Nothing but net: The 20 greatest basketball movies, ranked

Clockwise from top left: Hoosiers (Orion Pictures), The Basketball Diaries (New Line Cinema), The Way Back (Warner Bros. Pictures), White Men Can’t Jump (20th Century Fox)
Clockwise from top left: Hoosiers (Orion Pictures), The Basketball Diaries (New Line Cinema), The Way Back (Warner Bros. Pictures), White Men Can’t Jump (20th Century Fox)

We love basketball because it has all the ingredients you need for a thrilling sports movie: the ticking clock, the last-minute reversals, the underdog victories, and the troubled characters finding redemption through hard work on the hardwood. Hulu’s remake of the Wesley Snipes-Woody Harrelson b-ball classic White Men Can’t Jump has us in a hoops state of mind, so the Dream Team here at The A.V. Club has followed the bouncing ball across the decades to select the very best basketball movies. We’re talking dramas, comedies, romances, and even a documentary. We’ve included a passion project by Adam Sandler, a classic starring Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington in a Spike Lee joint, Michael Jordan with a bunch of Looney Tunes characters, and many more slam dunk picks. So enough with the basketball puns ... let’s get to the countdown!

20: Teen Wolf (1985)

Teen Wolf (1985) - Official Trailer (HD)

Michael J. Fox had himself quite the year in 1985. Already riding high on Family Ties, he starred in the blockbuster film Back To The Future and the surprise hit Teen Wolf. In fact, Teen Wolf opened in second place behind Back To The Future, which had been released the previous month. A comedic riff on I Was A Teenage Werewolf, Teen Wolf features Fox as Scott, a perfectly average small-town kid who plays basketball for his high school team. He pines for the school hottie (Lorie Griffin), while his friend Boof (Susan Ursitti) pines for him. Everything changes when Scott discovers his family’s secret: they’re werewolves. Suddenly, Scott is popular, stylish, and performs like a superstar. It all goes to his head, of course, and harsh life lessons await. Fox breezes through the movie with his everyman charm, and the makeup FX are wonderfully cheesy. This movie also inspired an animated show, a sequel, and the far darker 2011-2017 TV series of the same name (as well as a recent reunion movie).

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19: Semi-Pro (2008)

🎥 SEMI-PRO (2008) | Movie Trailer | Full HD | 1080p

After scoring hits with Talladega Nights (NASCAR) and Blades Of Glory (figure skating), Will Ferrell set his sights on basketball for his next sports comedy. In Semi-Pro he goes for broke as Jackie Moon, a one-hit music wonder who uses his money to buy a terrible ABA basketball team where he warms up the sparse crowds, plays power forward, coaches the team, wrestles a bear—basically anything to succeed and secure a spot in the NBA for his Flint Tropics. Though intermittently funny, Semi-Pro rates as the weakest of Ferrell’s sports trilogy. It didn’t score at the box office despite a cast of funny people and actual pros that includes Woody Harrelson, André Benjamin, Maura Tierney, George Gervin, Ed Helms, Kristen Wiig, Jackie Earle Haley, Will Arnett, Patty LaBelle, Tim Meadows, and Jason Sudeikis.

18: The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979)

The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979) Official Trailer - Julius Erving, Jonathan Winters Movie HD

Combine a dash of basketball with a few NBA superstars, some comedy legends, a bit of fantasy and astrology, and nonstop disco songs and you’ve got The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. The fish in question is a Pisces, as in the astrological sign, and the ever-underperforming Pittsburgh Pythons reinvent themselves as the Pittsburgh Pisces, with all the players born under that sign. Of course, the misfits end up fitting together like a glove. Among the eclectic cast: Julius Erving, Flip Wilson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jonathan Winters, Meadowlark Lemon, Marv Albert, and Debbie Allen. It’s a bit of an airball as a movie, but it’s also a fun, cinematic time capsule that captures the essence of 1979.

17: Fast Break (1979)

1979 Fast Break Trailer “Gabe Kaplan - The Best Guy On The Team Is A Girl!” TV Commercial

Come on, you know you smiled when you saw that Fast Break made the list. Lots of people have a soft spot for this silly, shaggy-dog comedy starring Gabe Kaplan. The film opened a few weeks before Kaplan’s TV sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter, ended its four-year run. Kaplan plays good-natured deli manager Dave who, much to the frustration of his wife (Randee Heller, the mom from The Karate Kid!), aspires to be a college basketball coach. He finally gets his shot—for a crummy team in Nevada that pays $60 per win. The fun comes as Dave and his buddy Hustler (basketball star Bernard King) assemble their team (which includes Michael Warren from Hill Street Blues, Harold Sylvester from Married … With Children, and Reb Brown from Yor, The Hunter From The Future) and prepare for the big game against a much better team. We didn’t even mention the hitman!

