The best movies about basketball

Sometimes there’s no better way to experience life on the court than through the art of cinema. Films have been covering the sport of basketball for decades using drama, comedy, romance, animation and even the supernatural. Over the years, stars like Denzel Washington, Will Ferrell, Leonardo DiCaprio and even Buddy the Dog have been seen making slam dunks on the big screen, and in 1996, NBA legend Michael Jordan teamed up with Bugs Bunny for one of the most famous basketball games in cinematic history with the film “Space Jam.” Almost 25 years later, the Looney Tunes crew is back, this time teaming up with hoops icon LeBron James for the sequel “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” To celebrate the film’s release on July 16, 2021, join as we look at the best movies about basketball…

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Much like the sequel, the original “Space Jam” movie is a live-action/animated hybrid that follows the beloved cartoon characters from “Looney Tunes” in their effort to win a basketball match against a group of aliens who intend to enslave them as attractions for their theme park. In this film, they receive assistance from a recently retired Michael Jordan, who was fresh off of a then-record 72 regular season wins for the Chicago Bulls when the movie was released in 1996. While “Space Jam” received mixed reviews from critics, it quickly became a ’90s classic for young basketball fans at the time. The incredible box office results say it all: The movie grossed more than $250 million worldwide and became the highest grossing basketball film of all time as well as the 10th highest grossing movie of 1996. As director Joe Pytka told the Los Angeles Timesin 2020, Michael couldn’t have been a better sport about his feature film debut, saying, “It was a great experience working with Michael. He just rose to the occasion. Anything you would ask him to do, he came through with flying colors. He’s a gifted human being.”

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Acclaimed director Spike Lee took a stab at basketball, giving it a far more dramatic spin in 1997’s “He Got Game.” The critically acclaimed picture stars Oscar winner Denzel Washington as the father of the top-ranked basketball prospect in the country. However, his character is in prison for killing his wife and is released on parole for a week by the state’s governor to persuade his son to play for the governor’s alma mater in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. The film co-stars former NBA player Ray Allen as the high school athlete as well as a supporting cast that includes Milla Jovovich, John Turturro and a then-unknown Rosario Dawson. It became Spike’s first No. 1 film at the box office and marked Ray’s screen debut. In a 2021 interview with the “Knuckleheads” podcast, the two-time NBA champion said Denzel couldn’t have made him feel more comfortable on set. “I think one of the greatest attributes a person can have a part of their character is to allow other people to feel comfortable around them, to disarm a person,” he recalled. “That’s how Denzel is; that’s how he was because he immediately started talking about basketball and shooting the ball, and just talking about my game … and it was never about him.”

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Spike Lee also helped bring romance to the court as an executive producer on the 2000 drama “Love & Basketball,” which follows two next-door neighbors in Los Angeles who grow up as childhood best friends pursuing basketball careers before eventually falling for each other as they get older. Audiences fell head-over-sneakers for writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s intimate portrait of modern love as well as the incredible chemistry between stars Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps. While the film’s box office performance was muted, critics had a much warmer reaction — and it’s developed a cult following in the two decades since its release. Film preservation company Criterion announced in 2021 that “Love & Basketball” would be added to its library. Gina told the Los Angeles Times in 2020 that she couldn’t be more proud of the film’s legacy. “As an artist, you hope you’re making art that resonates and reaches people, but you never know,” she said. “So the fact that 20 years later we’re still talking about my first film is humbling and amazing to me. Especially when I think back to trying to get it made and knowing how many times it was dead in the water.”

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Who doesn’t love a film that mixes basketball and crime? “White Men Can’t Jump” stars Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes as two basketball-loving hustlers in Los Angeles who con players who underestimate the court skills of a white man. The pair eventually compete in big money-shot tournaments to prove that Woody’s character can, in fact, jump. The film had a massive cultural impact upon its 1992 release, from fashion to “yo mama” jokes, and cracked the top 20 in the yearly box office earnings list. Nike even launched a shoe inspired by the movie, which truthfully depicts the competitions and bonds that are built on public streetball courts. Plus there’s no denying the winning banter the two actors displayed throughout the film, which helped turn its two lead actors into movie stars. “It’s one of the fondest experiences of my professional life. I made a life-long friend and a spiritual brother,” Wesley told Entertainment Weekly in 2017 of working with Woody.

