The Best Basketball Movies: The Sweetest 16

As we move on to the sweet round of the March Madness tournament, we're here to declare the winners for the 16 best basketball movies.

By Chuck Walton

Best Basketball Movies

(c) Fine Line Features/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Now that everyone has a couple days before the Sweet 16 round of the March Madness tournament, why not celebrate your hoops fandom with some cinematic action? Here for your viewing pleasure are the absolute best basketball movies.

(c)Orion Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

  • 1Hoop Dreams

    (c) Fine Line Features/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.

    The late, great film critic Roger Ebert said of this classic ’94 doc, “A film like ‘Hoop Dreams’ is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and make us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.” Almost three decades later, the quote still applies. It’s the greatest basketball documentary. In addition, it’s the greatest basketball movie.

    Hoop Dreams

    Documentary / 1994 / PG-13

    Every school day, African-American teenagers William Gates and Arthur Agee travel 90 minutes each way from inner-city Chicago to St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois, a predominately white suburban school well-known for the excellence of its basketball program. Gates and Agee dream of NBA stardom, and with the support of their close-knit families, they battle the social and physical obstacles that stand in their way. This acclaimed documentary was shot over the course of five years.

  • 2Hoosiers

    (c) Orion/courtesy Everett Collection

    The second greatest basketball movie may also be the greatest Gene Hackman performance. Granted, though, he is the Oscar-winning star of “The French Connection." The actor’s unforgettable as Coach Norman Dale. The older mentor seeks glory for his small-town Indiana high school team and redemption for himself. Loosely based on the story of the 1954 Indiana state champions, it’s an all-ages triumph and features a timeless Jerry Goldsmith score.


    Drama / 1986 / PG

    Failed college coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) gets a chance at redemption when he is hired to direct the basketball program at a high school in a tiny Indiana town. After a teacher (Barbara Hershey) persuades star player Jimmy Chitwood to quit and focus on his long-neglected studies, Dale struggles to develop a winning team in the face of community criticism for his temper and his unconventional choice of assistant coach: Shooter (Dennis Hopper), a notorious alcoholic.

  • 3Space Jam

    © Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

    The premise is a bit hokey. Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan take on Charles Barkley and Larry Bird in a space jam for the ages. Still, what’s not to love?

    Space Jam

    Comedy / 1996 / PG

    Swackhammer (Danny DeVito), an evil alien theme park owner, needs a new attraction at Moron Mountain. When his gang, the Nerdlucks, heads to Earth to kidnap Bugs Bunny (Billy West) and the Looney Tunes, Bugs challenges them to a basketball game to determine their fate. The aliens agree, but they steal the powers of NBA basketball players, including Larry Bird (Larry Bird) and Charles Barkley (Charles Barkley) -- so Bugs gets some help from superstar Michael Jordan (Michael Jordan).

  • 4White Men Can't Jump

    © 20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection

    Later on, Wesley Snipes served time for tax evasion, and Woody Harrelson lost his hair. But in the early '90s, they shot and scored. In this Ron Shelton directed classic, they play two street ball players on the outdoor courts of LA. It’s a highly entertaining blend of of beach-side basketball, comedic shenanigans and lots of trash-talking. And it's definitely one of the best basketball movies.

    White Men Can't Jump

    Comedy / 1992 / R

    Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) is a white basketball hustler who banks on black players underestimating his skills on the court. When he pulls one over on Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes), his victim sees a lucrative opportunity, and they become partners in the con game, plying their trade across the courts of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Billy has to keep one step ahead of mobsters, to whom he owes money, while staying on the good side of his "Jeopardy!"-obsessed, motormouth wife (Rosie Perez).

  • 5The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh

    ©United Artists/courtesy Everett Collection

    The venerable Julius Erving took some time off from his day job to star as Moses Guthrie. He's the leader of a struggling pro Philadelphia team. That's until waterboy Tyrone (James Bond III) comes up with the crazy/ingenious idea to surround the Pisces superstar with players sharing his astrological sign.

    The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh

    Comedy / 1979 / PG

    An astrologer (Stockard Channing) helps a water boy (James Bond III) match players to his basketball team's star (Julius Erving), whose sign is Pisces.