16: Cornbread, Earl And Me (1975)

Cornbread, Earl And Me (1975) - HD Trailer [1080p]

Here’s another overlooked entry in the basketball pantheon. Released in 1975, Cornbread, Earl And Me spins the coming-of-age tale of three friends: fledgling basketball star Cornbread (Jamaal Wilkes) and his younger pals Earl (Tierre Turner) and Wilford (Laurence Fishburne), the “Me” of the title. Cornbread dreams of stardom, getting his family off the mean streets of Chicago, and being even more of a hero to Earl and Wilford. But fate has other plans. It’s admittedly pretty standard melodramatic fare, but Fishburne—then barely a teenager—stands out, as do Wilkes, Bernie Casey, and Antonio Fargas. Wilkes, an NBA rookie when he shot the movie, went on to a Hall of Fame career.

15: Rebound: The Legend Of Earl “The Goat” Manigault (1996)

Rebound - The Legend Of Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault Trailer

Eriq LaSalle has spent much of his career ping-ponging between work as an actor and a director, with the two occasionally overlapping. In 1996, at the height of his fame from ER, LaSalle directed and tackled a small role in the true story of Earl Manigault, a street ball sensation who could have—and should have—played in the NBA, but he fell victim to heroin addiction. Manigault rebounded, so to speak, reclaimed his life, and turned the courts where he once played (and fell into bad habits) into a safe haven for aspiring players, even creating the Walk Away From Drugs tournament. Don Cheadle brings tremendous sensitivity to the lead role in Rebound: The Legend Of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, and LaSalle surrounded him with an impressive ensemble that includes James Earl Jones, Loretta Devine, Forest Whitaker, Clarence Williams III, Ronny Cox, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (as himself), and LaSalle.

14: Blue Chips (1994)

Blue Chips - Trailer

The Western University Dolphins suck, and the college’s boosters plan to do something about it, even if that means breaking the rules to recruit some blue-chip talent. Coach Bell (Nick Nolte) reluctantly agrees to the dirty doings and Neon Boudeaux (Shaquille O’Neal) joins the team, transforming them into winners. The cheating gnaws at Bell until he can’t take it anymore, which results in one hell of a press conference. Nolte goes full-throttle, the late, great J.T. Walsh oozes menace as the main booster, and Shaq acquits himself nicely. Like several of the movies on this list, Blue Chips—directed by William Friedkin and written by White Men Can’t Jump’s Ron Shelton—corralled numerous real-life coaches, players, and announcers to get in on the action, including Penny Hardaway, Marques Johnson, Jim Boeheim, Dick Vitale, and Bobby Knight.

13: High Flying Bird (2019)

High Flying Bird | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix

High Flying Bird holds the distinction of being the best Steven Soderbergh film you’ve probably never heard of, which is a shame because it’s excellent. Soderbergh shot the movie on a nothing budget ($2 million) and with a tight schedule (little more than a month), using an iPhone (as he did with Unsane). Basketball is played, but the story focuses on the business of basketball, as everyone connected with the sport—players, agents, etc.—contends with a crippling lockout. Andre Holland plays an agent who, while desperately trying to save his job and sign top players, realizes the value of social media and streaming. It’s slick, sleek, and absorbing, with an ace supporting cast that includes Zazie Beetz, Zachary Quinto, Bill Duke, and Kyle MacLachlan.

12: Love & Basketball (2000)

Love & Basketball (2000) Official Trailer - Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps Basketball Movie HD

Gina Prince-Bythewood made her feature directing debut with the Spike Lee-produced drama Love & Basketball that hits nothing but net. The plot spans 12 years in the lives of Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps), elite hoop stars whose lives repeatedly intersect as their careers in high school, college, and the pros ebb and flow. Prince-Bythewood knew from the get-go how to capture a moment, and she—not to mention the film and audiences watching it—benefited from the palpable chemistry between Lathan and Epps. Just look at the rest of the cast: Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert, Debi Morgan, Gabrielle Union, Regina Hall, and Harry Lennix.

