The Best Sports Movies Based on Real-Life Stories

Laura Depta@lauradeptaFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2015

The Best Sports Movies Based on Real-Life Stories

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    Evan Agostini/Associated Press

    Real-life events have inspired many sports movies over the years.

    What makes a sport movie so great? Sure the reception—Rotten Tomatoes ratings, critical acclaim—is part of it, as are any major awards the film received. However, there's also that "it" factor, an intangible quality about a film that makes it moving and worthy of a rewatch (or five).

    Many sports movies play out in settings based in truth but contain characters and plot elements that are largely fictional. Such is the case with classics like A League of Their Own and The Wrestler. Even Hoosiers is a bit of a stretch, but eh, we'll let it slide.

    The following are films with settings based in truth but also characters based in truth. None are 100 percent accurate, but that's why they say "based on a true story," after all.  


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Honorable Mentions

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    Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

    Because sports stories are so innately inspirational, there have been many sports films based on truth. Here are a few great ones that just barely missed the cut:  

    • Eight Men Out (1988), based on the 1919 World Series and the Black Sox Scandal
    • Friday Night Lights (2004), about a Texas high school football team
    • Radio (2003), about the friendship between a high school football coach and a mentally disabled man
    • Brian's Song (1971), about the friendship between two Chicago Bears teammates 
    • The Blind Side (2009), the story of Michael Oher, a homeless youth who makes it to the NFL


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    Evan Agostini/Associated Press

    Released: 2015

    Based on: Concussion is the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu and his research on brain injuries in football players. Its bold willingness to put such a prominent and timely issue in the spotlight is admirable, and Will Smith gives an inspiring performance.

    Reception/Awards: Though Concussion's time in theaters is still young, as of this writing, it has a 77 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Brian Truitt of USA Today wrote Smith's portrayal of Dr. Omalu is his "most transformative role."

Glory Road

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    AP/Associated Press

    Released: 2006

    Based on: Glory Road tells the story of the 1966 Texas Western basketball team, and like many sports movies, it weaves social and human issues into a compelling athletic narrative. Coach Don Haskins (played by Josh Lucas in the film) famously started five black players in a championship game for the first time in NCAA basketball history in '66, and his underdog team defeated Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky squad.

    Reception/Awards: While the Rotten Tomatoes critics' score isn't stellar on this one (55 percent), the audience rating is much higher at 81 percent. Glory Road also won an ESPY Award for Best Sports Movie in 2006.  

The Rookie

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Released: 2002

    Based on: Starring Dennis Quaid, The Rookie is the story of Jim Morris, a high school baseball coach who pitched his first major league game at age 35. Quaid brought a charming believability to the role and helped turn what could have been a cheesy flop into a sports film of enduring quality.

    Reception/Awards: The Rookie has an 83 percent certified Rotten Tomatoes rating. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote, "Unabashedly lyrical and beautifully photographed, the movie, based on a true story, preaches the optimistic can-do philosophy that it's never too late to be what you might have been."


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    John Smierciak/Associated Press

    Released: 1993

    Based on: Rudy is one of the great college football movies. It tells the story of Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, an undersized long shot who walked on to the Notre Dame football team. While some of the film's more dramatic moments have been called into question, it succeeded in evoking the historic spirit of Notre Dame football, in "waking up the echos," if you will.

    Reception/Awards: Famed critic Roger Ebert once wrote Rudy "has a freshness and an earnestness that gets us involved, and by the end of the film we accept Rudy's dream as more than simply sports sentiment," per The film has an 84 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes


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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Released: 1986

    Based on: Hoosiers is loosely based on the true story of an inspirational Indiana basketball team. Gene Hackman plays the head coach at Hickory High (a fictional school) who leads his team to a state championship in 1952. The real team, Milan High, won the title in 1954, per Jeff Merron of ESPN's Page 2. Despite other historical liberties, the movie is a quintessential high school basketball film, and Hackman's performance sets it apart as one of the classics.

    Reception/Awards: The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Dennis Hopper), and one Golden Globe.

