Movies

Let’s Ring In The Final Four Weekend With Ten Essential Basketball Movies

It’s basketball season, whether you have time for it or not. The NBA playoffs are approaching. March Madness is reaching its apex this weekend with the Final Four in New Orleans. In other words, it’s the best time to revisit the best basketball films ever made, which also (completely unbiased opinion) happen to be the best sports films ever made.

There is not a lot of stillness in basketball. Fast-paced, intense, and chaotic, basketball is the most cinematic sport. Behind all the chaos is a gorgeous game that lends itself well to the visual medium. The best basketball movies capture the sport’s anxious speed, its distinct sounds, and the passion it instills in players, coaches, agents, fans, and everyone who has any part in the game. Due to the sport’s distinct personality, some of the best basketball films don’t even have to have any basketball scenes in them, like Uncut Gems or High Flying Bird.

Here is a slightly unconventional, focused list of the best basketball films presented in no particular order, which does not include documentaries or Space Jam, which is important to me personally and culturally but terrible so I cannot in good conscience recommend it in a blog on the internet.

Coach Carter (2005)

Coach Carter 2005
Paramount Pictures

Coach Carter is a formulaic and predictable film based on the true story of Coach Ken Carter, who made headlines in 1999 for suspending his undefeated Richmond, CA basketball team for poor academic performance, resulting in forfeits and outrage from players, parents, and the community. The film follows every single beat you expect from a sports drama but is anchored by Samuel L. Jackson’s moving performance that matches the energy of the sport itself. Despite their predictable outcomes, the basketball scenes in Coach Carter are some of the basketball choreography and acting, aided by intense editing that escalates otherwise quite standard basketball drama.

Hoosiers (1986)

Hoosiers 1986
Orion Pictures

The basketball drama blueprint. Hoosiers – which follows failed college Coach Norman Dale, who begins coaching at a small town Indiana high school – originated every cliche you see in a basketball movie. The coach seeking redemption. A small town. The shooting montage. The final game montage. The underdog story. Although every second of Hoosiers is an expected second, the film is so masterfully made and so well-acted (particularly from Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance as the alcoholic assistant coach, Shooter) that the cliches feel like new again. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to love Hoosiers, but it is nearly impossible not to become one once you see it.

The Basketball Diaries (1995)

The Basketball Diaries 1995
New Line Cinema

The Basketball Diaries, based on poet Jim Carroll’s memoir of the same name, is an unsuccessful athlete story. After being abused by his coach, Jim, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, becomes a heroin addict and gets further and further from being the star athlete at his New York City high school. The film is more about abuse and addiction than basketball, but it’s an alternative, realistic story unlike any other sports drama out there, especially at the time of its release. Besides DiCaprio’s terrible basketball skills (he dribbles way too high while looking at the ball), the performance is one of his strongest from the 90s, and is just a glimpse at what we would see in the future from the Oscar winner.

High School Musical (2006)

High School Musical 2006
Disney

I know that you think I’m kidding here, but I am only half unserious. High School Musical is a devastating story about Troy Bolton (Zac Efron), a boy who loves basketball but whose newfound interest in musical theater after one night of karaoke gets in the way of his future in basketball. The depiction of basketball throughout the series is appalling – games appear to happen at random times throughout the day, the coach says things that make absolutely no sense like “take it downtown,” and is not even present at every practice. During a game, several players on the bench and coaches stand on the court. But there is one exception that got this Disney Channel Original Movie on this list: the “Get’cha Head in the Game” sequence features some of the best ball handling ever depicted on a fictional visual medium. That is, except for Zac Efron, who is only a little bit better at having a basketball in his hands than Leonardo DiCaprio, in that it does not look like Efron is touching one for the first time in his life.

