Paramount/20th Century Fox/Buena Vista/Warner Bros.
It’s summer time, and that means NBA players are at the beach, or in the gym getting ready for next year. Some are in Las Vegas playing for their Summer League teams, but it’s freakin’ hot there, and while it’s a fun bit of basketball as a summer respite, it’s a long way from the level of action we were watching in June.
So that leaves the rest of us plenty of time to twiddle our thumbs and wonder what the hell we’re going to do to pass the time before training camps and preseason ball tips off in October. It’s only natural, with DIME joining the UPROXX family a year from this past February, that we do another update on our basketball movie rankings. This list is subjective, but that shouldn’t stop you from offering up your own suggestions and giving us a hard time if we missed one of your own hoop favorites.
As Jesus Shuttlesworth said, “Basketball is like poetry in motion,” so we’re going to rank the films that capture that poetry in motion the best.
A few things to keep in mind. Documentaries aren’t included, so that means Hoop Dreams, the most seminal and celebrated basketball documentary ever made, won’t be on our list. And UPROXX’s award-winning movie squad didn’t help us parse these rankings to take into account actual acting, or the movie’s narrative. It’s derived from the basketball, the nostalgia, the surrounding culture of the game and the overall “dope” factor. DIME isn’t just NBA or basketball, but what’s going on in the community that enriches the game. Therefore, our top five isn’t all that different from previous iterations of this list, which we first published all the way back in 2010. Enough chitchat. Let’s roll that ball out and play. Here are the 25 best basketball movies of all time.
Thunderstruck, Forget Paris, The Pistol, Juwanna Mann, Like Mike, Red Sneakers, BASEketball, Just Wright, O, Celtic Pride
Kevin Durant’s awful attempt at acting; Billy Crystal’s homage to love and NBA refs: a Pistol Pete re-enactment for TV that hasn’t aged well; a 2002 Jesse Vaughan-directed sendup of an NBA-to-WNBA story; Lil Bow Wow’s bball flick from the same year; a TV movie about a drug dealer hooking an excellent student up with red kicks that make his on-court game as exemplary as his production in the classroom; the South Park creators create a new game that combines the best professional sport in America with your dad’s favorite sport; Common and Queen Latifah are all-time emcee’s, but when they made a film about hoops, it fell flat; Othello works better on the stage than as a backdrop for a high school hoops saga starring Mekhi Phifer with Josh Hartnett as an Iago, but with crappier lines; and drunk Celtics fans played by a pair of Dan’s who kidnap a Wayans brother is accurate and awful in equal measure; none of these films made our list, but we wanted to give them an honorable mention anyway.
25. THE SIXTH MAN
SUMMARY: We can’t remember this movie very well, but we know it stars Marlon Wayans and the basketball scenes were pretty terrible. Except, we still remember it being decently funny even if the early plot twist that sets up the movie reminded us a little too much of Hank Gathers. Still, for a late 1990s comedy, it wasn’t half bad, and so it lands in our last spot.
BEST SCENE: All of the scenes that didn’t involve basketball.
24. AIR BUD
SUMMARY: Now we’re talking! Our own Brian Grubb loves this flick because how could you not? A young teen who loses his father in an accidental death and has to move to another state, befriends a golden retriever who can really ball. How are you not eagerly looking for this on your streaming devices? It’s got a great dog, a teen you want to root for and some of the most ridiculous dog-centric basketball action ever filmed. There’s a reason they keep trotting out sequels.
BEST SCENE: Too many to choose, but — while we feel sorta sorry for the dog for this one — when the little boy is brushing his teeth, we laughed pretty hard. Also, it’s got the scariest clown character this side of a Stephen Kill novel.
SUMMARY: A limo-driving Knicks fan becomes the coach? For long-suffering Knicks fans, this is the perfect film to fall back on when the team is stinking up the joint. With Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose joining Carmelo Anthony in New York next season, Madison Square Garden could be filled to capacity with people who think they can do a better job than incoming coach, Jeff Hornacek. So this is still timely, even if Dennis Farina — the coach Whoopi Goldberg’s titular Eddie character replaces as coach — looks nothing like the former Jazz sharpshooter. Bonus points for this one because Rick Fox, “Spider-Man” John Salley, Mark Jackson and more make appearances, so the on-court action doesn’t make you cringe. Plus, there’s no Triangle Offense scene.
BEST SCENE: Nothing specific jumps out, but Whoopi does call Avery Johnson a “roach,” when he tells her she can’t coach. That made us laugh harder than we should have.
22. THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH
SUMMARY: “The Doctor,” Julius Erving, is the main character! Plus, famed Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon is also in the film, as is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a super-young Marv Albert playing himself. The film seeks to capitalize on the star power of Erving and the groovy 1970s ABA vibe can be felt throughout the flick, which also includes a killer soundtrack, big hair and a circus-like atmosphere to the basketball games. Famed actress Stockard Channing also gets one of her first film credits and really do we need to say anything more about this movie? Yeah, there’s some bizarre astrological nonsense going on and Pittsburgh isn’t a basketball city, but who cares, this is must see for anyone who has read Terry Pluto’s seminal ABA oral history, Loose Balls.
BEST SCENE: After lining up a team that all falls under Erving’s character’s sign (Pisces), they make it to the championship game. But really, just listen to the tunes, too. They might be the best part of the film, which is more style than substance and is more cult hit than something you’re going to really get into when you watch.
21. THE BASKETBALL DIARIES
SUMMARY: This is a film based on a book of the same name. And the book is a lot more about teenage angst while growing up in New York and heroine addiction than it is about basketball. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the protagonist and author of the book, Jim Carroll, and we’ll never really get over the time he and his friends shoot up before a game — the slow-motion sequences are eerie, drug-soaked looks at game action. Plus, some of the other hard-to-handle material is like a childhood nightmare. This movie is better than any D.A.R.E. instruction on the dangers of drugs and addiction, but it makes our list because the basketball court is the metaphor of Carroll’s spiraling despair and ultimate redemption.
BEST SCENE: The aforementioned slow-motion sequences, but when Carroll returns to his mother — played by Lorraine Braco — to ask for drug money, it will destroy you, especially if you’re a parent.
SUMMARY: In this one, Will Ferrell plays a 1970s one-hit wonder named Jackie Moon who used his transitory fame to procure an ABA team in 1976. If that sentence doesn’t get you amped for this film, then nothing probably will. It’s not Old School or Anchorman or anything that classic in the Ferrell catalogue, but it doesn’t need to be to crack our top-20. Plus, Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Woody Harrelson (who will be on this list later) co-star, and if you haven’t gotten your fill of ABA hijinks in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, Semi-Pro will more than sate you.
BEST SCENE: Perhaps when they wait for a TV timeout before brawling, but really we’re so distracted by Harrelson’s flowing tresses, Ferrell’s ’70s perm, and Andre Benjamin’s afro, it’s hard to even focus on that.
19. HEAVEN IS A PLAYGROUND
SUMMARY: This is a 1991 movie involving an inner-city coach who teams with a lawyer to help youngsters out through playing basketball. Former NBA player Bo Kimble also stars and the basketball sequences are pretty solid because of it. It’s not groundbreaking cinema, but it’s a good watch despite how few have seen it. Plus, the theme of the story is timeless and equally as important to this country today.
BEST SCENE: Truth Harrison and Matthew Lockhart — real character names, by the way — go one-on-one.
18. ONE ON ONE
SUMMARY: Speaking of going mano a mano, One on One is something of an metaphor for Pistol Pete Maravich, though not overtly so. Henry Steele is the star of his high school team, but when he goes to a major college, he quickly becomes overwhelmed, especially because he never really learned to read. A pretty co-ed helps him just in time for him to battle his overbearing coach.
BEST SCENE: Obviously the one-on-one scene where the coach tries to get Steele to lose it by hiring a big football player to mess him up. Steele doesn’t back down.
17. SUNSET PARK
SUMMARY: If you grew up in the suburbs, this was the movie that had all your classmates wishing they were from the inner-city. This was also the first basketball movie where a dictatorial coach changed the culture of the team. A young Terrence Howard plays one of the players Spaceman, but Rhea Perlman plays coach Phyllis Saroka and Fredro Starr does a good job as the main hooper, who also misses a game because he’s at Rikers charged for murder. Not many people remember this flick, but it set the blueprint for another movie later in our list and it’s the first inkling of what was to come for the basketball movie genre.
BEST SCENE: When Rhea’s character convinces Spaceman not to stab his teacher.
16. THE AIR UP THERE
SUMMARY: Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t the origin story of Hakeem Olajuwon, but it’s the first basketball movie we can remember that looked at the blossoming globalization of the game. Kevin Bacon plays an assistant college basketball coach, Jimmy Dolan, who is hoping an African big man he saw on a rare home movie, the basketball wonderkind, Saleh (played by Charles Gitonga Maina), is the player who can help him become head coach. But Saleh is the son of the chief, and Bacon is forced to live among the tribe in an effort to woo Saleh to the States. This movie did not age well, but the NBA is a world sport now, and this was the first movie to address that changing dynamic.
