Ranking Best Basketball Movies to Watch During NBA Hiatus

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2020

Ranking Best Basketball Movies to Watch During NBA Hiatus

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    Tom Strickland/Associated Press

    With governments taking various steps during the coronavirus pandemic, ranging from urgings to avoid large gatherings to mandatory lockdowns, many people around the world find themselves hunkered down at home.

    Typically, being stuck inside would mean an opportunity to watch live sports. But of course, these aren't typical times. The NBA is on hiatus for the same reason people are being told to keep their distance from each other.

    That doesn't mean there aren't alternative forms of basketball to consume, though. Over the years, the film industry has given us some pretty solid options in the basketball genre.

    To determine the best, the following system was put in place:

    • Take a list of feature-length movies about basketball located at Slam Magazine and pit them all against each other in an either/or exercise. The more head-to-head votes a movie received, the higher up the list it climbed. These are the results after 70,000-plus votes.
    • Find the TomatoMeter score, an aggregate of scores from film critics, from Rotten Tomatoes for each movie.
    • Find the average user rating for each movie from IMDb.
    • Sort the movies by the average of their ranks in those three categories (with extra weight given to this week's fan vote).

    There are no documentaries here. Kobe Bryant's short, Dear Basketball, was also kept out of the running. Finding the best feature-length, non-documentary movie was the goal.

    The results of the entire exercise can be perused here. Breakdowns for each of the top 15 are below.

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    Matt Sayles/Associated Press

    15. Semi-Pro

    Ranks: Fan Vote (7), Rotten Tomatoes (25), IMDb (32)

    "Look, there's nothing in the rulebook that says you can't play drunk."

    Those words, quickly rebutted by play-by-play commentator Dick Pepperfield, offer solid insight into Jackie Moon's Flint Tropics.

    This movie was never going to threaten awards contention from the hobnobbers at the Academy or the Hollywood Foreign Press, but it did lock down the illustrious ESPY for Best Sports Movie in 2008.

    And it's classic mid-2000s Will Ferrell. If you're a fan of his, there are more than a few laughs here.

    14. Uncle Drew

    Ranks: Fan Vote (12), Rotten Tomatoes (10), IMDb (33)

    Kyrie Irving claimed he doesn't want to play basketball to be famous. And that may be true. But parlaying a Pepsi commercial about an unassuming older gentleman with a game like Kyrie Irving's into a full-length movie is a heck of a power play.

    If you're big on plot, Uncle Drew may not be the film for you. But the professionals here, Lil Rel Howery and Nick Kroll, ably carry the load on offense, much like Kyrie does during NBA games. 

    13. Like Mike

    Ranks: Fan Vote (7), Rotten Tomatoes (12), IMDb (40)

    A 13-year-old boy discovers a pair of sneakers that magically make him an NBA-level basketball player. The science here may not be strong, but the cameos are. Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd and Chris Webber all lend a hand in this underdog tale. 

    12. Blue Chips

    Ranks: Fan Vote (11), Rotten Tomatoes (21), IMDb (22)

    You're not going to find a better explanation of Blue Chips than the 60-second recap Mike Camerlengo provided for NBA on TNT.

    Long story short, Nick Nolte plays a Bobby Knight facsimile (at least in terms of the actual coaching) who gets in a little too deep with corrupt boosters, point-shaving schemes and pay-for-play offers.

    The NBA presence is strong in this one, though. Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee Hardaway and Bob Cousy all pitch in.

    11. Finding Forrester

    Ranks: Fan Vote (22), Rotten Tomatoes (8), IMDb (3)

    Finding Forrester is almost too similar to another Gus Van Sant movie from three years earlier (Good Will Hunting), but we got Sir Sean Connery in a basketball movie. That's a win.

    William Forrester (played by Connery), a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, teams with Jamal Wallace (played by Rob Brown), a young basketball star with plenty of potential off the court. Predictably, they grow in ways they couldn't have without each other.

10. The Basketball Diaries

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    Ranks: Fan Vote (15), Rotten Tomatoes (16), IMDb (3)

    Two years after What's Eating Gilbert Grape and two years before Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio played a star athlete in The Basketball Diaries.

    Yes, that Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, that sport.

    The basketball itself is, well, not convincing. And DiCaprio appears to be tipping the scales at around 100 pounds. But this is one of many movies that's less about the sport itself.

    DiCaprio's Jim Carroll has a swift and steep descent into off-court troubles. Eventually, Reggie (played by Ernie Hudson) helps young Carroll see the right track.

    The Basketball Diaries has its cliches. And it's a little dark. If you're in the mood for something heavy, this is one to check out.

    It's also a decent showcase for a young DiCaprio. He showed flashes in this movie much like a talented NBA rookie playing for a team headed back to the lottery. A scene in which DiCaprio's character, after he's started to abuse drugs, is trying to get into his mother's apartment was perhaps the heat check of the movie.

