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20 Best Basketball Movies of All Time from Teen Wolf to Space Jam
There have been some great fictional ballers out there in the great pantheon of basketball films. How about Air Bud? Pup’s a better on-ball defender than Kawhi. Or Foghorn Leghorn? Would you mess with Foghorn Leghorn if you had that big chicken ass trying to box you out from a rebound? Of course, there’s Jesus Shuttleworth. But you already know full well not to get in that guy’s way.
In honor of all the great Hollywood hoopers—and what’ll hopefully turn out to be our first March Madness in two years—we put together a list of the best basketball movies of all time. There are the classics like Hoosiers and Love & Basketball and White Men Can’t Jump, but there’s also some recent favorites that are a bit more basketball-adjacent. See: Uncut Gems. Oh, and of course, you can’t have the best basketball movies without a nod to Michael Jordan.Not to start a whole other debate until we get to the actual debate, but you gotta respect the GOAT at all times.
Below, find the 20 best basketball movies of all time. With this list, even when your bracket is fully busted, you can have March Madness anytime.
It’s easy to mistake Daniel Stern for a younger Bill Simmons in Celtic Pride, the 1996 comedy co-written by Judd Apatow and Colin Quinn about a pair of Boston die-hards that worship their teams above, well, everything else. Desperate for the Celtics to beat the Jazz in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Mike (Stern) and Jimmy (Dan Akroyd) intoxicate and kidnap Utah’s best player, Lewis Scott (Damon Wayans), which inevitably has bigger implications than the final result of a basketball game. It’s a sketch in search of a movie, but it does give us peak Christopher McDonald—at his Happy Gilmore height—playing Utah’s capricious coach.
Winning the award for most NBA cameos in one movie, Like Mike tells the fantastical tale of Calvin Cambridge (Lil’ Bow Wow), an orphan who laces up some old sneakers with the faded initials “MJ.” His ball skills instantly elevate to superstar levels, prompting the fictional Los Angeles Knights to sign him. This looks like a marketing ploy until Cambridge waxes the floor with perennial All-Stars. He finds the father figure he’s always searched for in his much-taller teammate (played by Morris Chestnut), giving this brand-infused, career trampoline scenario just enough emotional gravitas.
For more than a minute, the entire gymnasium goes quiet. Michael J. Fox has just transformed into a werewolf and begins dribbling the basketball before stunned teammates and stupefied fans. Eventually he takes advantage by sprinting down the court and finishing with a slam dunk; the horrified shock eventually turns into a happy surprise. This kid can finally play! The movie ranks near the very bottom when it comes to portraying quality basketball, but Teen Wolf, as his classmates eventually call him, somehow becomes an incredible athlete, ball hog, and minor celebrity who struggles to harness his hair-growing, eye-glowing instincts. The logic of this is preposterous, but Fox has enough charm to pull it off—even on a full moon.
Look past all of Air Bud’s kids-movie antics. Forget for a second that Air Bud is made out to be a better grade school hooper than you were. Just flat-out forget all the literal clown stuff, please. You know what you have left? A story about a boy and his dog. Someday, Air Bud will move past its place in ’90s-kid canon and into the actual great-movie echelon. Get ahead of it now and put respect on the name of our pup Buddy. And we dare the iciest heart not to cry at the pudding scene.
The Basketball Diaries
The first time he starts to dribble, it’s clear that Leonardo DiCaprio can’t actually play basketball. But this determination doesn’t really matter in The Basketball Diaries, based on poet Jim Carroll’s memoir by the same name. The star status playing on the “hottest Catholic High School basketball team in New York City” burns quickly and brightly for Carroll, who is sexually abused by his coach and submerges into a destructive drug addiction. It’s a bleak depiction of athletic potential wasted. Instead of providing a way out, basketball offers a glimpse of what could have been.