BEST SCENE: The Jimmy Dolan shake-and-bake at the beginning still makes us laugh because Bacon isn’t a baller, but we actually enjoyed when Saleh pretends to suck after Dolan first arrives.
15. COACH CARTER
SUMMARY: Samuel L. Jackson is perfectly cast as the tyrannical coach Ken Carter — based off the “real-life” coach in Richmond, California — who whips his loose and undisciplined high school team into shape. Jackson locks out his entire starting team because they broke his academic contract. This is near the apex of this type of archetypal sports movie, which Sunset Park paved the way for; although, we’re not sure if Rhea or Sam Jackson is a scarier coach.
A nice bonus is seeing Ashanti and a young Channing Tatum in the cast.
BEST SCENE: When the team finally figures it out.
SUMMARY: Yawn. We’d like to leave this off, but some among the UPROXX crew would have revolted. This movie is your parents’ favorite basketball film, and while it was pretty awesome the first time we saw it, repeated viewings have cast it in a different light.
There are some pros: It’s the real-life story of the small Indiana high school who won the state title before Indiana divided its state championship into different tiers based off the size of the school. The Jimmy Chitwood character, the star of the team who doesn’t join the squad until a third of the way through, makes silence almost as cool as Ryan Gosling’s driver in Drive.
Nothing creeps us out more than Gene Hackman kissing Barbara Hershey, and this ruins the whole film any time it comes on TV.
BEST SCENE: Tie. When Ollie hits his free throws underhanded (take note, Andre Drummond).
And the final shot by Jimmy when he finally speaks up after Gene Hackman’s coach wants to use Chitwood as a decoy. All the players stand up and Jimmy finally tells him:
“I’ll make it.”
13. TEEN WOLF
SUMMARY: Michael J. Fox plays the the talented Teen Wolf, and if you’ve ever read Bill Simmons before, you probably don’t even need this summary. But if you haven’t, this is a movie with some of the most contrived basketball scenes ever shot for a major motion picture. Teen Wolf’s dunks, in particular, look like the badly choreographed dunks of a 10-year-old who just figured out how to lower the rim. Regardless of that frivolous complaint, the movie itself is a classic, and any Michael J. Fox or movie fan should make sure to check it out. We’re just not so sure it’s an all-time classic basketball movie.
BEST SCENE: For basketball, it’s the Wolf’s first appearance on the court, that also doubles as a Globetrotters set piece with a trampoline in the restricted area:
But surfing on top of the truck is our favorite scene, altogether, even if dumb kids probably tried to do it themselves at the time.
12. FAST BREAK
SUMMARY: Classic. But because it’s from 1979, not many of our current readers are probably familiar with Gabe Kaplan’s finest role as a Brooklyn delicatessen owner and pickup player who dreams of coaching a real basketball team. He finally starts on that path with fictional Cadwallader University in Nevada. Bernard King plays Kaplan’s friend, Hustler, and an amazing assortment of players (D.C. and Preacher to name two), join him on his sojourn west were Kaplan’s team must beat a top-10 program if he’s going to keep his job. There’s also a sweet-shooting character named Swish, who is incredible, but also a woman, and who Kaplan disguises so she can play. There’s some martial strife because Kaplan’s wife wants to settle down, which means forgetting his stupid basketball-coaching dream, and a ton of things coming to a head as they finally get their big game.
BEST SCENE: Too many to count, but when Gabe, with the help of Swish, uses basketball to help Donald Clarence (D.C.) get caught up on schoolwork and teach him to read, the resulting Hemingway soliloquy on the hardwood cracks us up.
11. REBOUND: THE LEGEND OF EARL ‘THE GOAT’ MANIGAULT
SUMMARY: Don Cheadle plays the eponymous streetball legend, Manigualt, but Cheadle obviously can’t hoop, and that’s a good referendum on this HBO flick. The acting is superb as Cheadle fully inhabits the role of a street ball legend who was also a heroin addict. But Manigualt got clean and returned to the playground to help others (hence, the Rebound double entendre in the title). Cheadle is great, he just can’t hoop — no matter how much fellow co-star and former UCLA Bruins player, Nigel Miguel (playing the role of Sonny Johnson), tries to help (he tried to improve everyone’s game on set as an advisor as well as co-star).
If you want a fine dramatic performance with sketchy basketball action that obviously uses a double for a lot of The Goat’s better moves, you can’t do any better than this. Plus, Manigault’s story is something any fan of the game should know.
BEST SCENE: Uh, Kevin Garnett as Wilt Chamberlain? Yes, please.
