Shaquille O’Neal and Sean Connery will probably never share an alley-oop on a fast break, but in the sports movie subgenre of basketball flicks, they’re both big stars.
The upcoming NCAA tournament is our annual reminder how much hoops and Hollywood intersect, from Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee being total devotees to the Lakers and Knicks, respectively, to Kobe Bryant winning an Oscar. On the big screen, underdog basketball stories are like comfort food, and there’s pretty much a hall of fame of inspirational coaches: The latest is Ben Affleck’s troubled former star player in need of redemption in the drama “The Way Back.”
In honor of a new roundball flick as March Madness is on the way, let’s rank the top 20 basketball movies of all time. (Apologies to “The Air Up There,” “Eddie,” “Juwanna Mann,” “Like Mike” and others that just don’t have the right stuff to make our starting lineup.)
20. ‘Blue Chips’ (1994)
Bugaboos of college basketball, from gambling to corruption to illegal payments for athletes, are part of the playbook for the drama from director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”). Nick Nolte is the irascible Western University coach based on Bobby Knight (who also makes an appearance) while co-stars O’Neal and Penny Hardaway give the film some serious rim-rattling cred.
19. ‘Cornbread, Earl and Me’ (1975)
It’s a trip to see a teenage Laurence Fishburne make his film debut in this drama starring NBA standout Jamaal Wilkes as Cornbread, a good-hearted and gawky talent who’s the popular big man of his neighborhood on the way to a college career. Tragedy strikes involving cops and an innocent man, and residents want justice in a retro movie that still feels timely.
18. ‘Glory Road’ (2006)
The story of how Texas Western coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) took an all-black starting lineup – the first in NCAA history – to a championship title in 1966 against mighty all-white Kentucky is an obvious inspiration for a big-screen underdog tale. Sure, it leans predictable but still works thanks to standout basketball action and strong performances by Lucas and Derek Luke.
17. ‘Forget Paris’ (1995)
Billy Crystal directs and stars in the decently sweet romantic comedy as an NBA referee who takes his recently deceased father’s ashes to France and falls for an airline employee (Debra Winger). Their relationship goes through its ups and downs, but the best stuff is on the court, where Crystal gets to riff with an assortment of basketball icons, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Isiah Thomas.
16. ‘The Basketball Diaries’ (1995)
A scrawny Leonardo DiCaprio leads the biopic as high school hoopster and fledgling writer Jim Carroll whose life goes south when he gets mixed up in drugs and crime. The melodrama is pretty overwrought, though the cast is top notch, including Mark Wahlberg as one of Jim’s ill-behaved buddies and Ernie Hudson as a kindly sort who tries to get Jim right.
15. ‘Above the Rim’ (1994)
A whole lot of drama follows Duane Martin as a New York City high school senior who, while waiting to find out if he’ll play at Georgetown, gets caught up in the goings-on between a former star (Leon) and a drug dealer (Tupac Shakur). The basketball scenes are solid, and Shakur is especially good as the film’s vicious heavy.
14. ‘The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh’ (1979)
Philadelphia 76ers legend “Dr. J” Julius Erving headlines the goofy disco-era delight as Moses Guthrie, star of the lowly Pittsburgh Pythons. The team goes on a championship run when an astrologer (Stockard Channing) pitches the wacky idea to the owner (Jonathan Winters) that Moses should have only Pisces teammates. Only in the movies, folks.
13. ‘O’ (2001)
Tim Blake Nelson’s intense teen drama is a decently effective modern reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Mekhi Phifer is talented star player Odin whose bright future and relationship with young Desi (Julia Stiles) are at risk thanks to the shady and jealous machinations of the Iago-esque Hugo (Josh Hartnett).
12. ‘Uncle Drew’ (2018)
It turns out putting a bunch of pro players in gray hair and old-age makeup is sort of hilarious. Kyrie Irving shines in the soulful comedy as the philosophical title character (who’s got some ankle-breaking moves), Chris Webber’s a power-forward preacher, Reggie Miller’s a nearly blind shooter and O’Neal is the scene-stealing kung fu center.