Another bullet point in the “white savior” movie pantheon, Sunset Park tells the story of an inept inner-city gym teacher (Rhea Perlman) who takes over her high school’s basketball team to make some extra money. Over the course of this undertaking she turns a talented but dysfunctional group into a mostly polished product, bonding with—and bailing out—the team’s lovesick point guard (Fredro Starr) and straightening out a drugged-up Terrance Howard. The basketball scenes are poorly edited, disrupting the flow of an otherwise cliché-ridden, winning season. Try to enjoy the little things, such as Perlman learning—then teaching—a 3-2 zone.
High Flying Bird
It borders cliché to write it at this point, but it really is true: Steven Soderbergh really is the master of making a stellar film in any genre. After trying his hand at horror, stripper comedy, and about a dozen other things, Soderbergh took on a sports film in High Flying Bird. But it’s not the story you’d expect. High Flying Bird follows the uber-uber-dramatic life of a modern-day sports agent. With NBA player cameos and André Holland’s spectacular performance, High Flying Bird is one of the most true-to-life sports films you’ll ever come across.
If you only learned about basketball by watching movies, then you’d believe New York City is the only hotbed of prime talent that college coaches have forgotten to recruit. Fast Break doubles down on this premise, in which a delicatessen owner (Gabe Kaplan) fulfills his dream of coaching basketball by accepting a job at a miniscule Nevada college. Before he leaves his wife and heads west, he collects a handful of inner-city kids he wants to give a second chance. Throughout sorting his team’s requisite problems, he burns through the competition to reach the reliable big game against vaunted Nevada State. Refreshingly, the movie sticks to the court without straying to the casino.
Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat”
At the beginning of Rebound, a reporter asks Kareem Abdul-Jabar which player was the greatest he’d ever seen. His answer is Earl Manigault, aka “The Goat,” the subject of this HBO biopic starring Don Cheadle, who channels the rise, fall, and redemption of the Harlem playground legend. An elite guard and prolific jumper, Manigault blows a chance at college and spirals into drug addiction, wasting the potential that a neighborhood sanitation worker (Forrest Whitaker) sees in him. His reemergence as a community leader is shortchanged in the movie but remains a significant part of his legacy throughout New York.
Above the Rim
It’s nearly impossible to keep track of how many dunks occur in Above the Rim, a movie that takes its title very seriously. The kind of street ball its high school hotshot protagonist Kyle (Duane Martin) embraces is in opposition to the style his head coach and college scouts want him to play. A glorified ball hog, Kyle gets in too deep with a Harlem drug dealer (a villainous Tupac Shakur), whose older brother (Leon), a former high school star turned security guard, begins dating Kyle’s mother. The performances—including small roles for Marlon Wayans and Bernie Mac—give extra weight to an unpredictable playground tournament finale that is wonderful and frightening at the same time.
Aside from creating an earworm hit song, Space Jam provided the ideal star vehicle for Michael Jordan, whose mythos enhanced with this classic entertainment venture. Mixing animation with some of the game’s biggest stars, the movie teams Jordan up with the Looney Tunes to play a basketball game against supercharged aliens that have taken his NBA peers’ skills hostage. The “MonStars” soon learn they should never challenge a team featuring the greatest of all-time, especially when he has help from Bill Murray, who continues his demon defeating on the hardwood.
Cornbread, Earl, and Me
A heavy rainstorm provides the backdrop for a mistaken murder, turning an otherwise sunny basketball inspirational tale into a disheartening courtroom procedural. Nathanial “Cornbread” Hamilton, embodied by NBA star Jamaal Wilkes, plays big brother to neighbors Wilfred (Lawrence Fishburne) and Earl (Tierre Turner), but weeks before heading to college he’s tragically killed by police, who confuse him for a criminal. More than 40 years later, the movie remains sadly pertinent to today and a young Fishburne’s stirring testimony in the final scene is a moving reminder of what kind of actor he’d become.
How could a talented black basketball player from the Bronx be the best writer inside an elite Manhattan private school? You might call this Gus Van Sant’s spiritual New York sequel to Good Will Hunting, challenging stereotypes and reminding us not to judge books by their covers. Jamal (Rob Brown), the phenom in question, strikes up an unlikely friendship with a famous Scottish novelist turned recluse (Sean Connery), who becomes a prickly mentor to the 16-year old. Even though Jamal carries a basketball in nearly every scene (the kid is a natural), the climax swaps the court for the classroom, where it’s clear a Pulitzer awaits his future.