  • 6Love & Basketball

    Romance and sports aren’t usually the greatest mx. But “Love & Basketball” proves the naysayers wrong, developing an affecting story about the paths of two childhood friends. Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) aspire to become professional basketball players. Their passion for each other and the game is strong, but external forces prove to be extra challenging.

    Love & Basketball

    Romance / 2000 / PG-13

    Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) are two childhood friends who both aspire to be professional basketball players. Quincy, whose father, Zeke (Dennis Haysbert), plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, is a natural talent and a born leader. Monica is ferociously competitive but sometimes becomes overly emotional on the court. Over the years, the two begin to fall for each other, but their separate paths to basketball stardom threaten to pull them apart.

  • 7Teen Wolf

    © MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

    He’s a teen, he’s a wolf, and he’s Michael J. Fox. In the year of 1985, that adds up to instant box office success. Nowadays, the whole thing’s a little cheesy. But watching Michael J. Fox dunk a basketball in full-blown wolf-out mode is still a sight to see. Enjoy it with some nice beverages and tasty popcorn. If entertainment value is the only criteria, it's absolutely one of the best basketball movies.

    Teen Wolf

    Comedy / 1985 / PG

    When high school nerd Scott Howard (Michael J. Fox) learns from his father, Harold (James Hampton), that being a werewolf runs in the family, he decides to take advantage of his freakish trait. With his newfound strength and agility, Scott quickly becomes the hero of his school's basketball team while winning over longtime crush Pamela Wells (Lorie Griffin). As he grows more popular, Scott worries he is being celebrated as a novelty rather than for who he is.

  • 8He Got Game

    © Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Collection

    Spike Lee and Denzel Washington have proven to be a potent cinematic combo time and again. "Mo Better Blues," "Malcolm X"…even Washington’s son John David starred in Spike's "BlacKkKlansman." Here, Denzel plays a man imprisoned for killing his wife during a domestic incident. However, he’s given an opportunity to reduce his sentence if he can convince his superstar son to attend the governor’s alma matter.

    He Got Game

    Drama / 1998 / R

    Jake Shuttleworth (Denzel Washington) has spent the last six years in prison after accidentally killing his wife during a violent domestic dispute, leaving his son, star basketball prospect Jesus Shuttleworth (Ray Allen), to fend for himself. One day, the prison warden (Ned Beatty) approaches Jake with an unusual offer: He'll be given a week of parole to convince Jesus to attend the governor's alma mater, with the promise of a shortened sentence if he succeeds.

  • 9Finding Forrester

    © Columbia Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

    Not too many years after the success of “Good Will Hunting,” filmmaker Gus Van Sant scored an artistic triumph with this bball story. It's about the friendship between a high school basketball player named Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) and cantankerous writer William Forrester (Sean Connery). It’s a well-made tale and a reminder of the late, great Connery’s legendary talent.

    Finding Forrester

    Drama / 2000 / PG-13

    A unique relationship develops between an eccentric, reclusive novelist and a young, amazingly gifted scholar-athlete. After the novelist discovers that the young athlete is also an excellent writer and secretly takes him on as his protégé, they develop an unlikely friendship. As they learn more about each other, they learn more about themselves, and ultimately, with the help of his new mentor, the basketball star must choose the right path.

  • 10Coach Carter

    ©Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

    Samuel L. Jackson, the ageless wonder who looks the same in the amazing “Captain Marvel” as he did in the 1990s, stars in this 2005 sports drama set in 1999. It’s the tale of Coach Ken Carter, who famously suspended his undefeated team due to their poor performance in the classroom. It’s a familiar story about the importance of sports and grades. But it’s a good one, and it's anchored by a great title performance.

    Coach Carter

    Drama / 2005 / PG-13

    In 1999, Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) returns to his old high school in Richmond, California, to get the basketball team into shape. With tough rules and academic discipline, he succeeds in setting the players on a winning streak. But when their grades start to suffer, Carter locks them out of the gym and shuts down their championship season. When he is criticized by the players and their parents, he sticks to his guns, determined that they excel in class as well as on the court.

  • 11Uncle Drew

    Usually, making a movie based on characters from a soda commercial would be a bad idea. Surprise, then, that “Uncle Drew,” inspired by PepsiMax spots, has an easy-to-cheer-for story and likable performances. We especially love the NBA legends dressed up as old codgers who can still play the game.

