There have genuinely been some top-quality basketball films over the years. They cover almost the whole spectrum of seriousness and styles.
There are the out-and-out comedies and hi jinx laden farces and heavy-duty social and cultural commentaries.
Sport has an almost unique place in the hearts of so many humans that it can be used to emotionally manipulate us with great aplomb.
In a textbook display of how things work here in The Jump Hub office, we started a discussion about our favorite basketball movies with a view to making a list of the best ones we could think of.
This turned into a semi-heated debate about the merits of each movie and how it was or was not superior to one suggested by the next guy.
Fun? For sure.
We certainly came up with enough good films to keep you entertained for days on end.
Could we remotely agree on what order they should appear?
Not even close.
In alphabetical order, then:
THE BEST BASKETBALL MOVIES WE’VE SEEN
ABOVE THE RIM – 1994
IMDB rating – 6.6/10
The number of dunks in Above the Rim is pretty remarkable. An interesting tale of a promising street player who gets sucked into a predictably unpleasant world. Our protagonist (Duane Martin) suffers the agony of choice between his respected basketball coach and an all-too-believable Tupac Shakur, who plays a Harlem drug dealer.
The performances here are what really elevates this movie above the average. Twists and turns keep the interest level high. Oh, and about a zillion slam dunks as the title might lead you to expect. The finale of the movie is brutal and unpredictable. Emotionally elevating and crushing all at the same time. Basketball fans will enjoy the action. Well worth a look.
BLUE CHIPS – 1994
IMDB rating – 6.2/10
In this 1994 offering, Nick Nolte plays a college basketball coach. His team is awful and he takes the dubious decision of teaming up with a shady character who can boost his chances of recruiting star high school players.
His conscience and a journalist looking for a salacious story bother him terribly and the twists and turns make this an interesting addition to the list that you may not have otherwise considered. It certainly gives a glimpse into the darker areas of sports in general and contains some genuinely sensational basketball scenes to boot.
Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway costar as two of the players, and there are cameos by other players and coaches along the way.
CELTIC PRIDE – 1996
IMDB rating – 5.3/10
Daniel Stern and Dan Aykroyd play Boston Celtics-obsessed fans who will do absolutely anything to see them win. This (ludicrously, but then it’s not meant to be serious) involves intoxicating and kidnapping Utah’s best player the night before game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Hilarity (ahem) and chaos ensue as the plot thickens.
Celtic Pride is a reasonably entertaining romp with some loveable characters and actors we have a soft spot for. It doesn’t really hold its own for the full duration but is worth checking out if you fancy turning your brain off and having an occasional chuckle.
COACH CARTER – 2005
IMDB rating – 7.5/10
Samuel L. Jackson plays Coach Ken Carter in this inspirational flick that is based on a true story. He insists that his basketball players succeed, not just on the court but also in the classroom. He wants them to behave like decent, respectful young men and take pride in their values and morals. When the players fail to make good on their promises, he benches the whole lot of them.
This causes uproar in a town that takes immense pride in its undefeated team.
This is a film that would be great to show in schools. It shows how a good mentor can have such a positive influence on a young person. Carter can bring the fire and brimstone if needed but does not rely on terrifying his young charges. He takes the time to interact with each of them on a personal level and genuinely tries to understand their fears and motivations.
In doing so, Coach Carter ends up being a much wider commentary on modern culture. Basketball is the vehicle that allows us to explore these themes and the fact that it is based on a true story makes it hit all that much harder. Plus, Jackson is an actor that just never seems to miss the mark. He brings character and gravitas to his version of the man he represents and commands our admiration and respect while doing so. This is a movie that extols the values most would agree make for a decent, kind human being.
In interviews about the results, Ken Carter said that the movie was almost 100% accurate to the events and conversations that actually took place. That just makes us love it all the more.
This is one for the list that we actually all agreed is brilliant.
CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME – 1975
IMDB rating – 6.9/10
A 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne makes his film debut in this 1975 offering. He plays a friend to the unfortunate Nathaniel “Cornbread” Hamilton. A young man with a promising future in basketball, which he is beloved by his neighborhood for playing so well. He is very ably represented by a young Jamaal Wilkes (then Keith Wilkes).
Cornbread is mistaken for a violent criminal fleeing a scene and is shot dead by police.
The neighborhood fights to get justice for Cornbread after their hope for him having a bright future is gunned down and destroyed.
It cannot escape the notice of anyone who sees this tragedy that very little has changed in America since this film was released. In fact, its continued pertinence almost 5 full decades after it was made remains the single most tragic aspect of this moving emotional rollercoaster of a movie.
FAST BREAK – 1979
IMDB rating 6/10
Gabe Kaplan made his big-screen debut in this humorous movie about a basketball fan living in New York. He owns a deli but dreams of becoming a coach and manages to get himself hired by a tiny college in Nevada. They are desperate to beat Nevada State and give him a chance to prove himself.
He puts together a team of dubious characters from New York that are actually all quite talented. If only they can be coraled and motivated to focus.
This is a lighthearted comedy that tackles the premise we have seen so many times before. A group of seemingly doomed, abandoned youth is given purpose and drive by the one person who has shown faith in them their whole lives. They rise to the challenge and reach a previously impossible situation in a nail-biting climax. It’s cliché of course. But clichés are usually there for a reason. They tap into our emotions and resonate with us on some level and can be positive and uplifting.
In actuality, Fast Break does its best to avoid the well-trodden movie tropes and is not quite as predictable as it first appears.
The characters are believably portrayed and are, on the whole, likable. The ‘big game’ is actually exciting and well observed. Most importantly of all for a self-described comedy? It’s funny.
A series of comedic scenes are interspersed with the ubiquitous ups and downs that a story like this demands. In the end, however, we are left with an entertaining romp that will leave you in a better mood than when you started watching it.*
*Results may vary.
FINDING FORRESTER – 2000
IMDB rating – 7.3/10
After a chance encounter, an unlikely friendship blooms between reclusive writer William Forrester (Sean Connery) and gifted 16-year-old Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), who is as gifted academically as he is on the court.
Jamal Wallace is a 16-year-old black kid with the potential to be a very great basketball player. Wow. What a new concept. Has that ever been done before in a movie? Hang on though, this is not your average ‘rags-to-riches’ tale of the rise, fall, and rise again of a disadvantaged young man.
Well, it is a bit like that but with a major difference.
He receives a scholarship to a posh private school with the strict understanding that he’ll play for their team.
A random meeting with William Forrester (Sean Connery) gives him another opportunity to shine that could not be further removed from the rough and tumble of professional sports. It turns out that Jamal is also a brilliant writer. With the constantly antagonistic, grumpy assistance of Forrester he begins to truly produce high-quality work. The pair change each other in ways they had not expected and (spoiler alert) Jamal finds himself in the running to win the most prestigious prize of them all, the Pulitzer Prize. We won’t go so far as to ruin the surprise (yeah right) but that’s not really the point of the movie anyway.
The actual act of playing basketball doesn’t feature so much in this movie, but it remains a vehicle for transformation and story advancement. It is an integral part of this tale but you should not go into it expecting sick dunks and clutch 3-point winners.
GLORY ROAD – 2006
IMDB rating – 7.2/10
Based on a true story, we find ourselves in the mid to late 60s when times are changing at Texas Western University. Don Haskins, ably played by Josh Lucas, takes over the basketball program. Lacking any useful recruiting support, he finds seven black players who otherwise have virtually no chance of attending college and puts them in his squad. The team goes almost undefeated through the whole season but the road is not a smooth one. This was 1966 at the height of racial tensions and prejudice in America and that is not glossed over in this rendition of a remarkable story.
Haskins makes history by starting five African-American players in the National Championship game. It is the first time in history that this happened and changed the world of basketball forever.