Let’s get this straight: Uncut Gems is a basketball movie. Take it from its directors/Knicks superfans, the Safdie Brothers, who say the already-legendary Sandler outing is most definitely a sports film. That said: Uncut Gems is a trip. Sandler plays a jeweler hellbent on gambling an ungodly amount of money on a Celtics game. Chaos, sex, guns, drugs ensue. Plus, Kevin Garnett as Kevin Garnett, which would’ve genuinely been Oscar-worthy if he had more screen-time. Sure, Uncut Gems won’t convey the feeling of playing a basketball game to you. But it sure as hell will make you sweat like you just gambled on one.
Glory Road begins with archival footage of changing times. It’s the mid-1960s and indeed, times are changing at Texas Western University, where Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) shows up to take over the basketball program. Without recruiting support, he finds seven black players—with little chance to attend college—to fill up his squad. Throughout the Miners’ nearly undefeated season, they experience all kinds of resistance to integration, which comes to a boil when Haskins makes history by starting five African-American players in the National Championship game. Nothing surprises here, and nothing really disappoints, in this competently made retrospective.
Considered Remember the Titans on a basketball court, Coach Carter relishes every ounce of Samuel L. Jackson as the dictatorial head coach that takes over an unmotivated team and changes its entire culture with some strict, well-intentioned rules and caustic temperament. Based off the real Ken Carter, who famously locked out his 1999 Richmond High School team from playing until its grades improved, the movie embraces the tension of winning expectations and academic integrity. Come for Jackson’s burns, stay for Rick Gonzalez quoting Marianne Williamson and softening your heart.
It will forever be the quintessential Indiana basketball movie. Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) ruffles feathers as Hickory’s new basketball coach instilling the fundamentals of the game. The small farm town’s best player, Jimmy Chitwood, holds out playing but eventually joins the team so long as Dale stays, and the seven-man unit surges towards its championship goals. Hoosiers set the blueprint for the classic motivational speech—if you play hard, you’re winners, regardless of the scoreboard—followed by a locker room power clap featured on video boards across every professional sports venue. Among its many contributions, the movie gave new meaning to carrying measuring tape inside large arenas.
He Got Game
This Spike Lee Joint wraps every affliction and temptation for a No. 1 high school basketball prospect into the final week of his college commitment. The inspired choice to cast Ray Allen as Coney Island sensation Jesus Shuttlesworth works its best near the film’s climax during a one-on-one session with his domineering father, Jake (Denzel Washignton). The governor has granted him parole from his murder sentence to persuade Jesus to play for Big State University, culling the demons of their family history. It remains a disappointingly relevant movie, showing glimpses of LaVar Ball, corrupted recruiting and the NCAA’s nefarious economic culture.
Love and Basketball
“All is fair in love and basketball” is maybe the only trite moment spoken in Gina Prince-Blythewood’s directorial debut. This classic courtship between Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) begins and ends on the asphalt, where flirtation and feelings are translated through their one-on-one matchups. The pair negotiates its relationship while striving for individual collegiate and professional success, a task this movie treats with the care and authenticity it demands over its four-quarter life. Love and Basketball doesn’t emphasize the big game or final shot. It’s more concerned with the lessons learned long after the buzzer sounds. Amazon iTunes
White Men Can’t Jump
Despite the fact that both Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson stand well below six feet, their confidence and trash-talking bravura more than makes up for their height disparity. The pair of Venice Beach hustlers begin as foes and realize the monetary gains to be made off “chumps,” the most insulting street ball diss, who stereotype skin color and must pay for it later. Director Ron Shelton elevates the basketball scenes—on the beach and the playground—with comedic dexterity, while Rosie Perez, playing Harrelson’s girlfriend, is the perfect third wheel to this scheming and entertaining operation. Long live baggy T-shirts and bicycle caps. Amazon iTunes
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in Washington, D.C.
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