Essays · Movies

NBA Season Cancelled? Watch These Basketball Movies in the Meantime

COVID-19 took basketball from us but movie magic can bring it back. We recommend some good basketball movies while you’re missing the game.
Basketball Movies
By  · Published on March 19th, 2020

This article was co-written with Luke Hicks

So… you’re stuck in COVID-19 quarantine and you can’t watch the tall-boys shoot hoops anymore. On Thursday, March 12th, it was announced that national basketball tournaments would be halted along with all other spring and winter championships, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that the league would be suspended for at least 30 days – potentially, the entire season will be cancelled.

It’s hard to imagine what one could possibly do in light of such a devastating and historic event. Go outside and play a little one-on-one? I don’t think so, baby, you gotta self-isolate. Read a book? Reading is for nerds. No, the only thing that can fill the orange orb-shaped hole in your heart is sitting on your stupid couch and living vicariously through one of these 12 fantastic, faultless basketball movies.

Like Mike (2002)

I remember being forced to watch this movie as a kid. Maybe it was during school, though that seems unlikely upon reflection. More likely, it was during one of the many summer camps I attended, because I didn’t have any friends, but I had enough energy pent-up that my parents had to drop me off for a day so I could expend it all somewhere that wasn’t the inside of our house. I remember being forced to watch a lot of jock movies during summer camps because my summer camps were always primarily composed of jock kids and they always ran the fucking show. Anyway, this movie is about Michael Jordan but Michael Jordan isn’t even in the fucking movie, so Space Jam immediately has that over it. Fascinating to discover that Fred Armisen and Jesse Plemons are in it, I’m happy that they got paychecks. Times are tough for us all at one point or another. (Brianna Zigler)

Air Bud (1997)

Let’s be clear: no one is suggesting you should sit down with a glass of scotch, a pen, and some paper, and embark on a serious viewing of Air Bud like you might Hoop Dreams or Synecdoche, New York (not a basketball movie, unless you consider Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s “Let it rain!” bit from Along Came Polly so transcendent that it bleeds into the fabric of everything he’s in, in which case I agree with you: it is a basketball movie). No, Air Bud is the kind of movie you watch high with your roommates when you’ve fucking had it with all this quarantine madness and want to laugh so hard at something so insulting to the game of basketball that you end up getting an ab workout. If you’re lucky, the ball-biting golden retriever will flood you with a bit of 90s nostalgia. (Luke Hicks)

Semi-Pro (2008)

I think I streamed Semi-Pro illegally in high school, back when I was still at the height of my Will Ferrell comedy obsession and I was trying to make my way through all the hits. This one isn’t really that, though – it’s lesser Will Ferrell, for sure. I have a vague recollection of sitting through this movie on my family room couch at 1 in the morning and laughing mostly out of pity. But it’s a basketball movie so, you know, it’s on this list. Ferrell played Jackie Moon, a washed-up one-hitf wonder who decides to use the profits from his only hit single to fulfill his dream of owning his own basketball team – except the team he buys is the worst in the league. Andre 3000 is in it, for some reason? Woody Harrelson is there too, I guess because he was in White Men Can’t Jump and they thought that would be funny to put him in this? But I feel like a lot of the comedy in this film rested on the fact that Will Ferrell is running around in really tiny shorts. I haven’t seen this movie since I was a teenager, I just have a hunch. (Brianna Zigler)

Hoosiers (1986)

Debatably the most classic basketball movie of all-time about the most classic basketball state in America (Indiana, nicknamed the Hoosier State), Hoosiers is easy to love in the same way it’s hard not to cry when you watch an ESPN 30 for 30 or read a cheesy, inspirational story about a dog saving someone’s life in your newest edition of Boys’ Life. Not to take away from it, but it also happens to be the whitest basketball movie of all-time. How so, you ask? Well, let’s just say if there was a movie about a town drunk and a man with a controversial past trying to lead a group of high school boys toward victory in Indiana and they were black, they wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place. But hey, every basketball movie can’t be held responsible for tackling the suffocating history of inequality on the court in America. We have Glory Road for that. (Luke Hicks)

Blue Chips (1994)

Here’s what you may remember about the 1994 college basketball-set movie Blue Chips: it was the movie with a young Shaq and Penny. And yes, Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway did star in this film as two “blue chip” basketball recruits for the Western University Dolphins. In real life at the time, they were the exciting young core of the Orlando Magic in the NBA. But in this fictional world, they were Dolphins, coached by Nick Nolte. The story revolves around Nolte’s tortured-soul head coach, doing his best “What if Bob Knight had coached at UCLA” one-man show, torn between his love of the purity of basketball and the reality that there’s a lot of ethical grey area in college basketball. What you might not remember about this movie is that Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances ever. Or that it was directed by William Friedkin a smooth 21-years after he directed The Exorcist. You’d be forgiven if you forgot how this movie drips with existential dread and is shot with immense intensity. And it ends with a Network-level meltdown from our hero, Coach Nolte. Blue Chips deserves to be remembered, but not just as the Shaq and Penny movie. It’s among the greats. (Neil Miller)

