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When you have a list of Hollywood’s most memorable basketball movies, it’s not surprising that some of the most memorable basketball players pop up as well — crossing over from the world of sports to entertainment — and some more than once.
Michael Jordan, for example, features prominently in no fewer than four films on the list: Space Jam, in which he starred opposite the Looney Tunes characters; He Got Game, in which he makes an appearance as himself; Like Mike, in which a pair of shoes that may or may not have belonged to him kicks off the story (he doesn’t appear in the film but gave his blessing for the title); and Air, which revolves around Jordan’s 1984 Nike deal (he also doesn’t appear as a character in the film but talked at length with director Ben Affleck about how the partnership came to be).
It’s also not surprising that another of basketball’s all-time best players, LeBron James, shows up as well — in a remake of Space Jam (2021), which he also produced.
And retired pro Larry Bird turns up in three films on the list: 1994’s Blue Chips and 1996’s Celtic Pride in addition to the original Space Jam. (Both that film and its sequel feature appearances by several court legends, as you might expect.)
Below, see a list of some of Hollywood’s most memorable basketball movies, starting with 1994’s Hoop Dreams through, more recently, 2023’s Air.
'Hoop Dreams' (1994)
The documentary centers on two high school students in Chicago — William Gates and Arthur Agee — who dream of becoming pro basketball players. The movie won the audience award for best doc at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival.
Loosely based on true events, the movie centers on Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), the new basketball coach at a small-town Indiana high school. While he draws controversy over his decisions, he ultimately leads his team to a state championship. The movie co-stars Dennis Hopper, who earned an Oscar nomination for his role as the town drunk, Barbara Hershey and Sheb Wooley. The movie has been cited on several critics’ lists as the best sports film ever made.
'Blue Chips' (1994)
“Nolte. Shaq. In Your Face 2-18-94″ reads the one-sheet for this movie, starring Nick Nolte as a college coach and Shaquille O’Neal as one of his discoveries. The name comes from prospects who are secretly being paid by other schools, a forbidden practice. But Pete (Nolte) is desperate to recruit some star talent and soon finds himself in the midst of a cheating scandal. Several prominent figures in the basketball world make cameos, including Larry Bird and Dick Vitale.
'The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh' (1979)
The comedy centers on the struggling basketball team the Pittsburgh Pythons, whose team members have asked to be traded in part because of the team’s difficult star player, Moses Guthrie (Julius Erving). But a waterboy (James Bond III) comes up with the idea to get help from an astrologer (Stockard Channing), and they decide that a team composed of players who are all Pisces is the best way to go.
'Teen Wolf' (1985)
Talk about the awkward teenage years: Long before Twilight‘s Jacob made teen girls swoon, Michael J. Fox starred as a high school student who discovers that he’s, well, a werewolf — a trait that is revealed publicly during one of his basketball games. He later becomes a team hero and gets the girl, but, in a twist, it’s not the one he originally thought he wanted. The movie opened at No. 2 at the box office — behind Back to the Future, another film starring Fox. It also spawned a sequel starring Jason Bateman and, years later, an MTV franchise.
'White Men Can't Jump' (1992)
Woody Harrelson stars as Billy Hoyle, a former college basketball player who makes his living by hustling street players who think he can’t play because he’s white. Sydney Dean (Wesley Snipes) is the star on the Venice beach courts and is embarrassed twice by Hoyle beating him. He convinces Billy to form a partnership to hustle other players so he can make money to move outside of his rough neighborhood with girlfriend Gloria (Rosie Perez). A remake starring Sinqua Walls and Jack Harlow will be released May 19 on Hulu.
'Above the Rim' (1994)
The drama centers on a talented high school basketball player (Duane Martin) who, while awaiting word on whether he will receive a scholarship to Georgetown University, faces a difficult decision related to a playground tournament. He must decide whether to play for his good-hearted basketball coach or a local thug. Tupac Shakur, Leon Robinson and Marlon Wayans co-star.
'The Air Up There' (1994)
Yep, that’s Kevin Bacon in African tribal paint. He plays Jimmy Dolan, a college basketball coach who finds his next recruit in Africa, a prodigy — and chief’s son — named Saleh (Charles Gitonga Maina). The movie is perhaps best remembered for the “Jimmy Dolan Shake and Bake” move he teaches Saleh (fake left, fake right, between your opponent’s legs).