11. ‘Coach Carter’ (2005)
Samuel L. Jackson brings the coolness and loads of tough love as a coach who returns to his old high school, gives the youngsters life lessons and locks out his undefeated team – and causes a ruckus – when they don’t make the grade in the classroom as well as on the court. (Plus, it’s worth a watch for the film debut of Channing Tatum and an Ashanti appearance.)
10. ‘Space Jam’ (1996)
Whether you grew up with Bugs Bunny’s antics or His Airness, there’s plenty to enjoy in the live-action/animated hybrid in which Michael Jordan and his golf partner Bill Murray are recruited by Bugs and the Looney Tunes gang to take on the Monstars, a super-duper squad of aliens with the abilities of NBA legends such as Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley.
9. ‘Finding Forrester’ (2000)
Gus Van Sant’s satisfying albeit schmaltzy drama centers on an African American star (Rob Brown) at an upper-crust private school who’s as gifted a writer as he is a baller. The source of inspiration in this story isn’t a coach but rather a reclusive Pulitzer-winning novelist (Sean Connery), who brings out the best in the youngster and vice versa.
8. ‘The Way Back’ (2020)
Starring as an alcoholic onetime hoops star who returns to his alma mater to coach a losing team, Ben Affleck turns in one of his best performances in a drama that manages to buck the expectations, avoid formulaic hokum and deliver on a gripping addiction narrative.
7. ‘Teen Wolf’ (1985)
Michael J. Fox not only time-traveled in a DeLorean back in ’85, he also transformed into a slam-dunking, van-surfing werewolf. The high school comedy stars Fox as a teen whose basketball skills get way better when he gets furry, though his new success brings extra coming-of-age problems.
6. ‘Love & Basketball’ (2000)
There’s some definite truth in advertising with that title: Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps sizzle as the central couple of next-door neighbors who dream of becoming professional basketball players, reach their dreams and – you guessed it – fall for each other along the way.
5. ‘Uncut Gems’ (2019)
If “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie, then Adam Sandler’s two-hour anxiety fest is a hoops flick. Real NBA all-star Kevin Garnett plays a version of himself obsessed with a rare opal, Sandler is the gambling jeweler trying to make serious bank off the rock, and a close playoff game fuels the tension-filled last act.
4. ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ (1992)
Pickup games, “yo mama” jokes and incandescent star chemistry fuel the comedy featuring a slick Wesley Snipes and geeky Woody Harrelson teaming up as a pair of trash-talking rival hustlers. The movie tackles relationships and race but allows for serious fun, as in the iconic scene in which Harrelson tries to dunk. As a great man once said, “It’s hard work being this good.”
3. ‘Hoosiers’ (1986)
A film that’s in the annals of most folks’ favorite sports movies, “Hoosiers” has an undeniable feel-good spirit with the 1950s-set story of disgraced college coach Norman Dale (a fabulous Gene Hackman), who’s kind of an abusive jerk, taking small-town Hickory High on one heck of a run for the Indiana state championship. It’s no “Rudy,” yet still an underdog classic.
2. ‘Hoop Dreams’ (1994)
One of the best documentaries ever made definitely deserves to make this list. The film spectacularly uses the story of two black teens in Chicago, William Gates and Arthur Agee, and their pie-in-the-sky goals of playing in the NBA to highlight issues of class, race and education in America.
1. ‘He Got Game’ (1998)
Spike Lee’s stupendous work features a fantastic Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth, a convict at Attica who’s paroled in order to get his estranged son Jesus (Ray Allen), a top-ranked recruit, to go to the governor’s alma mater. “Game” offers great performances, a gripping narrative and an intriguing vibe of modern Americana given Lee’s deft use of Aaron Copland music.