Some of the most uplifting and memorable movies relate to the world of sports, telling audiences fascinating tales of triumph and determination. Whether they’re gripping accounts of real life achievements or exhilarating backstories on prominent athletes, the cinema can’t get enough of a feel-good and inspirational flick. Such pictures continue to attract the masses, demonstrating how the power of hard work and dedication truly resonates with moviegoers all across the world. Many of Hollywood’s most prominent stars have headlined both basketball movies and shows, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Woody Harrelson and even Tupac Shakur, inspiring viewers with their stirring portrayals.
Undeniably one of the most popular basketball films to ever grace the silver screen was the 1996 blockbuster hit Space Jam, starring the legendary Michael Jordan as he teams up with the Looney Tunes for a crucial tournament. Fans of the sport continue gravitating towards basketball-related content, with HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty chronicling the team during the Showtime Era and becoming a slam dunk with viewers. These are some of the best basketball movies and shows.
9 Above the Rim
Marking rapper-turned-actor Tupac Shakur’s final theatrical film released during his lifetime, the 1994 sports drama Above the Rim chronicles the struggles of a gifted high school basketball star and his complicated relationship with two very different brothers: a powerful drug dealer and an ex-player who once had a promising career but is now a security guard.
Shakur was praised for his performance in the picture and was singled out as its finest, and its soundtrack went on to achieve a double platinum certification, with its single “Regulate” by Warren G earning an MTV Movie Award nomination. Rolling Stone commended the artist’s portrayal, writing, “It’s Shakur who steals the show. The rapper’s offscreen legal problems are well known, but there’s no denying his power as an actor…Shakur creates in Birdie a gleaming portrait of seductive evil.”
8 The Basketball Diaries
‘90s heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio headlined the 1995 biographical crime drama The Basketball Diaries, in which the superb actor portrays author, poet, and musician Jim Carroll, depicting his teenage years as a talented high school basketball star and his ongoing battle with addiction. Based on Carroll’s autobiographical novel of the same name, the film details the writer’s mounting pressure from his intense coach and worried mother, leading to the teenager turning to heroin as a way to escape everyone’s overwhelming expectations.
The drama premiered before the actor starred in the blockbuster hits Romeo + Juliet and Titanic, with his poignant and hard-hitting performance frequently overlooked due to the popularity of his later projects. While The Basketball Diaries itself garnered mixed reviews, critics were in agreement that DiCaprio was a force to be reckoned with and was an exceptionally talented performer.
7 Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty
Chronicling the extraordinary rise and reign of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s during the Showtime Era, the HBO sports drama television series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty delves into the professional and personal lives of the team’s players, most notably Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. With a stacked and brilliant cast including John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, and Jason Segel, the thrilling and well-reviewed Winning Time was adapted from sports writer Jeff Pearlman’s popular book and was entitled Winning TIme because of Johnson’s fondness and association with the phrase.
The pilot episode of the series was directed by Adam McKay, who notoriously had a falling out with Will Ferrell during the production process due to the filmmaker casting Reilly in the role of Jerry Buss instead of Ferrell, a choice he failed to disclose. Regardless of the drama, Winning Time premiered to positive reviews and has a second season currently in the works.
6 Glory Road
Showcasing the inspiring true story of the lead up to the monumental 1966 NCAA University Division Basketball Championship, the 2006 sports drama Glory Road stars Josh Lucas as renowned Texas Western College head coach Don Haskins as he leads his all-Black starting lineup team to the critical championship. When asked about his meaningful decision to start five Black players, Haskins expressed simply, “I really didn’t think about starting five Black guys. I just wanted to put my five best guys on the court. I just wanted to win the game.”
Glory Road went on to win the ESPY Award for Best Sports Movie and garnered mainly positive reviews from critics, with the Washington Post writing, “It’s one helluva story, and if this moving, and even thrilling little movie finally brings Haskins and a truly great American sports story to light, then three cheers and hooray.”
5 Love & Basketball
Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan appear together in the 2000 romantic sports drama Love & Basketball, following the blossoming romance between Los Angeles neighbors Quincy McCall and Monica Wright as the pair pursue their basketball dreams and find love in the process. Gina Prince-Bythewood made her feature film directorial debut with the moving drama, setting out “to do a Black When Harry Met Sally” and basing the premise on her own personal life and experiences growing up.
Since its release, Love & Basketball has gone on to develop a passionate cult following and is a renowned cinematic staple; The Baltimore Sun raved about the director’s exceptional talent for storytelling, stating that she “has taken the conventional coming-of-age romance genre and invigorated it with such vivid characters and such an alertness to the culture she’s representing, that she makes what might have been derivative into something brand new.”
4 The Last Dance
The ESPN & Netflix 2020 sports documentary The Last Dance delves into the phenomenal career of legendary basketball player Michael Jordan, heavily focuses on his last season with the Chicago Bulls, the team in which the athlete won six NBA Championships. The docuseries features never-before aired footage from Jordan’s 1997-98 season with the Bulls, including commentary and interviews from revered sports figures like Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, and Magic Johnson.
The Last Dance relied heavily on over 500 hours of candid footage of both Jordan and his fellow teammates both on the court and off, and took many years to complete due to the athlete not giving his permission for the clips to be used. According to director Jason Hehir, “there are certain aspects of his life that he wants to keep private;” the 10-part show premiered to rave reviews, winning the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding documentary or Nonfiction series.
3 Space Jam
One of the most beloved and nostalgic staples of the 1990s, the 1996 live-action/animated sports comedy Space Jam stars iconic NBA legend Michael Jordan as a fictional version of himself, as he is tasked by the Looney Tunes to help them win a pivotal basketball game against visiting aliens. After two Super Bowl Nike ads were released featuring Jordan and Bugs Bunny, producer Ivan Reitman sat down with a Nike executive and together they sparked the idea of Space Jam; the athlete was offered movie deals previously but turned them all down because his manager believed he could only play himself convincingly. The gamble to take on the film paid off for Jordan as Space Jam went on to gross over $250 million, earning praise for the technical achievements of blending live-action and animation together.
2 White Men Can’t Jump
Hollywood greats Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes teamed up for the beloved 1992 sports comedy White Men Can’t Jump, in which the duo portray battling streetball hustlers Billy Hoyle and Sidney “Syd” Dean, who decide to join forces for a lucrative con game that has the athletes taking on courts all across Los Angeles. Hall of Famer and professional basketball star Bob Lanier was brought on to coach the two leading actors for their roles, who later expressed how his training helped the men reach Division II college basketball skill level.
White Men Can’t Jump was both a critical and commercial success, with The Hollywood Reporter declaring, “As rough and shiny as chain nets on a sweltering summer day, White Men Can’t Jump is a poetic, rag-tag triumph.” A reboot is currently in development by NBA star Blake Griffin and NFL player Ryan Kalil producing, with rapper Jack Harlow being cast in one of the leading roles.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest sports films ever made, the 1986 sports drama Hoosiers stars Gene Hackman as Norman Dale, a failed college coach who is given the opportunity to redeem himself when he is tasked with leading a small-town Indiana high school basketball team to the state championship. Featuring the additional talents of Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper, the uplifting picture depicts Dale as he teams up with the basketball-loving local town drunk Shooter Flatch (Hopper) to train his players and get them ready for the coveted competition.
Hoosiers was partially inspired by the Milan High School team who won the 1954 state championship, with the film’s small town rural setting and undersized team the biggest similarities. For his role as the alcoholic assistant coach Flatch, Hopper earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor; Hoosiers remains a respected and inspirational sports classic.
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