11: Space Jam (1996)

Space Jam | 4K Trailer | Warner Bros. Entertainment

Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, Bill Murray, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Granny, Alonzo Mourning, Pepe Le Pew, Charles Oakley, Tweety Bird, Danny Ainge, Bugs Bunny, Patrick Ewing … need we say more? This is the slam dunk of animated/live-action basketball comedies. Frenetically paced, with rat-a-tat jokes, colorful animation, and lively music, Space Jam is good family fun. The story—Jordan comes out of retirement to help the Looney Tunes characters beat alien invaders—fouls out, but everything whizzes by so breathlessly and entertainingly that it’s easy to forgive its shortcomings. Similarly, Jordan can’t act, but coasts along on charm and his larger-than-life presence. Compared to the ill-conceived sequel, Space Jam: A New Legacy, the original is nothing less than a classic.

10: Hustle (2022)

Hustle starring Adam Sandler | Official Trailer | Netflix

Adam Sandler put his love for basketball to good use as the star and producer (with LeBron James) of this dramedy. Hustle casts Sandler as Stanley Sugarman, a world-weary Philadelphia 76ers scout who climbs the ladder to assistant coach only to be banished when the team’s owner, Rex (Robert Duvall), dies unexpectedly, leaving Rex’s son Vince (Ben Foster) in charge. In Spain, Stanley discovers a diamond in the rough, Bo (Juancho Hernangómez), and struggles to convince the Sixers—or anyone—to check him out. Stanley’s ups and downs, in his life and career, also cause conflict with his wife (Queen Latifah) and their daughter (Jordan Hull). Sandler digs deep here and was deservedly in the Oscar conversation, and Hernangómez holds his own. NBA fans will have a ball tallying up all the past and current stars who appear throughout the movie, including Shaq, Dr. J., Dirk Nowitzki, Seth Curry, and many more.

9: The Way Back (2020)

THE WAY BACK - Official Trailer

Ben Affleck turned a lot of heads with his stellar performance in The Way Back. He plays Jack, a blue-collar guy with a serious drinking problem. Jack, who ruled the court at his high school once upon a time, gets a shot at redemption when Father Devine (John Aylward, awesome as always) taps him to coach the school’s team. It goes great at first, until Jack’s demons get the better of him and threaten to ruin all the strides he’s made with family and friends. Affleck imbues Jack with pride and embarrassment, hope and misery. Director Gavin O’Connor had previously helmed the sports movies Miracle and Warrior, and put Affleck through his paces in The Accountant. The Way Back got lost in the shuffle during the earliest days of the pandemic. If you’ve never seen it, give it a … shot.

8: Finding Forrester (2000)


What happens when a brilliant Black kid, who also happens to be a talented writer and a decent basketball player, makes the acquaintance of a reclusive, white, Pulitzer Prize-winning author in New York City? You get Finding Forrester, an entertaining, if occasionally schmaltzy drama from Gus Van Sant. Rob Brown plays the kid, Jamal, and no less than Sean Connery stars as the reclusive author, William Forrester. Van Sant makes the most of the film’s Big Apple setting and elicits believable performances from Brown (in his debut) and Connery (in one of his final roles), who spark off each other nicely. Is this really a basketball movie? Nope. But it’s great. If you’ve not seen it, look out for a memorable cameo by Matt Damon and a touching final few moments. Oh, and Brown went on to co-star as one of the basketball players in Coach Carter.

7: The Basketball Diaries (1995)

The Basketball Diaries (1995) Official Trailer - Leonardo DiCaprio Movie HD

The late Scott Kalvert made the leap from music videos to features with The Basketball Diaries, an adaptation of Jim Carroll’s dark, acclaimed novel inspired by Carroll’s own experience as a talented high school basketball player and poet derailed by a heroin habit. A very young Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Carroll, and he not only loses himself in the character, but makes it hard to sympathize with Carroll—a daring choice by everyone involved. Ample support comes from Lorraine Bracco (as Carroll’s mother), Mark Wahlberg, Michael Imperioli, Juliette Lewis, Ernie Hudson, Bruno Kirby, and Michael Rapaport. The film bombed, earning just $2.4 million at the box office, but it’s worth checking out for the performances by DiCaprio and Bracco.