Somebody Up There Likes Me

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    JOHN LINDSAY/Associated Press

    Released: 1956

    Based on: Somebody Up There Likes Me is the biopic of former world middleweight champion boxer Rocky Graziano. Starring a young Paul Newman in one of his first major roles, the film is a bit like an early version of Raging Bull. Both depict real-life boxers from the 1940s who walked troubled paths. Unlike Raging Bull, Somebody Up There Likes Me can feel a tad cliche at times, but for boxing movie enthusiasts, it's a must-see.

    Reception/Awards: The film was nominated for three Oscars and won two. It has an 82 percent certified Rotten Tomatoes rating.

Remember the Titans

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    Associated Press

    Released: 2000

    Based on: Remember the Titans is based on the true story of the integration of a high school football team in Alexandria, Virginia. Denzel Washington plays Herman Boone, the first black head coach in the school's history. Though many of the film's details are fictional, according to a summary by Jeff Merron of ESPN's Page 2, the drama and execution of the film makes it wholly entertaining, if not 100 percent accurate.

    Reception/Awards: Remember the Titans did well at the box office, grossing over $20 million on opening weekend, per Box Office Mojo. Seventy-three percent of approved critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a positive review.

The Pride of the Yankees

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    Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

    Released: 1942

    Based on: The Pride of the Yankees depicts the true story of New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig. Released in 1942, just one year after Gehrig's death from the disease that would later bear his name, the film starred Gary Cooper as the famed first baseman. Cooper delivered a stirring rendition of Gehrig's famous "luckiest man" speech, but what made the film truly notable was the casting of several actual Yankees players, including Babe Ruth.

    Reception/Awards: The Pride of the Yankees was nominated for 11 Oscars and won one, for Best Film Editing. Three-quarters of a century later, its Rotten Tomatoes score is 92 percent.

Cinderella Man

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Released: 2005

    Based on: Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ron Howard, is based on the true story of Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock. Braddock's is a true comeback story, the tale of a man, beaten down by the economic hardships of the time, rising to unexpected glory and becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.  

    Reception/Awards: Cinderella Man was nominated for three Academy Awards and two Golden Globes. Its certified Rotten Tomatoes score is 80 percent.

Chariots of Fire

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    Associated Press

    Released: 1981

    Based on: Chariots of Fire depicts the compelling stories of two British sprinters from very different backgrounds who competed at the 1924 Olympics. Religion played a key role in the motivations of Eric Liddell, who was a devout Christian, and Harold Abrahams, who was Jewish. 

    Reception/Awards: Chariots of Fire was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture. In 2015, the Telegraph listed it as one of the best British films ever made. 


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    Associated Press

    Released: 2003

    Based on: Seabiscuit is based on the true story of a Depression-era racehorse of the same name. Undersized and overlooked, Seabiscuit's unlikely rise served as a metaphor for the plight of many Americans during that time. Directed by Gary Ross and based on the book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit is not just a great sports movie, but a great story of human emotion.  

    Reception/Awards: Seabiscuit was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and two Golden Globes.


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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Released: 2004

    Based on: Miracle depicts the true story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, a band of underdogs who rose to defeat a juggernaut Soviet Union team during a time of international political tension. Kurt Russell was masterful as coach Herb Brooks, and the decision to use real hockey players as actors paid off big time.  

    Reception/Awards: Miracle has an 80 percent certified rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Miracle treats old-fashioned, emotional material with an intelligence that respects both the story and the audience. This is a classically well-made studio entertainment that, like The Rookie of a few years back, has the knack of being moving without shamelessly overdoing a sure thing."

Raging Bull

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    AFP/Getty Images

    Released: 1980

    Based on: Raging Bull is a biopic of former middleweight champion boxer Jake La Motta. The film, starring Robert De Niro as La Motta and directed by Martin Scorsese, is widely considered one of the best boxing movies of all time. Raging Bull is raw, gritty and unique it its depiction of the uglier side of boxing. La Motta's is a story of anger and violence, and the film—based on his autobiography, Raging Bull: My Story—brings those aspects to life.

    Reception/Awards: Raging Bull was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and took home two (Best Actor in a Leading Role for De Niro and Best Film Editing). It has a certified score of 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.  


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