Basketball is a sport that’s practically built for the drama of movies. The fast-paced action is perfect for montages, and the tension of 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. Some, in fact, are downright mediocre and others, while originally praised as brilliant, have fared worse over time than others.
There are plenty of basketball movies — whether they follow a team’s journey or use the game as the backdrop for the larger thrust of the film. But a good basketball movie needs to be well cast with a strong story, some realistic-looking game-play and maybe some classic moments and quotes that stand out to fans years later.
Having trouble sorting it all out? We’ve got you covered.
13) Semi Pro
There has to be a straight-up comedy on here with zero appetite for drama or anything but laughs, 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.
11) 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?
10) 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.
9) The Way Back
A heavy film whose box office fortunes were impacted by COVID shutdowns that happened right as it was coming out, The Way Back demands a lot from its lead as Ben Affleck leans on some of his own experiences with the bottle to play a damaged alcoholic trying to find a rope in the dark and a way out of the hole that his life has become after being pummeled by loss. Basketball factors in as that rope, with Affleck’s former high school standout character finding renewed purpose as a fiery and sometimes unorthodox leader of young men.
8) 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.
7) 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.
6) Above The Rim
Above The Rim plays out as a battle for one young man’s soul, standing out as an excellent showcase for the acting talents of Tupac Shakur, whose character, Birdie, does his best to steer the film’s protagonist, Kyle (Duane Martin) off his course as a basketball prodigy with college ball in his future. The film is also a tremendous showcase for ‘90s hip-hop (due to its iconic soundtrack) and a film that aimed for authenticity when showcasing streetball culture.
5) 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.
4) 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.
3) Love And Basketball
Basketball is the thing that brings Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps’ characters together and the thing that tears them apart in this smartly-executed, years-spanning love story from writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Impeccably cast with familiar faces sprinkled in throughout, the film is careful to really examine the strains and isolation of both being a heralded athlete and someone who feels like no one else believes in their dreams. The pressures of living up to both your parent’s expectations and legacies is also explored, but while it sounds like a lot is going on, Love And Basketball doesn’t get bogged down, injecting enough gentle and intimate moments of connection that you never lose sight of the point or find yourself not rooting for the pair at the center of this story to get out of their own way and into each other’s arms.
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 is a great basketball film that happens to be a lot of fun, playing around in the worlds of trash talk and pick-up ball while leaning heavily on the strength of the uneasy partnership between Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson’s characters (with Rosie Perez thrown into the mix to steal every scene she’s in, as per her usual) and the grift at the heart of that partnership. Everyone loves a film about a good grift and White Men Can’t Jump certainly delivers. Written and directed by sports movie master Ron Shelton, White Men Can’t Jump furthers the truth he also highlights in Bull Durham: that sports can be the foundation for truly great relationships, but the trick is in making those relationships interesting and entertaining.