6: Glory Road (2006)

Glory Road (2006) Official Trailer # 1 - Josh Lucas HD

Back in 1966, Texas Western coach Don Haskins fielded an NCAA Championship game with five African-American starters. It had never happened before. With Josh Lucas as Haskins, Glory Road does all it can to downplay the white-savior angle, with limited success. The film touches on big-ticket topics like sports, education, and race relations. Where it scores best isn’t actually the big game, but rather the early portions of the movie, as Coach Haskins recruits his team. Interestingly, this is the one and only film ever directed by James Gartner, who had spent most of his career before Glory Road, and most of it after, helming commercials.

5: Coach Carter (2005)

Coach Carter (2005) | Official Trailer | Samuel L. Jackson Biographical Sport Drama Movie (HD)

Thomas Carter first gained fame as an actor, notably on The White Shadow, before segueing into directing. He returned to the basketball court for the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle Coach Carter, which finds Jackson’s title character leading a group of high school B-ball players in need of some tough love. Coach Carter wears suits every day and demands that the boys play by his rules. They’re student players, with “students” being first, and they must maintain a passing grade in order to remain on the team. It doesn’t go over well, initially, with the players, their parents, or the school administration. Of course, Coach Carter wins everyone over. Hokey and predictable? Yes, but Jackson carries the movie, and it’s fun to watch several future stars—including Ashanti, Channing Tatum, and Octavia Spencer—in action.

4: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

White Men Can’t Jump | #TBT Trailer | 20th Century FOX

It’s hard to pick writer-director Ron Shelton’s best sports movie: Bull Durham, Cobb, Tin Cup, or White Men Can’t Jump. If that’s not enough, he also wrote, but didn’t direct, Blue Chips and The Great White Hype. We’d call it a jump ball between White Men Can’t Jump and Bull Durham. Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson—as streetballers Sidney and Billy—trash-talk each other incessantly while playing each other or hustling suckers out of their money. It’s easy money, since everyone assumes the white guy can’t jump. Shelton sits back and lets Snipes and Harrelson do their thing, a wise decision since they share great chemistry. Rosie Perez steals the show as Billy’s no-B.S. and Jeopardy!-obsessed girlfriend, Gloria. Cue the Alex Trebek cameo!

3: He Got Game (1998)

“He Got Game” Trailer

Spike Lee’s basketball tale, He Got Game, bounced in and out of theaters upon its release in 1998, but it’s now considered a classic, and deservedly so. Denzel Washington stars as Jake, a prisoner in Attica, whose son Jesus (Ray Allen) is the country’s top prospect. If Jake can convince Jesus to commit to a specific college, Jake will go free, but Jesus wants little to do with Jake. Not only did Jake drive his son too hard as a kid, but he accidentally killed Jesus’ mom. Washington delivers his usual assured, powerful performance, while Allen proves himself to be the rare athlete who can also act. The top-notch supporting cast includes Milla Jovovich, Rosario Dawson, John Turturro, Jim Brown, Ned Beatty, and Bill Nunn.

2: Hoosiers (1986)

Hoosiers Official Trailer #1 - Dennis Hopper Movie (1986) HD

David Anspaugh directed this classic drama about a small-town high school team in Indiana that way, way overachieves thanks to their inspirational new coach, Norman Dale, played to perfection by Gene Hackman. The basketball scenes feel real because several actual ballers costar in the film. The great character actor Chelcie Ross chews the scenery, which is saying something since Dennis Hopper delivers an Oscar-nominated performance as the town’s requisite drunken superfan. Hoosiers feels lived in and genuine, from the performances to the cinematography to the typically masterful Jerry Goldsmith score. Anspaugh later directed the more commercial and significantly more rah-rah football saga Rudy, but Hoosiers ranks as the better movie.

1: Hoop Dreams (1994)

Hoop Dreams - Official Trailer

A documentary at number one? That’s just the way the ball bounces. It’s not only the best basketball documentary of all time, it’s one of the best documentaries ever produced. Directed by Steve James, Hoop Dreams follows two African-American teens—Arthur Agee and William Gates—from Illinois, who appear to be on the fast-track to the NBA. Three years in the making and another three years in editing, the film presents the boys’ full stories: the raw talent, troubles at home and in high school, the recruiting process, hopes raised and dashed, and more. It’s a slam dunk—and it’s definitely time for a sequel.

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