by Thomas Golianopoulos / @Golianopoulos
One day during the casting for He Got Game, Ray Allen, Travis Best and Rick Fox auditioned for director Spike Lee. Allen and Best were battling it out for the lead role in the film, Jesus Shuttlesworth; Fox, meanwhile, read for Chick Deagan, a cocky college star. The scene went really well. Suddenly, the room filled with applause. “Spike’s not clapping and the casting director isn’t clapping,” Fox says. “The clapping is coming from the closet. Denzel Washington then sticks his head out of the closet like, ‘That was really good.’ I’ll never forget thinking, ‘That’s Denzel Washington. Shit.’”
Spike Lee’s He Got Game arrived in theaters on May 1, 1998. It grossed only $21 million at the box office but remains one of the most beloved hoop movies of all time. Profound and entertaining, He Got Game is not your average sports film. Yes, there’s a “big game” during the third act, but like most Spike Lee joints, it explores grander themes—race, capitalism, college athletics, the prison industrial complex and fathers and sons.
The plot is a bit preposterous: A man imprisoned (Denzel Washington) for murdering his wife is given a week of freedom to convince his son (Ray Allen), the top high school player in the country, to sign with the governor’s alma mater. In return, he’s promised a reduced sentence. Yet it works. Lee tells the story from different vantage points, illustrating how everyone in Jesus’ world—the opportunistic uncle, the neighborhood tough, the slick-talking agent, the high school coach, the best friend, the girlfriend, the sister and especially the father—are affected by his decision on where he should go to college.
“I don’t think there was one aspect that wasn’t true,” Allen says. “If you ask any athlete about their stories, a lot of them would say it was like that when they got recruited to college….Your uncle buying a car and saying he co-signed it for you. People take liberties at your expense because they know you’re about to come into a lot of money.”
Of course, there’s also a lot of basketball in the film. And for those scenes, Lee wanted a real New York City playground vibe. Besides Allen, he hired other pros (Best, John Wallace and Walter McCarty), put them on the court and just rolled the cameras. He also wanted the cast to build camaraderie. Before filming, he had Washington, Allen and Hill Harper, who portrayed Allen’s best friend, play a game of knockout. They made a small wager on the outcome. “Obviously, Ray didn’t lose,” Harper says. “And I didn’t lose. Denzel took the L on that one. To this day, Denzel still owes me and Ray dinner.”