Ballers is set to take its place in the hallowed ground that is HBO’s Sunday night programming this weekend. It stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as an NFL player-turned-money-guy and promises all of the money, women, and fun of Entourage.
Literally. It says that in the trailer: “Get rich, get laid, have fun.”
The show will probably suck you in and become the palate-cleansing guilty pleasure you’ll want after staring your own mortality in the face with True Detective, which airs immediately before. But, before it does, let’s take a look at the 10 best sports shows that set the stage for The Rock and Co. to feel comfortable flexing their muscles on the most important night in television.
Remember Playmakers? Probably not. It starred Omar Gooding from Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper and was ESPN’s first foray into scripted television. Though you can tell how it went by looking at the ESPN scripted dramas in the years since (SPOILER ALERT: There aren’t any), Playmakers was an interesting and probably necessary experiment that ended, in part, because ESPN didn’t want to “antagonize” the NFL. Plus it gave us this gem from Gooding.
9. Hang Time
It’s hard to believe this gem from the ’90s lasted five seasons, but what a glorious five seasons they were. It was basically a cross between the basketball scenes from Teen Wolf and the scenes at The Max from Saved by the Bell where the set felt cramped with all these kids you had never seen before. Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus played the school’s basketball coach after replacing former NBA player Reggie Theus, who later went on to coach the Sacremento Kings, no doubt due to his experience with the Tornados.
8. The White Shadow
Have you seen The Mighty Ducks? Have you seen Dangerous Minds? Then you know the premise of this CBS basketball drama created by Gwyneth Paltrow’s dad. It ran from 1978-81 and starred Ken Howard, who went on to win an Emmy for Grey Gardens in 2009 and currently serves as the president of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists).
If you merged Entourage with Arli$$, you would have Ballers. The Robert Wuhl created and starring HBO comedy about a Scott Boras-esque mega sports agent usually danced in and out of the real sports world and the show world, highlighting the humor in Arliss Michaels’ willingness to do anything for his clients. Occasionally, though, the show got deep, like in season three when Arliss turned a blind eye to a client’s steroid usage only to see him seriously injure another client who always played by the rules.
6. Blue Mountain State
Blue Mountain State is the love child of Friday Night Lights and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s far-fetched, crude, repetitive and unapologetic. It knows what it is, and it’s not ashamed of that… even when an entire episode revolves around the team’s star linebacker employing a scorched earth policy while searching for his stolen male sex toy.
5. Eastbound and Down
Danny McBride is pretty much the only person to pull off a curly mullet outside of baseball since Little Richard, so it’s only fitting that he starred in this HBO sitcom that’s feels like John Rocker-inspired fan fiction. McBride fleshed out this character in the oft-forgotten MTV Films vehicle The Foot Fist Way, but really went balls to the wall with it here. “You’re f*ckin’ out!” So simple it’s poetic.
4. The League
Early on, The League benefited from a heavy lead-in from Millennial favorite It’s Always Sunny. Dare I say there was even a brief moment during the second season of The League and Season 6 of Sunny that The League was funnier on a weekly basis. Eventually, the universe righted itself, but The League is still going strong. Kinda like Peyton Manning in your actual fantasy league, the show is still hanging around and being productive long after you thought it had served its purpose.
The best way to tell how much people appreciated a particular show from the ’90s is to look at how seriously Hollywood considers rebooting it. Welp, Coach had a solid nine season run, but NBC is primed to give the people what they want with a remake/spinoff focusing on Hayden Fox’s son. Craig T. Nelson is going to reprise his role as the now former coach of Minnesota State. Honestly, though, it won’t be the same without Jerry Van Dyke’s Luther.
2. Sports Night
Did you love the witty banter of the impassioned employees of the Bartlett administration on The West Wing? Were you yearning for more Quixotian pontification from the staff of News Night? Well, everything you liked about those shows was at least equally as wonderful when Aaron Sorkin first implemented them in his sitcom about a sports highlights show in the vein of SportsCenter, but you were too busy cringing at the laugh track to notice. Seriously, go back and re-watch this. It was ahead of its time.
1. Friday Night Lights
FNL turned the guy from Early Edition into a star and allowed Tim Riggins to appear in the triumvirate of failure that was Wolverine, John Carter of Mars, and Battleship before earning a role in True Detective. Because that’s how much we loved him on FNL. NBC tried so hard to get rid of this series, but Bill Simmons, a small-but-dedicated fanbase, and some actual sense allowed “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” to wiggle its way into our cultural lexicon. We’re all the better for it.