10. PASSING GLORY
SUMMARY: New Orleans, 1965. The all-white champions and the all-black champions play against each other as Andre Braugher’s (Homicide: Life on the Street) Father Joseph Verrett character leads the charge. (Braugher’s character, isn’t as fiery in real life, though.) He pushes the game against the wishes of the parish leader, played by Rip Torn. This is a true story of the first integrated basketball game in New Orleans history between all-black St. Augustine High School and all-white Jesuit High. It’s a TNT made-for-TV movie, but it’s got a powerful message, one shared by a movie we’ll discuss a little later sharing a same powerful noun in the title, too.
BEST SCENE: Obviously, when Braugher’s St. Augustine shows up at the Jesuit High championship celebration to let them know they haven’t won anything yet.
9. FINDING FORRESTER
SUMMARY: Okay, this isn’t really basketball, but it’s such a great movie on its own and it’s heavily influenced by basketball, so we’re including it and making it a top-10 selection. It’s about a precocious young protagonist, Jamal Wallace (played by Rob Brown), who surreptitiously discovers a curmudgeonly, former award-winning writer, William Forrester, right as he’s offered an opportunity to play basketball for a prestigious private school in Manhattan. Sean Connery plays the writer and friend of Brown’s character, and Anna Paquin plays his love interest, who just so happens to the dean’s daughter. We love this movie because the basketball action is pretty solid, though it’s clear Brown can’t go left, and the takedown of the haughty, elitist private school by a well-read kid from a rough area reminds us of a basketball-infused Good Will Hunting, except set in NYC.
BEST SCENE: “You the man now, DAWG,” said in a thick Scottish brogue as Wallace finds his flow on the typewriter is something we use in everyday conversation because Connery’s the best. But we’re gonna go with Connery’s takedown of sniveling, insecure english professor when he reads Jamal’s essay on friendship as our fav.
8. GLORY ROAD
SUMMARY: Similar to Passing Glory, this film has glory in the title and it involves an all-black lineup (Texas Western) against an all-white one (Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky), except the stage is the 1966 NCAA Championship instead of 1965 New Orleans high school basketball. Josh Lucas plays Don Haskins who used the first all-black starting lineup in college basketball history and defeated mighty Kentucky in the championship game. It’s a true story, and they do it justice with this realistic re-imagining. The basketball scenes are better than expected, and the production is excellent. If you have children who love basketball, this is a must for them because it doubles as an important history lesson.
BEST SCENE: The climax, when Texas Western showed America the deal.
7. CORNBREAD, EARL, AND ME
SUMMARY: This 1975 flick could very well be in the top five because of the parallels with today. The character of Nathaniel ‘Cornbread’ Hamilton is played by real NBA player, Jamaal Wilkes (formerly, Keith Wilkes), who was the 1975 NBA Rookie of the Year, and made three NBA All-Star teams. The film revolves around a trio of young black men, including a pre-pubescent Laurence Fishburne playing Wilford Robinson and Tierre Turner as the Earl in the title.
Fishburne’s character ends up witnessing his older idol, Cornbread, get mistakenly gunned down in the back by police, who then try to cover up the incident.
BEST SCENE: Fishburne’s painful howling in the rain: “They killed Cornbread!”
6. BLUE CHIPS
SUMMARY: SHAQ! PENNY! Nick Nolte’s whiskey voice! Plus, look at all the cameos: Bob Knight, Rick Pitino, Nolan Richardson, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, Jerry Tarkanian, Matt Painter, Allan Houston, Dick Vitale and Jim Boeheim. This was the first feature film that pulled the curtain back from big-time college basketball recruiting. It tells the story of Nolte’s coach, Pete Bell, at fictional Western University in Los Angeles slowly succumbing to the allure of coaching “blue chip” recruits — Anfernee Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal — by looking the other way at the shady handouts from boosters. It’s an NCAA morality tale, and — according to the Shaq and Penny-produced 30 for 30: The Magic Moment — it was when the two future Magic teammates first struck up the chemistry that led to their 1995 Finals appearance against the Houston Rockets.
BEST SCENE: When Nick Nolte’s character first see’s Shaq’s Neon character on some grainy church footage where he appears to be dunking on rims made of this insanely thick iron that can withstand a Shaq jam. Just crazy.
5. SPACE JAM
SUMMARY: You’ve definitely seen this movie, and if you haven’t, here’s pretty much all you need to know: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Bill Murray, and Bugs Bunny highlight an All-Star cast of characters that consists of NBA superstars, comedy legends, and iconic cartoon characters.
If the sequel featuring LeBron James is ever made, by the way, here’s hoping the powers that be find a way to avoid putting a likeness of the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar in shackles. A chained-up Jordan hooping against his will on Moron Mountain wasn’t exactly sensitive to America’s national shame.