    Uncle Drew

    Comedy / 2018 / PG-13

    After draining his life savings to enter a team in the Rucker Classic street ball tournament in Harlem, Dax is dealt a series of setbacks, including losing his team to his longtime rival. Desperate to win the tournament and the cash prize, Dax stumbles upon the man, the myth, the legend Uncle Drew and convinces him to return to the court one more time. The two men embark on a road trip to round up Drew's old basketball squad and prove that a group of septuagenarians can still win the big one.

  • 12Linsanity

    (c) Everett Collection

    Another winning basketball documentary, and one of the best basketball movies, is "Linsanity," which covers the life story of NBA star Jeremy Lin. Narrated by actor Daniel Dae Kim ("Hawaii 5-0"), it’s an engrossing tale about a Chinese/Taiwanese youngster. The kid grows up in Paolo Alto, succeeds on Harvard's basketball team, and becomes a superstar with the New York Knicks.


    Documentary / 2013 / PG

    Filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong chronicles the rise of basketball star Jeremy Lin, the first man of Chinese/Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA.

  • 13Like Mike

    (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

    Rapper/actor Bow Wow, back when he was Lil' Bow Wow, starred as a teenage fan who dreams of becoming an NBA star. While it sounds like a pipe dream, never discount the magical powers of a pair of sneakers inscribed with the letters "MJ."

    Like Mike

    Children / 2002 / PG

    Fourteen year old, hoops-loving Calvin Cambridge (Lil' Bow Wow) has a dream: to be a famous basketball player -- to mix it up among the NBA's greatest. But in a game dominated by giants with unparalleled athletic abilities, Calvin's diminutive stature and limited skills, make this a far-off fantasy. Or is it? After he laces up a mysterious pair of old sneakers inscribed with the faded initials MJ, Calvin makes the leap from playground hijinks to NBA superstardom...

  • 14Glory Road

    (c) Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Collection

    Amongst the best based on real life, this basketball flick concerns the events of the 1966 NCAA University Division Basketball Championship. “Glory Road” tells the story of Coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) and the Texas Western College team, which featured the NCAA’s first all-black starting lineup. Among the players causing a good stir are Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke) and Harry Flournoy (Mechad Brooks).

    Glory Road

    Drama / 2006 / PG

    After being appointed the new coach of the 1966 Texas Miners, Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) decides to build a team based on talent rather than race. The conservative townsfolk balk at the new racially diverse lineup despite the fact that the team is winning all their games. When black players like Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke) and team captain Harry Flournoy (Mehcad Brooks) begin to dominate the court with flashy moves, the racial tension increases, jeopardizing the future of the team.

  • 15Above the Rim

    (c)New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection

    This gritty ’94 film is notable for a few reasons. It stands up as an authentic tale about the game of basketball as its played in the streets. Secondly, it’s an interesting tale about a high school star (Duane Martin) torn between his relationships with a drug dealer (Tupac Shakur) and a local legend (Leon). Finally, it’s a showcase for Tupac, who’s memorable as a villain named Birdie.

    Above the Rim

    Drama / 1994 / R

    A high-school basketball star (Duane Martin) is torn by loyalties to a drug dealer (Tupac Shakur) and an ex-player (Leon).

  • 16The Basketball Diaries

    © New Line/courtesy Everett Collection

    Long before they were bickering cops in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg played together on the hard streets of New York in “The Basketball Diaries.” While the film is only nominally about basketball, it has enough hoops to qualify as a great bball movie about a teen's journey from promising athlete to hardcore heroin addict.

    The Basketball Diaries

    Drama / 1995 / R

    Jim Carroll (Leonardo DiCaprio) is consumed by his life as a high school basketball star. Pressured by a wicked coach (Bruno Kirby) and a concerned mother (Lorraine Bracco), Jim develops an appetite for heroin. Soon, the mean streets of New York City have replaced the basketball court as his main destination. Jim and his friends scrounge, steal and prostitute themselves to score drugs. Jim's only chance to escape addiction may be Reggie (Ernie Hudson), a neighborhood friend and hoops companion.

About the Author