fox Realizes That He Doesn’t Need To Be A Werewolf And That Greatness Was Within Him All Along, Teen Wolf
This was by far the easiest category. How do you even contest this? This dog has a better jump shot than 90% of the people you play pick-up basketball with. Look at that coordination! Those sneakers! That smile! Air Bud is a legend.
And the Oscar (Robertson)™ goes to: Air Bud
THE SHAQUIE LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT IN SHAQ-NESS AWARD
For his cringe-tastic, eye-rolling, causes-me-actual-physical-pain performances in Kazaam, Steel, Grown Ups 2, Scary Movie 4, those lousy General commercials, among countless others, we hereby present the first ever Shaquie to Shaquille O’Neal. May you never ever star in a movie ever again.
And the Shaquie goes to: Shaquille O’ Neal
BEST BASKETBALL MOVIE OF ALL TIME
Space Jam is a movie I’ve been in love with since I was 4 years old. He Got Game is my favorite Spike Lee joint. No movie gets the nuances and the flow of street basketball more than White Men Can’t Jump, and no movie has done the ‘We Will Win As A Team When We Play As A Team’ thing as well as Hoosiers. Basketball movies are like cold pizza on a late Saturday night—even when they’re pretty bad, they’re still pretty good.
But Hoop Dreams, a documentary about two inner-city kids who cling to the hope of one day playing professional ball is a cut above all those other movies. Filmed in 1994, Hoop Dreams may seem a little slow and the style might not have aged as well, but the film manages to do what none of the aforementioned movies could—it captured what it truly meant to love the sport of basketball; what it feels like to focus on the game while your world crumbles around you; what it takes to succeed and reach the highest ranks in the country; and what it feels like when you put everything into the game of basketball and still fall short.
If you still haven’t seen it, stop what you’re doing right now because the full film is up on YouTube. If you already have, watch it again anyway. It’s the best basketball movie of all time.
And the Oscar (Robertson)™ goes to: Hoop Dreams
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SLAM PH Movie Week