It is hardly an alien concept to our modern understanding of the world but Haskins simply chooses his team based on talent and not color.
In the 60s it was unheard of
The team goes on to face the top-ranked, all-white University of Kentucky. It is an important part of basketball history and therefore not a spoiler to say that they defeat them.
The cast is generally excellent and the basketball action is tight and effective. This is a very decent, respectful telling of a story that deserves to be told again and again. It is a firm favorite among the contributors to this list.
HE GOT GAME – 1998
IMDB rating 6.9/10
Spike Lee made an inspired choice to cast Ray Allen as Coney Island prodigy Jesus Shuttlesworth. The future Hall of Famer was then in his second season with the Milwaukee Bucks but you’d be forgiven for thinking he was a professional actor rather than a basketball player. His performance as a high school basketball superstar is nothing short of gripping.
The premise here is that Denzel Washington is Jesus’ father. He is serving time in prison for the accidental killing of his wife. He is granted temporary parole and the promise of a reduced sentence by the governor. The price? He must agree to persuade his son to attend the governor’s alma mater. Jesus is the nation’s top high school basketball player and is the target of intense recruitment efforts from all sides.
The themes of the movie remain depressingly contemporary and it seems that the underhanded culture of recruitment in the NCAA has not moved on very far in the subsequent 24 years.
Disappointing relevances aside, this is a very accomplished, watchable, and entertaining movie that does not leave the viewer wanting.
HIGH FLYING BIRD – 2019
IMDB rating – 6.2/10
Steven Soderbergh shot this entire movie on an iPhone.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Before you get your hopes up for an exciting POV basketball action movie, cool your jets. There is very little basketball to be seen here.
In fact, there is only one scene where any of the characters actually play ball.
That’s kind of the point though. The premise of the movie is that there is an NBA lockout.
For those of you wondering what that means – players and team officials, including coaches, owners, and staff, are not permitted to talk to their players. No one gets their money, and every players’ contract temporarily becomes null and void until a new CBA (collective bargaining agreement) is agreed upon and signed.
These standoffs tend to be driven by a situation where the individuals we might refer to as the “powers that be” feel they are not making enough money off the backs of the players.
They’ve got private jets to fuel and super-yachts to scrub clean.
Those things don’t come cheap. Neither do our tears and they will find none for their plight here.
The movie does not shy away from another glaring element of these kinds of situations. The fact that the majority of the players are black and the owners white.
The sickening stench of human greed pervades this offering and it was a source of much consternation during our list-making discussions.
Some felt that it is too realistic and disheartening. We are shown the grubby, grasping side of the sport we love and forced to accept that, like everything good and decent on planet Earth, it is driven purely and simply by greed.
We all know that there are vast, almost incalculable amounts of money swimming around in professional basketball. But do we really feel sorry for the players in all this? After all, they represent some of the most highly-paid athletes on the planet. Yes, they should be fairly compensated for their efforts commensurate with the returns they bring. But do we want to learn in detail about it and how predictably, depressingly money-oriented literally everything we love is?
ANYONE HOPING FOR A GUTSY UNDERDOG STORY THAT GIVES AN UPLIFTING SENSE OF HOPE FOR THE FUTURE WILL BE TERRIBLY DISAPPOINTED
Your appreciation of this film will pivot largely on your level of interest in the issues that it raises and how prepared you are to face the facts. However you take it, High Flying Bird feels like somewhat of a landmark offering in terms of sports movies.
It shines a spotlight onto a dirty open secret and forces us to address it whether we like it or not.
As depressing as it may be to accept this, High Flying Bird is, perhaps, one of the most true-to-life sports films ever made. Let us all weep
HOOP DREAMS – 1994
IMDB rating – 8.3/10
Hoop Dreams has the highest IMDB rating of any film on this list and nobody here has any problem with that whatsoever.
It is also the only documentary here and deserves credit for its brilliance in that regard. The narrative follows two young black men from inner-city South Chicago for 4 years. They have very different backgrounds but share the same dream. To play basketball professionally.
