Films centered around the game of basketball are typically different from other sports films. Typically, they do not feature the pageantry or drama of football films such as On Any Given Sunday or Brian’s Song. Hoops flicks don’t feature the gentle nostalgia or poetic lyricism of baseball films like Field Of Dreams (exemplar of the "Chick Flick For Men" movie) or The Natural. Basketball films tend to fall into two categories: hard-hitting inner-city pressure drama like Basketball Diaries, Above The Rim, or He Got Game; or broad comedies such as Space Jam, Semi-Pro, and White Men Can’t Jump. That’s an oversimplification of a wide-reaching genre of sports films, but it mostly holds true.
Picking the top 5 basketball movie characters of all time thus becomes difficult. Will Ferrell is gut-slappingly guffaw-worthy as Jackie Moon in Semi-Pro, but apart from the ABA trappings ably pinched from Terry Pluto’s fantastic tome Loose Balls, it’s really the same performance he’s given dozens of times both on screen and as an SNL cast member. At the same time, Nick Nolte’s actually quite good as the college coach in William Friedkin’s Blue Chips. But that film is more well-known today for featuring the acting debuts of Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, who each give Kazaam-worthy performances playing… wait for it… blue-chip college athletes, which they still seem to have difficulty with. Shaq is his usual goofy self and manages to essay some warmth and fun into his performance, but Penny is actually more wooden than the puppet Lil’ Penny that appeared with him in several 90s shoe ads, memorably voiced by comedian Chris Rock.
The following five performances are ones I nominated based on their ability to transcend the film they appeared in. Either by giving us some iconic cinematic moment remembered years later or by their ability to lift the story from simple plotting. Maybe most of all because they managed to remind us that sports films, and in particular basketball films, aren’t always just stories about athletes. Sometimes they’re a story about race, about class, about being part of a team, part of something bigger. My top 5 hoops movie characters of all time, in no particular order, are:
Gene Hackman - Hoosiers
Hackman’s Coach Norman Dale is, for my money, one of the finest characterizations of a coach on film ever. He doesn’t exist simply as a mentor for an athlete to achieve his or her potential. He isn’t presented as a one-note stern taskmaster like Samuel L. Jackson’s Coach Carter, or all-knowing sensei like Josh Lucas’ portrayal of Don Haskins in the very-similar-to-Hoosiers but more formulaic sports film Glory Road. When we first meet Dale, he’s a guy almost at the end of his rope. Hired by his old war buddy to coach a high school team in small town 50s Indiana, Dale has been fired from his previous job for striking a student and is on his last chance. Fighting small-town attitudes about his coaching, he leads an undersized but scrappy team into the State tournament. The underdog storyline owes a debt or two to Rocky. But it’s Hackman’s performance at the center of this film that takes a flawed and, at the beginning, unlikeable character to scale the heights of small town stardom with a quiet charm that still stands out today, almost 30 years after its initial release. The film composer side of me also wants to say that Jerry Goldsmith’s score for this is absolutely fantastic, particularly the horn themes, and incorporates some really creative sampling for the time.
Don Cheadle – Rebound
I’m always surprised by how many hoops fans have never seen this movie. It’s really good! And no, I’m not talking about the 2005 film starring Martin Lawrence, which sucks. This Rebound, or more properly, Rebound: The Legend of Earl "The Goat" Manigault was originally made for HBO in 1996 and stars Don Cheadle as Earl. Manigault was a playground legend of the early 60s. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once called Manigault the greatest player he had ever seen, and often played with him at Rucker Park before moving onto to dominate college at UCLA and the NBA. Manigault, an all-time legendary streetballer, received offers from all over the country to play ball in college but fell into heavy drug use and was eventually imprisoned. Upon his release from prison he dedicated the rest of his life to the kids of Harlem, helping them overcome the challenges of life in inner-city NYC. He became so revered in the community that one of the courts at Rucker was named after him: Goat Park. Cheadle’s simply great as Manigault, and the supporting cast featuring Forest Whitaker, Eriq La Salle and Kevin Garnett and Kareem are uniformly excellent. Well worth checking out, if you haven’t seen it.