A basketball coach takes center stage in 2005’s “Coach Carter,” which features Samuel L. Jackson as a dedicated high school coach who prioritizes his team’s academic performance as much as their work on the court. The film follows the titular character as he benches his students when their grades aren’t up to par. It’s based on the true story of Ken Carter, who famously locked out his 1999 Richmond High School team from playing until their grades improved. As Samuel told MovieWeb at the time of the film’s release, he was excited to be part of a basketball tale that also showed the importance of prioritizing education. “I believe in education and it’s not often that I do something that has social significance and I think that this is an interesting message to put out there to kids,” he said. “That playing basketball, football, soccer or whatever you do in school is an extracurricular activity. Getting an education is the one thing that can’t be taken away from you.” The movie, which co-starred Channing Tatum and Ashanti, received mostly positive reviews from critics and grossed more than double its $30 million budget in ticket sales.

Will Ferrell brought his famous brand of slapstick comedy to the court in 2008’s “Semi-Pro.” The silly 1970s-set flick follows the “Talladega Nights” star as a one-hit-wonder singer who uses his profits to fulfill a longtime dream of owning a basketball team. The catch is that the team is the worst in a failing league and it’s up to Will and an ensemble cast that includes Woody Harrelson and Outkast singer André Benjamin to save the day. While it doesn’t present a realistic depiction of the sport, it does come chock-full of laughs. And while “Semi-Pro” underperformed at the box office compared to some of Will’s monster-sized hits, it was a project the star had always wanted to take on. “You know, I always wanted to do a basketball movie, so this was a dream come true,” he told NewsBlaze at the time.

One of the more ridiculous entries on this list, “Teen Wolf,” depicts an average high schooler who becomes an all-star basketball player upon developing special abilities after discovering he is also a werewolf. The 1985 hit’s silly premise is sold with a winning performance from Michael J. Fox, who was hot off the release of the first “Back to the Future” movie when it was released. The teen comedy was made on a shoestring budget and ended up grossing a not-too-shabby $80 million in theaters. The cult classic was enough of a hit to spawn a sequel starring Jason Bateman, an animated series and a massively successful MTV series that aired from 2011 to 2017. But as producer Scott Rosenfelt told Yahoo in 2020, Michael’s lack of skills on the court made them nervous about pulling off the film. “We hired a basketball coach and took Michael into the gym to see how he played,” he recalled. “He came into the gym, we threw him the ball and he took a shot. The coach and I looked at each other and went, ‘Uh-oh…'”

“Finding Forrester” — a drama in which basketball is more of a background story — is about a New York City teen who’s as gifted on the court as he is with his studies. It follows him as he receives a scholarship to play on a private school’s basketball team. He soon develops an unlikely bond with a famous reclusive novelist who becomes the teen’s mentor and helps him discover that his talents can extend far beyond the hoop. Gus Van Sant’s compelling story includes fantastic performances from stars Sean Connery, Rob Brown and Anna Paquin and feels like a spiritual sequel to “Good Will Hunting.” It scored with critics and viewers alike, landing at No. 1 at the box office. NBC is developing a television adaptation of the heartwarming film.

One of the most beloved sports films of all time? Many consider 1986’s “Hoosiers” to be the greatest movie ever made about basketball. It tells the story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that enters the state championship in the 1950s with the help of a new coach who struggles to win everyone over with his unconventional methods. Star Gene Hackman charmed audiences with his character’s classic motivational speeches, and co-star Dennis Hopper even received an Oscar nomination for his work. The drama earned two Academy Award nominations in total and went on to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. The tear-inspiring tale is still held in high regard four decades later, which is surprising to even director David Anspaugh. “I can’t explain how popular the movie still is other than it moves people,” he told Vulture in 2016. “It’s a sports film that doesn’t really feel like a sports film. It’s really more about a place and time and people and community and second chances and fathers and sons.”

