Features and Columns · Movies

A Brief History of NBA Players in the Movies

To mark the release of Space Jam: A New Legacy, here’s a look back at some of the other movies to feature NBA greats.
NBA players in movies Space Jam Lebron James
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on July 21st, 2021

Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. This entry looks at some of the best movie performances by NBA players.

Space Jam: A New Legacy, perhaps more commonly referred to as Space Jam 2, is here. The sequel stars Los Angeles Laker LeBron James as a fictionalized version of himself. After attending a pitch meeting at Warner Bros., he and his son become trapped in the “Serververse” by an AI villain named Al-G Rhythm. And similar to the plot of the first Space Jam, which stars pro basketball icon Michael Jordan, James must win a high-stakes game. Naturally, he also assembles the Looney Tunes cartoon characters to play for his team.

That movie’s release comes on the heels of an announcement that Uncut Gems will enter the Criterion Collection in October. The film is about a jeweler and degenerate gambler. One day, NBA great Kevin Garnett visits the jewelry store and becomes infatuated with a rare black opal imported from Ethiopia. Garnett borrows it, excels in his next game, and comes to believe the opal is the reason for his success. By the end, the jeweler obtains the money to pay off his debts, but instead of taking the easy way out, he decides to place a bet on a three-way parlay centered on Garnett’s performance in the NBA playoffs. 

James, Jordan, and Garnett are only a few of the many NBA players who have graced the big screen over the years. It makes sense: rhythm, movement, and style are just as important to cinema as they are to the game of basketball. While no history of the relationship between the NBA and the movies could be contained in a single article, in honor of both Space Jam 2 and Uncut Gems being in the news this weekhere is a brief history of some of the NBA players who have made their way into the movies:

Jamaal Wilkes in Cornbread, Earl and Me

Today, many appearances in movies by professional athletes are limited to comedies, either in supporting roles or one-liners in cameos. But in 1971, Jamaal Wilkes, a future member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, took on a leading role in a movie that deals with systemic racism and police brutality head-on.

Cornbread, Earl and Me follows the story of Nathaniel “Cornbread” Hamilton (Wilkes, credited as “Keith Wilkes”), a standout basketball player and the first in his neighborhood to receive an athletic scholarship. Mere weeks before Hamilton is set to enroll, however, he is mistaken for another man by the police and is murdered in the street. After his death, the film follows the trial in court and shows a community full of leaders and witnesses willing to lie, rewrite history, and protect those in power.

“Cornbread’s fate says you can get straight-A’s, never commit a crime, mentor kids at an afternoon program, and have a vice as tame as constantly playing basketball and you can still get shot down in the same manner as the worst criminal in your neighborhood,” writes film critic Odie Henderson in a powerful personal essay about the movie. “And it’s all because of where you live and what you look like. Rather than admit a mistake, the city will cover it up and blame you, assault and destroy your character, so they can close a case.” 

After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in 2020, many NBA players were criticized for their vocal support of the ensuing protests, Black Lives Matter, and calls for police reform. But as many journalists and historians noted, the role of NBA players in the fight for social justice and civil rights — and many professional athletes more generally — is nothing new. And one need look no further than Wilkes’ compelling performance in Cornbread, Earl and Me. 

Dr. J in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh

Long before Michael Jordan went pro, let alone starred in Space Jam, there was Julius “Dr. J” Erving, whose speed, dunks, and class helped define the sport in the ’70s and ’80s. In 1979, the NBA player starred in the movie The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Here’s the hilarious premise: the ball boy of a losing professional basketball team seeks advice from an astrologer and comes up with a plan to create a team of only players with the same astrological sign as their star, Moses Guthrie (Erving). They become the Pittsburgh Pisces, and with their off-the-charts chemistry, they make a championship run.

During one scene, Erving goes to a playground and dunks for a few minutes. It’s pretty damn cool.

In a 2013 interview, Bill Simmons asked Erving about one of the film’s then-looming curiosities. At the climax of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, Guthrie’s team faces off against a Los Angeles squad headed by NBA Legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who, Simmons notes, disappears halfway through the game. 

“On the set that day,” Erving says after many laughs. “He got pissed about something … so he takes the director’s chair, and he slams it on the court. He slams it and he walks out.” Erving said Abdul-Jabbar often suffered from migraines and deserves “a Mulligan” for the incident, adding, “I think he’s gotten over it.” 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane!

The ’80s saw some of the most famous big men in NBA history take on big-screen movie roles that had nothing to do with basketball. Perhaps the most famous pre-Space Jam performance in a movie by an NBA player came in 1980 when the aforementioned Kareem Abdul-Jabbar starred as co-pilot “Roger Murdock” in Airplane!.

In one of the comedy’s best scenes, a young boy visits the cockpit and recognizes “Murdock” as Abdul-Jabbar, who insists he isn’t the NBA player. But the kid is persistent. “My dad says you don’t work hard enough on defense,” the kid goes on. “And he says that lots of times you don’t even run down the court. And that you don’t really try, except during the playoffs.” This cracks Abdul-Jabbar, who mutters, “The hell I don’t.” He grabs the kid by the shirt and says, “Tell your old man to drag [Bill] Walton and [Bob] Lanier up the court every night for forty-eight minutes.”

The role is among the most iconic sports cameos in film history. It’s brilliant in the way it blends Abdul-Jabbar into the world of the movie without pretending he is anyone else. In doing so, it pokes fun at the general absurdity of celebrity cameos without condescension. 

“I mean, he couldn’t have been better in a million years as far as being what we were looking for,” director Jim Abrahams told The A.V. Club as part of their oral history of the film. “He wasn’t supposed to be able to act. [Laughs.] So that just played into it all the more. But he’s a really bright, fascinating man. He’s the original Renaissance man and just a very interesting guy. Basketball never defined him, ever. Not even during his heyday. He was about a lot more stuff than just basketball.”

Wilt Chamberlain in Conan the Destroyer

Wilt Chamberlain, who holds the record for most points in a single game, made his big-screen debut in Conan the Destroyer. The title character (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) must complete a quest in order to be reunited with his lover. Joining him is Bombaata (Chamberlain), who has secretly been ordered to murder Conan once the quest is complete. Eventually, Bombaata’s treachery becomes clear, and after a confrontation, the men engage in a bloody duel to the death. If you’ve ever wanted to watch the former governor of California kill one of the all-time best NBA players — in a movie — this is your chance.

Michael Jordan et al. in Space Jam

If you were a movie-going NBA fan in the ’90s, you were in heaven. In addition to the great Air Jordan, the original Space Jam features a number of basketball pros, including Larry Bird. In fact, it’s while golfing with the Celtics legend that the chaos of Space Jam beings, when Jordan is sucked into the world of Looney Tunes through a golf hole.

The movie also features a number of other NBA players: Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, and Muggsy Bogues. Their talents are stolen by the movie’s villains, the “Nerdlucks,” who morph into basketball-playing monsters. The Nerdlucks become “Monstars” and then play the Looney Tunes characters in a game of basketball. If the Monstars win, then the Looney Tunes must become amusement park attractions on their home planet.

As is noted in the 2020 Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance, the year of the first Space Jam‘s release marked Jordan’s return to the NBA after a brief stint as a minor league baseball player. A highlight of the ten-part doc for me was learning that Warner Bros. built a full basketball court on set so Jordan could train during the shoot, and many NBA greats of the ’90s traveled to the set to scrimmage. Jordan went on to win three more championships. I wonder if the players regretted helping him return.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.