LeBron James and Bugs Bunny will have the youngsters and young-at-heart rooting for an intergalactic basketball triumph this weekend with the opening of "Space Jam: A New Legacy." But they're not the only memorable players in the long-standing game of hoops cinema. Check out any of the 16 classic bball movies below for more inspired tales of underdogs and real-life winners who know their way around the free-throw line.
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.
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.
Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan take on Charles Barkley and Larry Bird in an interstellar matchup for the ages. What’s not to love? This will always be the original jam, and perfect viewing before this era's follow-up in "Space Jam: A New Legacy."
4White Men Can't Jump
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.
5The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh
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.
6Love and 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.
He’s a teen, he’s a wolf, and he’s Michael J. Fox. In the year of 1985, that added up to instant box office success. Nowadays, the whole thing’s a bit cheesy. But watching Michael J. Fox dunk a basketball in full-blown wolf-out mode is a sight to see. If entertainment value is the only criteria, it's absolutely one of the best basketball movies.
8He Got Game
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.
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.
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. And it’s a good one, anchored by a great title performance.
Usually, making a movie based on characters from a soda commercial would be a bad idea. But “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.
Another winning basketball documentary 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.
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."
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).
15Above the Rim
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.
16The Basketball Diaries
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
About the Author
Chuck is an editor/writer who's worked for NCM, Fandango, Movies.com, MediaTrip, Hollywood.com and Newsweek. His favorite movie is "Jaws." He's definitely a dog guy.