Before “Titanic,” Leonardo DiCaprio tried his hand at basketball with the 1995 biopic “The Basketball Diaries.” Based on the memoir of the same name, it follows a promising young hoops player who falls into a deep heroin addiction after the death of a close friend and sexual abuse by his coach. Mark Wahlberg and Lorraine Bracco co-star in the bleak drama that is dark and disturbing but also showed just how much a young Leonardo was capable of — long before he became an Oscar-winning marquee name. Unlike other films that rely on a big game to solve everyone’s issues, “The Basketball Diaries” shows how bad things can get when potential is wasted, and uses the sport as a “what if.” For Leo, the film was a chance to truly challenge himself as a young actor. “With this role, I saw a character that would take a lot of work and would require a lot of exploration into something I’ve never dealt with before,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995. “There were a lot of emotions that I would have to deal with, and basically, it was a cool character.”

The story of a basketball-playing golden retriever became a family favorite with 1997’s “Air Bud.” It depicts a ball-throwing teen struggling to adapt to his new home until he discovers that his new stray dog is an even better basketball player than he is, so he recruits him to join his school’s team. The film starred Buddy, an actual golden retriever who’d garnered national attention for his ability to shoot hoops. The Disney flick grossed more than eight times its $3 million budget and spawned a long line of sequels about the character — and eventually, his puppies — as he excelled in playing numerous other sports. “[T]here was a real raw demand from audiences for us to make a second one,” producer Robert Vince told E! in 2017, “which we did, and then that became the third … and really, it was like people couldn’t get enough of it.”

The Disney Channel gave female basketball players a chance to shine with its 2002 original film “Double Teamed.” The story is based on real-life professional basketball players Heather and Heidi Burge, Southern California twins who grew up as stars on the court before both joined the WNBA. The movie follows the pair (played by Poppi Monroe and Annie McElwain) as each discovers her incredible skills on the court and as they find a way to work together to ensure they both shine while playing the sport. The television film provides an inside look at how two female athletes made it to the big leagues, inspiring an entire generation of Disney Channel viewers. While remaining as unrealistic as most things from the Mouse House, it’s also packed with just as much heart.

Queen Latifah and Common teamed up for the court-based romantic comedy “Just Wright,” which follows a physical therapist and die-hard sports fan as she falls for a professional basketball player while treating him for a torn PCL injury. The chemistry between the two stars is electric, and it’s rare to find a light-hearted romance that incorporates basketball and does it so seamlessly. Paula Patton, Phylicia Rashad and Pam Grier round out a fantastic ensemble that skips the over-the-top characterizations and broad physical comedy of most rom-coms for an immense amount of warmth and relatable heart. And as Latifah told Essence at the time of the film’s release in 2010, she couldn’t have imagined doing the film with anyone but Common. “Working together was like working with an old friend. We didn’t have to create the chemistry, I hate having to do that,” she said. “Most of the time, I have a say as to who’s in the film, but not always. When you get to work with someone you know, and Common and I are both Pisces, we just clicked.”

A young orphan gets a rare shot to join the ranks of professional basketball in the 2002 kids film “Like Mike.” The fantasy-comedy stars Bow Wow (then known as Lil Bow Wow) as Calvin Cambridge, who finds a pair of sneakers emblazoned with the initials “MJ” (for Michael Jordan) that elevate his basketball skills to superstar levels and get him recruited for a fictional Los Angeles NBA team. It isn’t long before Calvin starts sweeping the court with the older players and develops a father figure in his much taller teammate who’s played by Morris Chestnut. The feel-good feature is full of inspiring moments for young athletes hoping to eventually get their shot on a major court. “Like Mike,” which features an extensive list of cameos from real life NBA stars, won over audiences, grossing double its $30 million budget at the box office and spawning a direct-to-video sequel. For Bow Wow, doing the film was a dream come true. “I wanted to be a basketball player before the rapping and the acting,” he told Fox News at the time.