9. The Way Back

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    Ranks: Fan Vote (19), Rotten Tomatoes (4), IMDb (6)

    Perhaps darker still is Ben Affleck's The Way Back. Like The Basketball Diaries, it deals with personal issues that go far beyond the basketball court.

    Alcohol abuse, family tragedy and a difficult upbringing lead Affleck's character, Jack Cunningham, to a desperate and lonely place. Coaching his alma mater helps to bring him back, but the film doesn't pretend that basketball can heal someone by itself. Family, friends, faith and counseling are all prominently featured.

    "'The Way Back' is a triumph as director Gavin O'Connor fashions a tale of the redemptive power of sports and purpose and at its core is a near unbearably personal performance from Ben Affleck," Blake Howard wrote for Dark Horizons.

    Affleck's own personal struggles seem to run parallel to Jack's, making the performance hit even harder.

    The basketball in this one is believable, as well. And it's used judiciously. The star of the team, played by Brandon Wilson, has a legitimate jumper, something that can't be said of a lot of actors who find themselves cast as basketball players.

    Several characters, including the team chaplain, the assistant coach and the hot-headed big man, have moments that bring real emotional weight without being hokey. The coaching, including the colorful vocabulary, feels authentic to a certain former JUCO and D-III center.

    Ultimately, though, this movie is about far more than basketball. It uses the sport as a backdrop, and it uses it well.

8. Space Jam

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    Ranks: Fan Vote (2), Rotten Tomatoes (20), IMDb (20)

    Let's face it: Space Jam, recently lampooned on How Did This Get Made, doesn't have the most coherent plot. Michael Jordan's acting is a bit stiff, even if he deserves a pass for all the time he had to spend acting with little more than a green screen. Mr. Swackhammer's and the Monstars' plan made little to no sense.

    But, honestly, none of that matters.

    This movie is pure nostalgia for millions who grew up in the '90s. Not only is it loaded with Looney Tunes, but it also has the biggest star in professional sports opposite them. For all the kids who spent hours on end shooting around outside, pretending to be Jordan, the movie didn't have to make sense.

    It was MJ and Bugs Bunny. In the same movie. Playing basketball.

    The rest was fairly inconsequential.

7. Above the Rim

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    Ranks: Fan Vote (6), Rotten Tomatoes (14), IMDb (14)

    Another movie about more than basketball, Above the Rim tells the story of Kyle Lee Watson, a basketball star torn between a local tournament and his drive to get a scholarship to Georgetown.

    The movie ends about as predictably as one can imagine (I'll avoid spoiling further than that), but there's plenty of drama along the way. And much of it was provided by Tupac Shakur, who appeared to be on track for a promising second career.

    "The movie lives easily on the streets where it is shot, and the performances—especially by [Duane] Martin, Shakur and [Tonya] Pinkins—are convincing," film critic Roger Ebert wrote. "We get a sense of the daily rhythm of the character's lives, and for a drama, the movie finds room for a surprising amount of humor, especially in the dialogue."

    Shakur was shot and killed just two years after the film's release, which makes viewing it now a different experience. To this day, he's likely the most recognizable star in the movie.

6. Glory Road

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    Ranks: Fan Vote (10), Rotten Tomatoes (13), IMDb (6)

    Glory Road is about as predictable and formulaic as sports movies get. Every step of the way, it seems to do exactly what you expect. And in several cases, it embellishes the true story at its core.

    William Arnold detailed some of the historical inaccuracies, including racially motivated attacks producer Jerry Bruckheimer admitted never happened, for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

    "So just about the only thing that seems to be true about this dramatic sequence of events—the scenes that give 'Glory Road' its visceral power and bond the audience with its protagonists and gives them credibility as civil rights heroes—is the fact that the Miners played Seattle U and lost by two points," he wrote of the movie's climax.

    Of course, Glory Road isn't the first movie to take liberties with facts. And much of what the production team added certainly increases the tension in the movie and wasn't really a stretch, as Jeff Merron, writing for ESPN's Page 2, noted. But this is a story that may not have needed much embellishment.

    Texas Western head coach Don Haskins (played by Josh Lucas) made a choice to use an all-black starting lineup in 1966, at the height of the civil rights movement, and that was an instrumental moment in basketball history. It helped lay the foundation for an NBA in which players are predominantly African American.

5. Love & Basketball

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    Ranks: Fan Vote (9), Rotten Tomatoes (5), IMDb (6)

    Love & Basketball was ahead of its time. Not only was it a basketball story told predominantly from the perspective of a woman, but it was also led by a black woman, Gina Prince-Bythewood, who served as both writer and director. 

