A Decade in Basketball Film
Ball don’t lie on the silver screen, either!
by Adam Fleischer
Over the weekend, laying out on my couch and flipping through some post-midnight TV, I stumbled upon The Basketball Diaries. With the movie only three minutes in when I landed on the channel, I knew that it was time to put the remote down. I had never seen the film before, but heard it was required viewing, especially for any fan of the game with a ton of respect for Leonardo DiCaprio and some hometown love that sometimes borders on a man-crush for Mark Whalberg. I walked away from the Leo’s brilliant and at times painful to watch performance sure of a few things: (1) It’s time to take heed to advice that my dad has given me multiple times and read Jim Carroll’s memoir The Basketball Diaries, off which the movie is based, which is surely as much of a must-read as the movie is must-see; (2) Don’t do heroin while you play ball; and (3) Worthwhile basketball related movies only come around every so often.
So, as the first decade of the new millennium creeps to a close, I thought it would be fitting to look back at some notable films that fall into that category (documentaries not included). While none of these are probably gonna go down on a level of Hoosiers or White Men Can’t Jump, some of these flicks are worthwhile. Others, not so much. But, hey, Nick Cannon needs love, too.
Love and Basketball (2000)
I remember first seeing this movie after school one day in a packed (now closed) theater in downtown Boston. Aside from knowing that I one day wanted to find a dope chick to play strip one-on-one with, I realized that I had stumbled upon an instant favorite. And, while it hasn’t held its position quite as high on my list in the nine years since its release, Love and Basketball remains an enjoyable film. This was a time when not too many were flyer than Sanaa Lathan (besides Jay skating in his Maybach Benz, I guess), and Omar Epps does his thing, too.
Finding Forrester (2000)
Directed by Academy Award Winner Gus Van Sant (also behind Good Will Hunting and Milk), Finding Forrester tells the story of an inner city kid who befriends a renowned but isolated author whose apartment overlooks an outdoor where the young cat balls. The two soon form what seems to be the unlikeliest of pairings. However, they share a passion for writing, as the elder Forrester takes young Jamal under his tutelage. Of course, when he pens an artfully written essay, the prestigious prep school Jamal’s at can’t fathom that a black kid from the Bronx with talent on the hardwood could have been the one behind it, forcing Jamal to try to prove his innocence. The basketball scenes aren’t overwhelmingly good, but they get the job done. Another personal favorite.
Like Mike (2002)
I think Lil’ Bow Wow spoke for most of us as he spit “Basketball is my favorite sport, I like the way they dribble up and down the court,” eloquently recycling Kurtis Blow on the aptly titled track “Basketball” off the Like Mike soundtrack. Aided by some super sneakers and a lightning bolt, Bow Wow gains some pro level skill in this cameo-laced flick. The basketball scenes aren’t the most realistic—an 11-year-old Bow Wow dunks on David Robinson, after all—but appearances by Allen Iverson, CWebb, Jason Kidd, GP, Dirk and T-Mac add some fun and authenticity.
Coach Carter (2005)
Movies based on true events always grab me, even if I’m sometimes skeptical (I mean, they say this is based on true events, too). The stories and actors don’t always end up keeping me, but hearing “based on a true story” is sure to pique my interest. As was the case with The Basketball Diaries, Coach Carter succeeds in bringing a real life story to the big screen. As Samuel L. Jackson’s Ken Carter brings a new wave of discipline and enthusiasm to his alma mater Cali high school, he places academics above basketball. At first, the fellas on the squad aren’t too thrilled, especially when they’re locked out of the gym because of sub par marks; eventually, though, they buy into the system and elevate their games and their grades. This coming of age tale may be my favorite of the bunch.
One of the more light-hearted picks on the list, Semi-Pro brings us Will Ferrell in short shorts, Three Stacks with a blow out, and Woody Harrelson making his return to big screen hoops—quite a combo. As Jackie Moon fights for his Flint Tropics’ survival during the upcoming ABA-NBA merger, Ferrell was near the top of his game, leaving me laughing for a good portion of the hour and a half I dedicated to this. The on court entertainment during Tropics games—including Ferrell fighting a bear and singing—seem almost as ridiculous as some of the crap they have going on in arenas these days. The George Gervin cameo was pretty cool, too, as he described to SLAMonline a while back.
John Tucker Must Die (2006)
Not ashamed to say that this is one of only four pics on the list I saw in theaters. In the classic mold of high school flicks, John Tucker Must Die brings us a popular star athlete and a handful of girls swooning over him. As star baller John Tucker is caught playing a few of his lady friends, they decide to mess with him to get even. While kinda cheesy and predictable, the story and dialogue actually had my sides hurting here and there. The depiction of the game is sub par from a realistic standpoint, but holds its own during comedy infused sequences. Plus, the casting was well done (get at me, Sophia Bush).
A modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic play Othello, O is yet again a film in a high school setting with plenty of hoops action. Mekhi Fifer plays the titular role as Odin, who’s dating the school’s most popular girl and a favorite of the coach as the team’s star, much to the dismay of the coach’s son, played by John Hartnett. The on court scenes are serviceable and story is well acted. As with all Shakespearean tragedies, the story closes with a hearty serving of suicide and betrayal. Hope I didn’t ruin it.
Ball Don’t Lie (2008)
Without a doubt holding the title of the best depiction of the game on the list, Ball Don’t Lie also introduces us to a new side of Grayson Boucher. Best known for his days on the AND 1 circuit as The Professor, Boucher does his thing in the leading role as Sticky, a talented kid without much guidance or direction. The plot unfolds over just one day, but during that short time we see Sticky’s broken home life, interactions with his girl, his confusion about the future, and how he uses basketball as an escape. I don’t think this film was very widely released, but I suggest finding a way to get your hands on it.
Glory Road (2006)
This is another one based on true events, but events that most of us have heard of. Telling the tale of one of the most important events in the history of the game, Glory Road looks back at Don Haskins’ Texas Western team from 1966 which started an all black line up in the national championship game against an all white Kentucky squad led by notoriously racist coach Adolph Rupp. It was the first time that that had happened, and they won. Groundbreaking is an understatement. Go see it, then read about it. Not necessarily in that order.
High School Musical 1, 2, and 3 (2006, 2007 and 2008)
I’ve only seen bits and pieces of this, but the kids seem to love it. There’s a lot of singing, dancing, and apparently some basketball in this series of movies about teen love. Cool the way sneakers and Spaldings created a song in Zac Efron’s breakout role, but when it comes to basketball sounds creating music, it’s not quite as dope as this was.
Caught about half and hour of this on TBS the other day. Nick Cannon goes undercover in a high school—not sure why—and shows off his on court skills at one point. Don’t recommend this, but he was actually pretty good in Ball Don’t Lie, when he played an abusive male figure from Sticky’s early years.
Starring Martin Lawrence, not the slightest clue what it’s about.
Juwanna Mann (2002)
Something having to do with a dude cross-dressing and balling as a woman.