Last installment, I gave you baseball movies. This week, we hit the hardwood floor. Basketball movies are hard to fake, much more so than baseball; you can’t cut away while someone is dribbling or dunking; it looks awkward. When it is faked (think “Teenwolf”), you end up with the Bob Saget of movies – very cheesy and uncomfortable to watch.
The action aside, we are looking for a plot here; it can’t be all dishes and dunks. If that were the case, I would have “Blue Chips” and “Juwanna Man” on the list. Don’t get me wrong, Shaq is amazing in “Blue Chips,” Penny too; they practically carry Nick Nolte and Jerry Tarkanian through the film.
Here is the best of basketball cinema. Bon appetit!
Quite possibly the best sports movie of all time. Gene Hackman plays a burnout college coach, who is hired to revive a fledgling high school basketball team. The town is crazy about basketball (think Odessa, Texas with football, or Jerusalem for people who are into religion) but has not had any success in a while.
The team’s best player, Jimmy Chitwood, refuses to play for the team. Hackman has to battle with the townsfolk, who consistently act like Minnesota hockey dads, until he finally persuades Chitwood to play. Chitwood, by the by, could probably kick Larry Bird’s ass in H-O-R-S-E, he’s that good. The undersized, under talented and fictitious Hickory High School makes a run at the Indiana State title, tears abound.
The locker room scenes are poetic and moving. At one point, Hackman has his team measure the height of the hoop to prove that everyone will be playing on the same court. The small town conflict is awesome also; Dennis Hopper has a small part as the town drunk and basketball fanatic.
Hackman is backed up by a collection of young actors who pull their own weight, and are believable at the very least. Barbara Hershey is pretty good as a concerned teacher.
2. “Hoop Dreams”
The only documentary on the list, this actually made me cry when I was a kid. Filmmakers Steve James and Frederick Marx (no relation to Engles or Karl) follow the lives of two inner city Chicago teens, Arthur Agee and William Gates.
Both aspire to follow in the footsteps of Chicago-born NBA star Isiah Thomas and make the NBA. Gates and Agee both enter St. Joseph’s Prep (Thomas’ alma mater) from middle school. Gates joins the varsity and garners comparisons to Thomas as a freshman. Agee has financial struggles and joins a public school.
Agee’s family struggles are apparent. His father struggles with a crack addiction. His mother, one of the heroes of the film, struggles to keep the lights on and Arthur in line. Gates goes through a knee operation, which threatens his career. Both hang on to their dreams to the very end; the stories of each are equally heartbreaking and amazing to watch.
James and Marx literally follow these kids for six years, and you really get to know and love them.
The basketball action is as real as it gets. Look for cameos from Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, the legend that is Eric Montross, Dick Vitale and Spike Lee. Basketball aside, this is one of the most moving documentaries ever filmed. Gates actually goes on to a college scholarship while Agee finds his way to a junior college.
3. “White Men Can’t Jump”
I’m pretty sure this movie was the genesis of three major discoveries for me. One, I am white and cannot jump. Two, I am white and will forever be underestimated on a basketaball court. Three, trash talking is absolutely neccesary in basketball.
Woody Harrelson takes off the bar apron, but still continues the autistic white guy role as hustler Billy Hoyle.
Wesley Snipes makes his second appearance on the list as Sidney Deane. Hoyle takes advantage of street players by doing typical unathletic white guy things like stretching before a game. Snipes, who was initially hustled by Woody, takes him on as a partner, cultural boundaries are crossed (Woody takes a trip to Compton), and money is made.
The crowning moment of the film comes when Woody bets Wesley (they are the Newman and Redford of the early 90s) that he can dunk. The bartender from “Cheers” lives up to the title of the movie and loses the money from a previous tournament,
Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham”) does an amazing job with the exchanges between Snipes and Harrelson. Snipes is a pretty good ball player, and to no one’s surprise, Woody can hit a jump shot.