BEST SCENE: The TuneSquad needs inspiration to come back from a mammoth deficit to the MonStars. After Jordan’s impassioned words fail to motivate his overmatched, hand-drawn teammates, Bugs comes up with a classic locker room gimmick that propels the TuneSquad to victory.
4. ABOVE THE RIM
SUMMARY: While the team basketball action is sorta back, the soundtrack and acting are not. The story revolves around Kyle Watson (played by Duane Martin, a high school basketball star awaiting word on a possible scholarship to play at Georgetown. The finest performance is Tupac as Birdie, a local hood who wants Kyle to play for him in the local basketball tournament. Then there’s security guard Shep (played by Leon, best known as Jesus from Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video and Cool Runnings), who is dating Kyle’s mom and used to play ball under the same high school coach who is trying to get Kyle to play for his team in the tournament.
The plot isn’t groundbreaking, but the performances felt very real when we first saw this growing up, and while the soundtrack is an all-time classic, it’s the performances that make this one of the first movies we think about when coming up with his list. Bernie Mac makes an appearance as an oddball homeless Falstaff-type character, Flip, and Marlon Wayans plays Kyle’s unfortunately named best friend, Bugaloo. This is an excuse to watch a decent enough story where Pac plays a role he was born to inhabit, and all the various plot twists are resolved in a climactic basketball game.
BEST SCENE: So many to choose from, but while Tupac is his icy and playful best when he punks Bugaloo, and Leon does good work as Shep schooling Kyle one-on-one, we’ve always loved Kyle’s crossover on Flip, despite how mean it was.
3. LOVE & BASKETBALL
SUMMARY: Allow yourself the luxury of overlooking the fact that Omar Epps barely stands 5’10 and Sanaa Lathan had clearly never dribbled a basketball until prepping for her role, and there’s an argument to be made that this is the most complete film on our list. Part sports, part romance, part drama, part comedy, and part love letter to an era past, Love & Basketball traces the decades-long relationship between hoops stars Quincy McCall and Monica Wright.
This is an epic movie; it spans well over a decade and is separated into four different quarters of our protagonists’ lives from childhood to adulthood. The scope of Love & Basketball can’t be accurately described in anything less than a full review, and we don’t have the space to do it that justice here. What will appeal to anyone who’s ever defied odds and expectations to achieve his or her dream, though, is the disparate natures with which Quincy and Monica rise and fall to basketball glory – not to mention the nuanced effect those successes and failures have on their feelings for one another.
BEST SCENE: “I’m a ballplayer!”
2. WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP
SUMMARY: “You guys look at me, you see the backwards hat, the grey socks, the funky outfit and you’re saying, ‘This guy’s a chump.’ Am I right?” Billy Hoyle was definitely right, but left out the one crucial detail of his carefully put together persona over which he has no control: the color of his skin.
Woody Harrelson’s performance as hustler extraordinaire Hoyle makes White Men Can’t Jump go, and the always-complicated, often-hilarious nature of his friendship with Wesley Snipes’ Sidney Dean ensures this movie’s could-be problematic racial overtones never become an issue. Ron Shelton’s 1992 film relies on the chemistry of its leads to toe that line without ever crossing it, and achieves that delicate balance with the remarkable charisma of Harrelson and Snipes, not to mention a tightly-wound, detail-filled script that ultimately comes full circle.
Ever played ultra-competitive pickup on the blacktop with a loud-mouth player who may or may not be able to dunk? White Men Can’t Jump is that brand of hoops in Hollywood form.
BEST SCENE: Billy Hoyle is “in the zone, man!”
1. HE GOT GAME
SUMMARY: Coney Island’s Jesus Shuttlesworth is the nation’s No. 1 high school player. He’s being heavily recruited by every premier college basketball program in the country, including Big State, the alma mater of New York’s governor. Shuttlesworth’s father, Jake, is temporarily released from prison on one condition: He must convince his son to attend Big State.
Ignoring the ridiculous premise, cheesy dialogue, and heavy-handed cinematography makes it easy to believe He Got Game is the best basketball movie ever made. Spike Lee had a vision for this film, and it’s one he executed with utmost clarity and confidence. He had help with a typically stellar turn from Denzel Washington and surprisingly adept performance from Ray Allen, who didn’t have the safety net of a comedic backdrop like other NBA stars whose movies are featured on this list.
Faults and all, He Got Game is something close to a classic at the very least, providing a highly dramatized, consistently rewarding lens into not just the ugly nature of basketball recruiting, but the fragile relationship between a son and his absentee father.
BEST SCENE: One-on-one.