    More importantly, the movie explored themes with which almost everyone can identify: love and the pursuit of a passion like basketball.

    This movie has a pretty grandiose scope, following a couple, played by Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps, from childhood through high school and college and on into the professional ranks. And though there is basketball throughout, it never loses sight of its primary focus on their relationship.

    Basketball is pretty high on the list of priorities for plenty of people. Love & Basketball posits that lasting happiness comes from the word in the other half of the title.

4. He Got Game

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    Ranks: Fan Vote (4), Rotten Tomatoes (6), IMDb (9)

    When you put a basketball in the able hands of Spike Lee and Denzel Washington, good things are bound to happen.

    There's an authenticity to He Got Game.

    Spike is perhaps the most notable celebrity fan of the New York Knicks. He's spent plenty of time around the game. Denzel had college basketball experience under his belt after playing for Bellevue College in Washington in the '70s.

    "He was very athletic; he wasn't a basketball superstar," Washington's high school teammate Jeff Crowne told ESPN's Dan Friedell. "He had a really good drive but not the best outside shot. … He wasn't NBA material, but he was just one of those really athletic guys. He knew the game. He knew how to pass and knew how to share the ball. It was really savvy basketball."

    That comes through in He Got Game.

    And then, of course, there's Ray Allen. His acting obviously wasn't on par with Washington's, but he's one of the best shooting guards of all time. It was easier to craft believable basketball scenes with him than it would've been with a typical actor.

    Of course, this is yet another movie about more than basketball. At the heart of this one is the father-son relationship between Washington's Jake Shuttlesworth and Allen's Jesus Shuttlesworth.

3. White Men Can't Jump

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    Ranks: Fan Vote (1), Rotten Tomatoes (7), IMDb (12)

    White Men Can't Jump is iconic, as evidenced by its No. 1 spot in the fan vote. In nearly 3,000 head-to-head votes as detailed in the intro, White Men Can't Jump prevailed 87 percent of the time.

    The acting of the three leads, Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes and Rosie Perez, is on point throughout. There's a slight suspension of disbelief required for the actual games of Snipes and Harrelson, but both play believably enough to keep the viewer engaged in the story.

    The Chicago Tribune's Gene Siskel called White Men Can't Jump "a fresh and exuberant romantic comedy that is as smart about playground basketball as Bull Durham was about minor league baseball."

    The relationship of Harrell's Billy Hoyle and Perez's Gloria Clemente makes the movie a romantic comedy, but the chemistry of the on-court duo is what drives the action, as Kenneth Turin wrote for the Los Angeles Times.

    "They're black and white instead of fat and thin, but Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson have the makings of a classic comedy team, the Laurel and Hardy of the half-court game. Graced with good-humored comic energy, they overcome sizable script problems and turn Ron Shelton's White Men Can't Jump into a sassy and profane urban fairy tale that finds laughs in some very clever places."

2. Coach Carter

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    Ranks: Fan Vote (3), Rotten Tomatoes (9), IMDb (3)

    Another movie based on real events, Coach Carter tells the story of Ken Carter, who returns to his alma mater to establish structure, discipline and a winning culture.

    Like plenty of sports movies, Coach Carter doesn't offer many surprises, but there's still some emotional weight for the millions who've been through the high school basketball experience.

    There's also strong acting from Samuel L. Jackson and a then-relatively unknown Channing Tatum. And it features a powerful anthem from Twista and Faith Evans called "Hope."

    Even with all of that, there's a tendency toward corniness that is overcome by the movie's biggest strength: believable basketball scenes.

    Few sports expose a lack of coordination and athleticism quite as quickly and thoroughly as basketball. The sport itself can doom a lot of basketball movies.

    Well-choreographed scenes with actors who can move like actual basketball players give the movies that contain them a head start against the rest of the genre.

1. Hoosiers

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    Ranks: Fan Vote (5), Rotten Tomatoes (2), IMDb (2)

    Hoosiers is synonymous with "basketball movie." For many, it's still the standard-bearer and the first title that comes to mind when asked to identify the genre's best.

    Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper both deliver stellar performances. Hackman authentically plays head coach Norman Dale as the steady, stoic presence on the bench who has a bit of a history. Hopper is a scene-stealer with memorable lines like, "3... 2... 1... Let 'er fly!" and "Don't get caught watchin' the paint dry."

    Maris Valainis, who played Hickory star Jimmy Chitwood, had the perfect-looking shot for a player in the 1950s.

    "I was cut from my high school team four times, but I wasn't intimidated," Valainis told ESPN's Gare Joyce. "I knew I could shoot with anybody."

    The jumper made Hoosiers' basketball scenes infinitely more believable. That was especially important for his character, who would hit the game-winning shot in the state championship.

    Indiana has a rich basketball history, and nothing depicts it better than Hoosiers.