The Spirit of March Madness

By  · Published on March 13th, 2017

A journey through Basketball movies to find a slam dunk.

Selection Sunday. Sweet Sixteen. Final Four. National Championship.

The best time to be a Basketball fan is right now. Making selections through numerous NCAA tournament brackets is easy enough, but finding films that capture the emotion is a difficult endeavor. There is plenty of drama that occurs for athletes during picking a college, making it to the NCAA tournament, and then declaring for pros that films have struggled to capture. The amount of quality Basketball features pales in comparison to other sports, but the few featured here do a good job of capturing the heart of Basketball, while some also add commentary on young athletes.

Space Jam

This had to be included right? The 1996 live-action/animated sports comedy featuring the greatest player in NBA history, Michael Jordan, and the Looney Tunes. If you were a child in 1996 and didn’t see Space Jam, well your peers will be shocked when you tell them you still haven’t seen it (I had never seen it until this article, so I was one of those anomalies). It was almost as bad as not seeing The Goonies or The Land Before Time. It is incredibly easy to simply say Space Jam is a cash grab for Warner Bros and Jordan, but I’d like to imagine something more optimistic.

Space Jam features Jordan coming out of Basketball retirement in order to save the Looney Tunes from being enslaved by an alien race. The Looney Tunes believe they’ll easily be able to defeat their adversaries in Basketball given their small size, but when they steal the attributes from NBA players, it makes them the aliens Basketball superstars (‘Monstars’ as a matter of fact). If I was a child watching this maybe I would’ve been excited to see Bugs Bunny teaming up with Michael Jordan, but now, I barely stayed awake for the whole movie.

That optimism I was talking about earlier? I hope that the movie inspired plenty of children to play the game of Basketball. Outside the oodles of money, Warner Bros and Jordan made on the film, that can be a little reward. Seeing a Basketball superstar like Jordan with a super popular franchise like Looney Tunes can be very influential. On a whole, Space Jam didn’t do much for me, considering the most heartwarming sequence in the entire film comes within the opening moments with a child Michael Jordan talking about his dreams. Funny that it is the only sequence without Michael Jordan or the Looney Tunes.

He Got Game

Spike Lee + Basketball = Masterpiece? It is obvious how much Lee loves the sport, but could he make it shine on the big screen. If judging the opening sequence alone, He Got Game should be the quintessential Basketball film. You have one of the G.O.A.T. in Denzel Washington playing Jake Shuttlesworth, a convicted felon for killing his wife. Then, in an inspired casting choice, Lee hired NBA athlete Ray Allen to play high-school senior Jesus Shuttlesworth. When Jake gets released from prison to convince his son to play for a particular school, Jesus has added pressure to his decision. Jesus has enough on his plate, being the #1 high-school prospect in the nation, that he doesn’t need his father messing things up. Especially when every college coach is telling him it will be the most important decision he will make in his life.

He Got Game is at its absolute best when it focuses on Jesus and his decision of what school to play for. The pressures put on young athletes to sign with a specific school are extreme and He Got Game does a great job of depicting these pressures. As long as you are a Basketball superstar people will fall over themselves to impress you. Jesus finds out it’s tough to know who really cares about you when everyone just wants to use you. Especially when his high-school love, Lala (Rosario Dawson in one of her earliest roles), is out to fill her pockets.

Perhaps Spike Lee realized he couldn’t just make a movie about the pressures young athletes feel from recruiters; that or the studio releasing his movie objected to it. There is a father-son conflict that results in a showdown, with Allen and Washington squaring off. It is exciting to watch, but thankfully Lee respects the audience and gives the natural outcome. Unfortunately, there’s also a side-story featuring Washington and Milla Jovovich that feels entirely tacked on. He Got Game comes close to the pinnacle, but misses the buzzer-beater.

Love & Basketball

There might be romance in this ball game, but Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball comes closest to capturing that March Madness feeling. Before you cry foul, let me explain. By setting the film in the 80s, Prince-Bythewood gets to explore a world where women’s basketball ends in college. Girls looked up to male stars such as Magic Johnson, not Sheryl Swoopes since the WNBA wasn’t founded until 1996. College ended up being the end game for many women athletes since there just weren’t opportunities after that.

Love & Basketball chronicles the life and career of the fictional Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan). Monica dreams of playing with the boys in the NBA and sets her goals on accomplishing just that. An all-star on her high school team, she struggles to get the attention of recruiters. Once she gets accepted to USC, Monica must fight to get playing time as a freshman. Even when she finishes college, she continues to love Basketball and sets out to play internationally, where most women competed at a high level before the WNBA. There is still something she wants to achieve, but will there be a career path for her outside of international sports?

Now the romance part of the story. Monica has had a crush on her neighbor, Quincy McCall (Omar Epps), since she was eleven. Quincy also follows a similar path through high-school and college like Monica, but his final destination is not as successful. Love & Basketball does an excellent job of showing the difference in college athletics between the two genders and just what are the expectations for both Quincy and Monica. During a pivotal moment in the film, Monica is asked by Quincy to defy her coaches’ request for a curfew and be benched for the next game. That one moment, no matter how small it may have seemed, influenced both of their futures.

Love & Basketball is that rare film that manages to give a lot more than its original hook. Similar to Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights, the surface level story is a familiar romance, but underneath is a far more complex story. More so than any other Basketball film, Love & Basketball shows a child for-filling their dream of collegiate and professional sports, as well as, the difficulties involved.

For those young men and women participating in March Madness, this is their shining moment. As close as some movies come to capturing the spirit of March Madness, nothing else will capture the drama and exhilaration of that last-second shot.

News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.