Love & Basketball (2000)

Love and Basketball
New Line Cinema

Love & Basketball, one of the most accurately titled films of all time, tells the story of childhood friends Monica and Quincy who aspire to become professional basketball players. Over the years, their relationship turns into a romantic one, but their competitive nature and their professional goals get in the way of their connection and their personal lives. Director Gina Prince-Bythwood’s stunning first feature has become a sports classic even though it isn’t a standard sports movie. Prince-Bythwood’s directing and the star performances from Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps capture the romantic side of basketball, the passion players have for the game, and every athlete’s unique relationship to their sport. Instead of shaping the story around important moments such as big, important games or a winning shot, Love & Basketball lets real life drama unfold in those settings and in doing so, captures how an all-consuming sport such as basketball can shape you.

He Got Game (1998)

He Got Game
Buena Vista Pictures


In this underrated Spike Lee joint, the film’s protagonist is not the athlete, but the father of the athlete. Denzel Washington plays Jake Shuttlesworth, the father of the top-ranked basketball player in the country. Jake is released from prison on parole in order to convince his son to attend the governor’s alma mater. If he succeeds, he will get an early release from prison. Spike Lee’s love for the game is evident in the stylized way he shoots basketball scenes but also in the way the film explores unethical college recruiting tactics. But at its heart, He Got Game is an examination of a complex father/son relationship.

The Way Back (2020)

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WARNER BROS.

He doesn’t teach the kids. The kids teach him. In the underappreciated gem The Way Back, Ben Affleck does peak sad acting as Jack Cunningham, an alcoholic and former basketball superstar who returns to the high school where he played as a coach. As Jack struggles to get the program back on its feet, he learns from the kids he’s coaching. The Way Back feels like a formulaic sports drama every step of the way, but pulls the rug out from under you just when you expect it to go the predictable route. The film is anchored by Affleck’s emotionally charged performance, which is just as effective in coaching scenes as it is in scenes of him shooting jump shots on an empty California court at sunset. Unlike most basketball actors, Affleck knows how shoot a basketball correctly.

Big Shot (2021-)

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Disney+

This is technically cheating because Big Shot is a television show, but it is cinema, so it counts. On this excellent, fun, and easy-to-watch Disney+ series from David E. Kelley, John Stamos plays a Marvyn Korn, a prolific men’s college basketball coach who is demoted to coaching a struggling (they’re terrible) high school girls’ team after his rage gets him fired. Sound familiar? It’s basically girl Hoosiers but in California. Big Shot checks every sports cliche in the book: reluctant coach starts to really love his team, the team wins a big game with a stunning shot at the final seconds. The basketball acting is average to below average at best with horrible fundamentals, inaccurate shooting, and terrible dribbling techniques, but the story, which gives room for every player and coach to have their own story arc, feels real enough for make up for the lack of skill. Most basketball films and shows follow male athletes, and Big Shot captures the unique experience of girls’ basketball, with a charming John Stamos at the center of the raging teen girl hormones.

High Flying Bird (2019)

Troy-HighFlyingBird (1)
Netflix

Steven Soderbergh can truly do it all: male stripper movie, pandemic Alexa thriller, heist movie trilogy, broads on a boat movie, or sports agent movie shot entirely on an iPhone 8. High Flying Bird explores professional basketball from the perspective of an agent. Sports agent Ray Burke (André Holland) who has only 72 hours to conceptualize and pitch a plan to his rookie client during a lockout that will save both their careers. The film is a sharp, thrilling analysis of power and celebrity that somehow feels more like a basketball movie than most basketball movies despite not having any basketball in it.

Uncut Gems (2019)

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YouTube

In Uncut Gems, exhausting Diamond District jeweler/degenerate gambler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler in a career-best performance) makes a high-stakes bet on an NBA game. Uncut Gems is not a basketball movie in the literal sense: its protagonist is not a player or a coach. Really, he’s just a fan. But Uncut Gems captures the essence of basketball with its rapid stop and go pace and its protagonist who is constantly screaming. Kevin Garnett’s performance as himself is one of the best basketball player performances in cinema history.

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