Looking back at the 2014 broadcast television premiere of Independent Lens‘ Medora, not to mention that we’re in the midst of NCAA basketball “March Madness,” we have the sport of James Naismith firmly on our minds. While Medora is about much, much more than high school basketball — “The film transcends the underdog sports doc,” wrote John Fink in The Film Stage, telling “a timely and important story with raw immediacy” — the struggling underdog basketball team is the heart and soul of the film, both on the courts and off.
The general feeling about basketball movies is that there aren’t enough good ones, and while that may ostensibly be true, there have still been quite a few excellent films. Here are my picks for the best films about basketball, both documentary and fiction, some famous, some obscure.
Let us know your own favorites in the comments.
1) Hoop Dreams: Not just the greatest film about basketball, but Steve James’s (who also directed the FRONTLINE film The Interrupters) film is frequently mentioned as the greatest documentary film ever, period. But don’t let such lofty praise deter you from glomming on to the absolutely moving humanity on display throughout in this story of two African American teens from Chicago, each with outstanding basketball talent, but with a jarring number of obstacles in their path (poverty, fractured family life, getting through school, and just the tough odds of staying healthy enough to compete against the best). Epic yet intimate, uplifting and heartbreaking. A masterpiece.
2) White Men Can’t Jump: Ron Shelton wrote and directed one of the best baseball films, Bull Durham (based in part on his own experiences as a minor leaguer), and he totally nails street hoops (and street hustling) with this fast, foul-mouthed, and flippant comedy. Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes make a great pair (and Rosie Perez adds sass) and the basketball action on the concrete courts of L.A. is super.
3) Hoosiers: “My practices aren’t designed for your enjoyment.” A near-classic and also a cult favorite, despite (or maybe because of) its share of Hollywood moments, in which the great Hackman plays a coach with a checkered past who enlists the help of a local drunk (Dennis Hopper, also super here) to turn an Indiana town’s high school basketball team into a championship contender. Based on a true story, Hoosiers makes an interesting double-bill with Medora, though the latter, obviously, is a bit more realistic.
4) Inside Moves: Underrated drama from 1980, this features veteran actor David Morse (St. Elsewhere, John Adams, Treme) in his very first role, as a bartender-turned-pro ballplayer, and John Savage as the disabled bar patron/friend who roots him on with a wary eye. Based on a book by Todd Walton, Richard Donner’s film may be a little sentimental and unrealistic but it’s still moving, satisfying, and well-acted.
Cheesy TV ad for Inside Moves:
5) He Got Game: As with many other Spike Lee film joynts, it’s an uneven ride, but the highs override the lows, especially with Denzel Washington along as a felonious father looking for a second chance with his basketball-playing son (played by real-life NBA star Ray Allen). The two of them have memorable one-on-ones together on and off the court, and their story is both quite heartwarming and heartbreaking. Plenty of great visual moments in this film capturing the elusive dreams of playing in the pros — and how it’s become more a business than a sport. All make up for the film’s occasional missteps.
6) Black Magic: This two-part, four hour documentary for ESPN is both a complex civil rights story and a sports story, both illuminating and sad. It is the story of black college basketball teams before and during the Civil Rights Era, as the game became popular, and some of its players famous, but something was lost as well. Features such hoops luminaries as Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, Oscar Robertson and Willis Reed, and an innovative but underappreciated coach named John McLendon, this tackles an underseen part of our sports history with a skillful mix of rare archival footage and interviews.
7) Chiefs: David Junge’s compelling, affecting look at a Wyoming Wind River Indian Reservation’s high school basketball team’s ups and downs as the student-athletes struggle to overcome the threats of alcoholism, poverty, racism, and depression while competing to win on the courts. Could be seen as a Native American answer to Hoop Dreams in its way (and in its style) but stands on its own as a rare glimpse into adolescent life on the rez.
8) The Other Dream Team: Rousing story of the 1992 Lithuanian national basketball team and their journey from communism to freedom and the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, featuring several groundbreaking NBA stars. This is a feel-good story of a band of tie-dyed shirt-wearing underdogs who are a quirky Eastern European version of Hoosiers, in their way.
8 Honorable Mentions (The Sweet 16)
- One on One: Robby Benson as a gifted basketball player, what more do you need? One of the first movies I remember seeing as a wee lad, as it turns out. See clip:
- Fast Break: Gabe Kaplan as a hoops coach, what more do you need? (Seriously, it may seem a little dated, but it’s still fun. Thanks for the reminder Sam in D.C.)
- The Heart of the Game: Patiently filmed over the course of many years, this is an engaging documentary on both Bill Resler, an eccentric University of Washington economics professor who moonlights as coach for a girls’ high school basketball team and leads them to marked improvement, and his star player Darnella Russell.
- The Fab Five: An ESPN 30 for 30 doc on the remarkably talented, and also groundbreaking, freshman quintet who starred at the University of Michigan in the early ‘90s (Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson). They were called by some “five Muhammad Alis” for the brash swagger and impact they had.
- Don’t Nobody Love the Game More Than Me: Martha Pinson’s lovely little short film (full disclosure: an Independent Lens short, but I genuinely like it) is available to watch on YouTube:
- No Look Pass: I saw this at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2012 where it won the Audience Award; very well-done doc about a women’s basketball player at Harvard who feels like an outsider by being both Asian and gay.
- Above the Rim: The script is full of clichés but both the basketball action and the performances are irresistible.
- Love and Basketball: That rare feature about women and hoops, this debut from Gina Prince-Bythewood is a sometimes clunky but winning romance-sports drama (maybe this can be a new subgenre: spormance?)
- Coach Carter: Forgot this initially. It’s solid and inspiring underdog story based on a true story. Samuel Jackson rouses, of course, and what could’ve been totally standard film rises above it a bit. Directed by former White Shadow (’70s TV high school basketball series) co-star Thomas Carter.
- Glory Road: Sure it’s Disney-fied but it’s still a great story: How Don Haskins led college basketball’s first all-African American starting 5 (Texas Western, which became UT-El Paso) to the NCAA national championship. An able cast, led by Josh Lucas as Haskins and Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) helps it rise above the formula.
- More Than a Game: A high school phenom named LeBron James and his friends form tight bonds and go through ups and downs while leading their Akron team to the national HS championship game.
Note: Most of these films are available to watch either on DVD, Blu-ray, or through one of the many streaming services.