Ray Allen – He Got Game
When this film originally came out in 1998 a lot was written about Ray’s performance. He’s light years better than Shaq, Penny, Barkley or Jordan in Space Jam, although to be fair Ray never had to try and act with cartoon characters on set (unless you consider some of the hammier elements of John Turturro’s performance as Coach Billy Sunday, but we’ll let that fly for now.) Allen invests the character of Jesus Shuttlesworth with enough humanity and maturity that we really could believe in Jesus as a real character. An athlete with almost supernatural abilities, bound to earth by his responsibility to his family and the overbearing influence of his father. The film does suffer from some plot contrivances (why wouldn’t Jesus just turn pro if he was THAT good and broke?) but Allen’s performance, especially his scenes with an at-the-very-top-of-his-game Denzel Washington are superb, and a reminder that Spike Lee at his best was one of America’s most insightful and honest directors of the 80s and 90s. Interestingly, Allen had never acted professionally before appearing in this film. Hip-hop legends Public Enemy did a rather interesting track for the credits of this, sampling the 1960s Buffalo Springfield classic "For What's It's Worth," and the score features several well-known themes by Aaron Copland.
Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson – White Men Can’t Jump
Back in the early 90s when Ron Shelton still made good movies, this little gem about two hustlers on the basketball court came out, and gave us one of the most memorable double acts of the decade until it was overshadowed by Sam Jackson and Travolta a couple years later. It also features several examples of THE best on-the-court trash talking ever committed to film: "Man, you got a big Z in your Afro. What are you, the black Zorro?" "Let’s just gather up all these bricks you shooting and build a shelter for the homeless, so yo momma got a place to live." "Let’s just get off mommas, cuz I just got off yours." And of course the immortal ... "We goin' to Sizzler!" The story of Billy and Sidney is very atypical for a hoops film, in that basketball is really just a way these two grifters make their living. Harrelson and Snipes both acquit themselves credibly as streetball athletes and give the film a kind of 90s post-Do The Right Thing Newman and Redford vibe. They aren’t easy allies at first, more allies of convenience, but by the end the audience has been through a few twists and turns in their ever-changing relationship based largely on one-upmanship and swagger. White Men Can’t Jump also features a hilarious cameo by former Sonic color man Marques Johnson, who memorably takes matters into his own hands when things on the playground go wrong. The soundtrack is comprised of all pop music, and features a memorable exchange between Snipes and Harrelson on Jimi Hendrix.
William Gates, Arthur Agee – Hoop Dreams
I had to think at first about including Hoop Dreams or not. Put simply it’s one of the finest documentaries ever made, and one of the best if not the best sports documentary ever filmed. Hoop Dreams shows the side of the NBA that we never get to see, and honestly, probably don’t want to see. It examines in unflinching detail the poverty and bleak backgrounds that many NBA athletes come from (in an even less Hollywood-ized version served up by He Got Game) and the camera shows the ever-present reality that no matter how talented many of these young men are, the chances of getting to the NBA are slim. I lived on the South Side of Chicago for several years and saw and shot hoops with many young men exactly like the ones portrayed in this film. Just four blocks south of where I lived there were several projects equally as bleak and dangerous, if not as infamous as, Cabrini Green. When I watch this documentary I feel like I’ve met both those boys, even though I never have met either Gates or Agee. You see in their eyes how desperately they want to live the dream and how perilously easy that dream can be, and is, snatched away from them. If you have never seen Hoop Dreams … as a fan of the game you must.
Well, that’s my list. Honorable mentions to Laurence Fishburne in Cornbread, Earl, and Me and probably the entire cast of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh – both 70s classics. Which performances would be in your top 5?