Another basketball film based on a true story is 2006’s “Glory Road,” which documents white coach Don Haskins (played by Josh Lucas) as he trains the first all-Black starting lineup in NCAA basketball history in 1966. The Texas Western University squad is met with resistance to integration as well as intense racial prejudice, but they don’t let it get in the way of their championship win against the top-ranked, all-white University of Kentucky. The feel-good film doesn’t feature many surprises and provides the happy ending one would expect, but it does tackle racism in a way most of these other films don’t and gives this important piece of history the weight and respect it deserves. Also, the film scores major points thanks to a great supporting cast that includes Derek Luke and Jon Voight. “What I love about it was just like how this particular group of guys — they happened to be Black men — came out of nowhere, you know, and was ordinary men and beat the whole system,” Derek told NPR when the film was released.

No film documents the intense fandom that keeps professional basketball running quite like the 1996 comedy “Celtic Pride.” It stars Daniel Stern and Dan Aykroyd as two die-hard Boston Celtics fans who kidnap the star player of the opposing team (played by Damon Wayans) on the night before the last game of the NBA Finals to ensure a win. When the pair gets sober enough to realize the gravity of their actions, it becomes too late for them to find an easy solution. Despite the hilarious names attached, the slapstick-heavy tale did not win over many critics or theatergoers, but it did do a good job of parodying the lengths to which sports fans will go to support their favorite team. “One of the messages of this movie is that you’ve got to draw a line as a fan,” Damon told The Daily Bruin at the time. It was the second feature (and first for adults) written by a then-unknown Judd Apatow, who worked on the screenplay with former “Saturday Night Live” star Colin Quinn.

“Above the Rim” is about a Harlem-based basketball player who has to decide on a path for his future in the sport: focus on the style of the head coach at his school or the streetball he enjoys with his friends. His mission is to earn a scholarship to Georgetown University, but he’s torn between that and the allure of a local drug dealer, and it all shakes down to one suspenseful court showdown at the film’s climax. Numerous dunks are on display in “Above the Rim,” but it’s the performances from stars Duane Martin, Tupac Shakur and Marlon Wayans that anchor the film. The 1994 flick provides an authentic showcase of streetball culture as well as the hip-hop music of the era that defined so much of that life. “‘Above the Rim’ is the most true ball-playing cinematic movie,” co-star Leon Robinson told The Undefeated of the film in 2019.

By focusing on the lucrative and shady underbelly of big-business college athletics, 1994’s “Blue Chips” stands out for not glossing over the darker aspects of college basketball. The drama stars Nick Nolte as a conflicted coach who engages in slimy practices to recruit star high school players in order to turn around his losing team. Nick’s character becomes plagued with a guilty conscious as a sportswriter begins investigating his efforts. While it didn’t charm critics or inspire ticket sales, “Blue Chips” is noteworthy in that it’s a rare example of a film that’s tackled the questionable practices that go on behind the scenes in college sports. It features real-life NBA players Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway co-starring as two of the players, plus delivers cameos by other players and coaches, helping to create realistic and compelling scenes of actual game play. Writer-director Ron Shelton explained to Sports Illustrated in 2019 that he really wanted to tell a very different story about the sport. “It seemed like these problems in college sports hadn’t been addressed in popular media very much — the pressure to win, exploitation of high school kids,” he said. “It’s old news now, but back then I thought it’d be a good subject for a movie.”

It turns out that basketball is only one degree removed from Kevin Bacon, as he took to the court in the 1994 comedy “The Air Up There.” The actor plays an assistant coach and onetime college star who’s determined to get a promotion and sets out to recruit a 6-foot-10 teenage basketball sensation in Africa after spotting him on a videotape sent back from one of the college’s religious missions. His trip to the player’s secluded village is packed with a series of hilarious hijinks and errors as the two men form an unlikely bond and teach each other life lessons before taking the court for one final game with everything on the line. The film received less-than-favorable reviews and didn’t exactly set the box office alight, but it became a television staple and is one of the more light-hearted entries on this list. Also, who doesn’t love seeing Kevin star in a fish-out-of-water tale?

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