White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

In short, no. They cannot. But Woody Harrelson apparently can. And anyway, is that really why we’re here? Or are we here to talk about how great of a marketing idea “Wesley and Woody” was? Or are we here to talk about how fashionably skimpy all of Wesley Snipes’ tank tops were? Or maybe we’re here to talk about how my friend Sean’s mom put this movie on for us when we were in fifth grade because she forgot how many fuckwords were in it and Sean and I thought it was going to be a highlight reel of celebrities playing street ball? Either way, we’re all here and we came to the right place because White Men Can’t Jump is a swindling basketball movie for the ages: as if Bonnie & Clyde and The Sting had a baby and named it Basketball. (Luke Hicks)

He Got Game (1998)

No basketball list is complete without the only filmmaker we associate as much with movies as we do with the court: Spike Lee. He Got Game isn’t Lee and Denzel at their finest, but it’s pretty damn emotional, entertaining, and, surprisingly, less about basketball than it is about the intimate relationship between an incarcerated father and his rising star of a son. It does, however, contain some of the most gorgeous images of Lee’s entire career, the only hearty performance by 2-time NBA champion and 3-point shooter extraordinaire Ray Allen, and the best names we’ll ever get from a basketball movie: Jake and Jesus Shuttlesworth. (Luke Hicks)

High Flying Bird (2019)

If you love basketball, but love people sitting in various rooms having complicated, hard-to-follow conversations for 90 minutes even more, High-Flying Bird is far-and-away the movie for you. In this movie, a sports agent whose company is in a lockout and losing clients must come up with a plan to save the company by pitching a controversial opportunity to his rookie basketball player client. I knew all of this information from having seen the movie, and I didn’t need to look it up on Wikipedia. This is because, when I watched the movie, I was following along perfectly, and I knew exactly what was going on at all times. I’m very smart, you see. My brain is huge. (Brianna Zigler)

Love and Basketball (2000)

Most basketball movies are sporty, tough, hyper-masculine romps through the psyche of the grizzled coach or his Cinderella team. In a vacuum, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a world where that translates to a grave gender misrepresentation. Leave it to writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood at the turn of the century to let out a resounding “fuck no” to all of that. Love & Basketball is a triptych tale of romance that follows Monica and Quincy from their days in little league ball to their triumphs at USC to their eventual reunion in the big leagues. It’s a steamy, sensual, and intimate take on a basketball story in which basketball, per the title, clearly comes second. (Luke Hicks)

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Few films about real-life are as engrossing and exhilarating as Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, an all-time documentary that follows Chicago high schoolers William Gates and Arthur Agee through high school as they prepare to mount a basketball career that springs into college and, hopefully, the NBA. Though, calling it a “basketball movie” is a bit reductive. Hoop Dreams is everything. Roger Ebert once wrote that it “is not only a documentary. It is also poetry and prose, muckraking and exposé, journalism and polemic. It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.” It should come as no surprise that Ebert recognizes singularity in cinema, but it says a lot that he thinks so. However, what’s more remarkable is the film’s universality—how it manages to consume everyone who watches it. For example, my ex-girlfriend’s mom—whose uninspired taste in movies could be accurately summarized by the word “Hallmark”—once said Hoop Dreams was the best movie she’d ever seen. If Hoop Dreams can steal her heart, it’s bound to steal yours. (Luke Hicks)

Space Jam (1996)

Space Jam is the Citizen Kane of basketball movies. You can quote me on that. The only reason it’s not number 1 is out of unwavering respect for Uncut Gems because Uncut Gems is just a better movie in general if only by a little bit (I’m not that deluded). But in terms of basketball films themselves, it literally doesn’t get any better than Space Jam. I can say this because I’m very smart and I know a lot about basketball. What other basketball movies were inspired by a Nike Super Bowl commercial and aped off the cartoon/live-action fusion success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? What other basketball movie intentionally makes you want to fuck a sexy cartoon rabbit and was the first objectively good Bill Murray movie during his slump before Rushmore? What other basketball movie has Danny Devito?! Well, maybe there is one, but I’m not going to check that. And I don’t want anyone else checking that either. Don’t do it. (Brianna Zigler)

Uncut Gems (2019)

What else is there to say that hasn’t already been said about the newly minted, already preeminent basketball movie of our generation and generations to come? Uncut Gems will make basketball fans love the sport even more, and make people who didn’t previously give a shit about basketball (not me, I love basketball) want to bet their life savings, or a loan from a pawned 2008 championship ring, on the next game no matter who’s playing or if they have any idea what’s going on. Nowadays, whenever I go to the nail salon or get my oil changed and I see a big fat fuckin’ flat screen up on the wall playing the day’s Big Game I feel like I, myself, am in Uncut Gems; like I’m Howie Bling kissing his TV set because KG’s scoring big and he’s feelin’ the gem.

Honestly, there’s just something about Adam Sandler saying he wants to make a six-way parlay on the Celtics/Sixers game, Celtics to cover, Celtics halftime, Garnett points and rebounds, Garnett blocked shots, Celtics opening tip, and a lightning bet of a thousand dollars per point that just really awakens something in me. Is it a new love for the sport, or is it sexual attraction to Howard Ratner? The world may never know (it absolutely, already does). (Brianna Zigler)

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Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer with bylines at Polygon, Little White Lies, Thrillist, The Film Stage, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. She runs a bi-monthly newsletter called That's Weird. Follow her and her big beautiful brain on Twitter: @justbrizigs.