Basketball is a sport that’s practically built for the drama of movies. Last second-heroics punctuated by the sound of a buzzer are all the makings of cinematic greatness. But not all hoops films are made equal, and some have stood the test of time much better than others.
There are plenty of basketball movies — whether they follow a team’s journey or are simply the backdrop for the larger thrust of the picture itself. But a good basketball movie needs a strong story, some relatively realistic basketball game-play and maybe some classic moments that stand out to fans years later. Whether it’s a film that has actual basketball players in it or actors doing their best impression of a real-life baller, the best films make viewers lose themselves in the game for a moment.
Having trouble sorting it all out? We’re here for you. Let’s infallibly rank the 10 best basketball movies ever made.
10) Semi Pro
There has to be a comedy on here, and Semi-Pro is it. The heyday of struggling basketball teams is ripe with comedy, and this Will Ferrell movie is criminally underrated in his overall comedic cannon. Ferrell as a player/coach/owner of an American Basketball Association team is a gem. This movie is not realistic in any way — Andre Benjamin of Outkast plays a prominent role — but it doesn’t have to be. Basketball in Flint, Michigan looks like a hell of a lot of fun in this one, and its enduring legacy is the occasional Tropics jersey you’ll see at an NBA game.
Hoosiers needs to be on this list because it is regarded as a classic basketball movie. The Indiana Pacers have a Hickory High jersey that looks very cool. And Gene Hackman in a coaching role is always something to appreciate. But there is not a movie on this list that has aged worse than Hoosiers, a film made in 1986 and a film about an all-white small town basketball team triumphing because they got one good player. In this particular movie, they are the good guys. But three decades later, it’s hard not to view the team they beat as the far more interesting story.
8) Coach Carter
High school basketball is ripe with stories that make for good movies. And making your entire team because they violated your academic agreement is a pretty compelling way to draw an audience in, right? This is one of those basketball movies where the team grows and changes as it gets better on the floor, teaching a lesson along the way. It’s fairly formulaic, but it tells a nice story. A sneaky highlight of this film is an appearance from a very young, extremely bald Channing Tatum. Another early highlight is Samuel L. Jackson, a high school basketball coach, getting challenged by one of the team’s better players to a fight. You can imagine how that goes, but that alone is worth a look, right?
7) Glory Road
Speaking of more interesting basketball stories, there is Glory Road, a Disney-fied version of Texas Western’s run to the men’s NCAA Championship Game in 1966. The 2006 film doesn’t nearly have the cult following of Hoosiers, but the true story is far more compelling and highlights an issue that basketball in that era certainly suffered from: racism. Texas Western’s run to the title game against Kentucky is given the proper weight it should, and Josh Lucas’ turn as The Bear, coach Don Haskins, is a worthy center for this underrated film.
6) Teen Wolf
Michael J. Fox is a teen who is also a wolf. I’m not sure what’s not to like here. His character, Scott Howard, turns into an extremely athletic mythical beast. This is a harmless, if not ridiculous classic. And there’s something to be said for that kind of movie getting made in 1985 and still being true today. This is definitely the most “cult classic” of the films listed here, but there’s a particular affection for this movie, which actually sparked an equally-ridiculous MTV show in 2011.
5) Space Jam
Listen: Space Jam is not really a great movie. When you take away the nostalgia for it and a banger of a soundtrack, much like The Mighty Ducks, the bones of the plot are a bit bare. But it’s hard to hate a movie that puts Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny with equal billing on a movie poster. There’s a reason LeBron James has been hounded for years to make a sequel to this 1996 blockbuster: people love the idea of the best player in the game getting sucked into a cartoon vortex. If anything, it’s still the only logical explanation for Jordan deciding to play baseball for a few years.
4) He Got Game
Spike Lee’s ode to basketball is a classic. Denzel Washington’s turn as Jake Shuttlesworth is a great performance and a dynamic role, and an appearance from Ray Allen as his son, Jesus, is a fun surprise for those coming to the film for the first time. This is another movie that settles on a plot involving a five-star high school recruit, but the tale of Shuttlesworth coming to grips with his father’s incarceration for killing his mother is compelling and well-executed here. It’s not the apex of Lee’s or Washington’s career in cinema, but it’s certainly worthy of this list.
3) Blue Chips
Nick Nolte is a conflicted college basketball coach in this 1994 film that has some legendary performances from actual NBA players. Shaq and Penny Hardaway appear as players here, while Rick Pitino and Larry Bird pop up as well. Compared to the kind of scandals that have engulfed college athletics these days, getting a tractor pales in comparison. But the story here is strong, and it’s got some of the best actual basketball scenes out of any movie on this list.
2) Hoop Dreams
Maybe the best basketball documentary ever, filmmaker Steve James tells the story of two basketball prospects — William Gates and Arthur Agee — trying to launch basketball careers to get themselves out of inner-city Chicago. The movie follows both players for four years as they go through high school hoops, recruiting and school issues and try to stay on track despite the outside pressures of their lives. This film got an Oscar nod for best film editing, and pouring over all the footage of their stories to weave this one together into a cohesive picture certainly seems worthy. This is a must-see.
1) White Men Can’t Jump
This movie is great, but most importantly it’s beloved by people with a particular zeal that a lot of these movies lack. Hoosiers may be the exception there, but unlike Hoosiers, this one holds up significantly better in the modern era. The style is classic, the acting from Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson is solid. Everyone loves a film about a good grift.