Gates comes from a wealthy background and attended a prestigious private school.
Agee is quite the opposite.
They both find themselves playing basketball for a predominantly white high school in Illinois. Unable to pay an unexpected bill for tuition fees, Arthur has to withdraw and go to the local public high school.
Everything from the difficulties of poverty and being born into a disadvantageous scenario to systemic racism is addressed here.
BASKETBALL IS THE ONE SOLID CONSTANT THAT DRIVES THEM EVER FORWARDS
It is not without good reason that Hoop Dreams has become one of the most acclaimed documentaries of all time. From the very beginning, it is engaging and fascinating. It is a masterpiece of editing (and, in fact, won an Oscar for just that) as countless thousands of hours of footage must have accumulated over so many months of filming.
3 hours simply fly past as we are drawn into the different yet parallel worlds of these 2 exemplary young men.
Hoop Dreams is one of the only listed here that received unanimous support. Not only is it one of the best basketball movies you will ever see, but it is also one of the greatest sports movies of all time. Period. We’ll even go one further. You can take the word ‘sports’ out of that sentence and it remains totally valid.
HOOSIERS – 1986
IMDB rating – 7.5/10
It is small-town Indiana in 1951.
Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) takes over as the high school basketball coach and immediately begins ruffling feathers. He has a less than pristine past and his methods are decidedly unconventional. Hoosiers (also known as Best Shot) sets the blueprint for plucky, have-a-go sports movies. It virtually single-handedly invented the classic motivational speech. Fear no one. No matter what the scoreboard says, if you give it your all then you will have no regrets.
No retreat, no surrender. Etc…
In the course of breaking new ground that has been trodden long and hard ever thereafter, Hoosiers became one of the greatest feel-good sports movies of all time.
The story is simple and accessible. Hackman is typically magnetic and powerful. Dennis Hopper is also exceptional here. As an interesting aside, The Library of Congress selected Hoosiers for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Make of that what you will.
REBOUND: THE LEGEND OF EARL “THE GOAT” MANIGAULT
IMDB rating – 7.6/10
Kareem Abdul-Jabar was asked which player was the greatest he’d ever seen. His answer was Earl Manigault.
Don Cheadle plays The Goat in this telling of his rise and fall.
It is a cautionary tale of wasted talent and opportunity. Maginault spirals into drug use and blows his chances. Forrest Whittaker plays the friendly neighborhood good guy who sees Earl’s potential but sadly has to witnesss it all being thrown away. The story is not a pre tragedy, however, as Maginault returns from a stint in prison to dedicate his life to the kids in the area and become an important community leader. That is not given enough gravitas here but is actually a very significant element of his enduring legacy on the streets of Harlem.
Most of the cast does an excellent job and this is a decent effort overall with what was clearly a meager budget. It’s not so much a basketball film. Indeed, most of the action is pretty poor. But the film brings an important message that success requires discipline. Talent and basketball skills are all well and good but worth very little if temptation wins out in the long run.
There is redemption here for sure but it is tempered with sadness.
SPACE JAM – 1996
IMDB rating 6.5/10
Ok then. Of course, Space Jam is here. It was a ground-breaking concept for a movie at that time and we would watch anything starring Michael Jordan. Although Bill Murray is the one who steals the show…
That being said, it may be that nostalgia is a more powerful force than we realised. This does not really hold up well with age. The effects are almost shockingly poor at times considering this came a full 8 years after “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
It’s silly but ultimately a lot of fun. There isn’t any point to explaining the plot as it is the stuff of madness. At the end of the day, this is and always was a kids’ film. We’re pretty sure they would be entertained all the way through. It’s weird and funny. It moves fast and doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Space Jam is undoubtedly one of the most well-loved sports films on this list. Perhaps of all time.
But that doesn’t mean you’d want to sit down and watch it again…
THE BASKETBALL DIARIES – 1995
IMDB rating – 7.3/10
The Basketball Diaries is a film based on the autobiography of poet Jim Carroll. It is a dark and upsetting story of sexual abuse and shocking drug-addiction.
Leonardo DCaprio portrays Carroll and we follow his bleak and disturbing journey through life.
Carroll was a promisoing basketball player at high school but lost direction and focus when a close friend died tragically of leukemia. The sexual abuse that he subsequently suffered at the hands of his basketball coach only pushed him further into self-destruction.
The film shows us the depths that a person will go to for their next fix of drugs (in this case, heroin), and just how fragile the trajectories of our lives can be. Especially when abused by those who should be there to protect and guide us but turn out to be sickening fiends who have the exact opposite effect.
It is clear that DiCaprio is not a natural basketball player and that breaks the immersion during the playing scenes but not enough to ruin the experience. Ultimately, it is not a film about basketball and this remains a worthwhile if traumatizing watch.
WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP – 1992
IMDB rating – 6.8/10
A couple of wise-cracking Venice Beach hustlers start off as rivals but eventually come to realize that they can squeeze their “marks” even harder if they work together.
The basketball scenes are entertaining and comical to watch and there are witty lines, trash-talking, and banter aplenty here. The premise of the title is that Woody Harrelson’s character takes advantage of the fact that most of the black players he encounters assume he can’t play well because he’s white. Some clever wordplay and trickery from his partner Snipes and suddenly the pair are able to pull cons on almost any targets on the court.
At the end of the day, White men can’t jump is more a comedy than a gritty social commentary. Nevertheless, it addresses the issue of racial tension in a respectful but lighthearted way and the chemistry between the protagonists shows us that none of that should matter at the end of the day. It won’t have you rolling with laughter but is funny and engaging in its own way.
WORTHY OF NOTE
IMDB rating 6.1/10
It may be that Teen Wolf falls into the same category as Space Jam in terms of our fond memories of it. Michael J Fox was at the peak of his popularity when this movie dropped and he is as charismatic and entertaining as ever.
The premise is bizarre but then it’s meant to be a fun-loving bit of craziness and that means it doesn’t really require heavy scrutiny.
Those nostalgics among you will no doubt garner a similar level of amusement and a warm glow from a re-watching of Teen Wolf that we did. It is an enjoyable romp that surely stands up as a modern kids’ movie.
THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH – 1979
IMDB rating 5.2/10
In this camp, amusing cult effort from the 70s, Moses Guthrie (Julius “Dr. J” Irving) heads the worst team in the league. The Pittsburgh Pythons. An astrologer played by Stockard Channing advises him that the team should be made up only of players with the star sign of Pisces. Yes, you did read that correctly.
And lo, the “Pittsburgh Pisces” are born. There are lots of NBA players and disco tunes in this bizarre movie.
THE PISTOL: THE BIRTH OF A LEGEND – 1991
IMDB rating – 6.8/10
“Pistol Pete” Maravich was so named because he had an unusual style of shooting from the hip. He became a legend in the NBA and one of the youngest players ever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Pistol released a series of instruction videos and books that any self-respecting basketball wannabe studied fervently in the late 80s. Pete passed away suddenly in 1988 at the young age of 40 during a pick-up game. He had an undetected heart defect.
This biopic was made not long after his death and celebrates the beginnings of his basketball career.
It seems that the best basketball movies don’t necessarily revolve around the game itself. The basketball court gives us the perfect setting and concept upon which to build a rich tapestry of emotion and intrigue.
Sure, as basketball fans it’s nice to see some fancy dribbling and cheeky dunks here and there.
BUT THAT’S WHAT ACTUAL BASKETBALL GAMES ARE FOR…
Movies need multi-dimensional characters and credible storylines. Or at least interesting ones when it comes to the less-serious comedic offerings here.
We will always be drawn to movies that involve our beloved basketball in some way. But to keep our attention they need to provide so much more. We hope you will agree that the movies on this list go at least some way towards achieving that.