'Basketball Diaries' (1995)
Leonardo DiCaprio, Lorraine Bracco, Mark Wahlberg and James Madio star in the adaption of Jim Carroll’s juvenile diaries chronicling his descent into drug addiction. DiCaprio plays the memoirist, a player on a powerhouse high school basketball team who becomes addicted to heroin.
'Celtic Pride' (1996)
Larry Bird turns up in yet another basketball movie. Here, he scolds two Boston Celtics fans — Mike (Daniel Stern) and Jimmy (Dan Aykroyd) — for being “fair-weather fans.” They later end up kidnapping the Utah Jazz’s star player (Damon Wayans) in an effort to help the team win the NBC Finals. The script was written by Judd Apatow and Colin Quinn.
'Space Jam' (1996)
NBA legend Michael Jordan starred in this animation/live-action mash-up featuring the Looney Tunes. in the film, The Nerdlucks, a group of criminal aliens led by Mister Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito), plan on capturing the Looney Tunes to enslave them as entertainment for failing amusement park Moron Mountain. The Looney Tunes challenge them to a game of basketball in turn for their freedom. NBA stars Larry Bird (again!), Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, Shawn Bradley, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing also make appearances in the movie, which grossed $230 million at the worldwide box office.
'The 6th Man' (1997)
This supernatural (!) comedy stars Kadeem Hardison and Marlon Wayans as college players Antoine and Kenny. After star player Antoine dies, he later returns to help Kenny fill his shoes, but along the way Kenny changes — and not for the better.
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone star as unemployed losers who invent a new game — basketball using baseball rules — and become stars of the sport. But complications arise when their team owner dies and they must win the next championship or ownership reverts to his widow (Jenny McCarthy).
'He Got Game' (1998)
Spike Lee’s drama stars Denzel Washington as a convicted felon serving time for accidentally killing his wife. He is temporarily released by the state’s governor in order to persuade his son — the country’s top-ranked basketball prospect (played by NBA star Ray Allen) — to play for the governor’s alma mater in the hopes of getting an early release from prison.
'Love & Basketball' (2000)
Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan star as friends who grew up together in Los Angeles loving basketball. As they get older, she harbors secret feelings for him but continues to put her focus on basketball. They eventually attend USC together and finally become a couple, but not without challenges as he gets drafted into the NBA.
'Like Mike' (2002)
A 14-year-old orphan named Calvin Cambridge (Bow Wow) finds a pair of old sneakers with the initials “M.J.” written inside and thinks might have belonged to Michael Jordan. The next day, he gets free tickets to a Knights vs. Timberwolves game and ends up getting a chance to play one-on-one with Knights player Tracy Reynolds (Morris Chestnut). Cambridge is eventually signed to the Knights, with Reynolds taking him under his wing. But his talent only comes when he wears the shoes. Problems arise when Stan Bittleman (Eugene Levy) steals the shoes.
'Coach Carter' (2005)
The movie is based on the true story of Richmond High School basketball coach Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), who made headlines in 1999 for benching every member of his undefeated team because of poor academic performance. The reason behind the lockdown? He doesn’t want his players to resort to crime, and he holds fast even after he’s criticized by parents and the school board. Carter eventually accomplishes what he is trying to do, and the players achieve their academic goals but lose their last game in the playoffs. The film, which also stars Channing Tatum, Ashanti and Rob Brown, was nominated for BET and Teen Choice awards.
'Glory Road' (2006)
Starring Josh Lucas, the movie is based on the true story of the events leading to the 1966 NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship. Don Haskins (Lucas), head coach of Texas Western College, coaches an all-black starting lineup, the first in NCAA history. The film co-stars Jon Voight and Mehcad Brooks and was No. 1 at the box office in its opening weekend, earning $13.6 million en route to a domestic haul of $42.6 million.
Semi Pro, starring Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, Andre Benjamin and Maura Tierney, takes place in 1976, when singer Jackie Moon (Ferrell) uses his earnings from his one-hit wonder “Love Me Sexy” to buy the Flint Tropics and become their owner, head coach and starting forward. He wants them to become part of the NBA even though they stink. The film was No. 1 at the box office and went on to win the 2008 ESPY Award for best sports movie.
'Space Jam: A New Legacy' (2021)
LeBron James steps into the starring role for Malcolm D. Lee’s sequel to the 1996 hit starring Michael Jordan (see above). The story finds James and his young son Dom (Cedric Joe) being forcibly inserted into Warner Bros.’ “Serververse” by an evil A.I. played by Don Cheadle. In a plot mirroring the original film, the only way that James can save himself and his son is to recruit the Looney Tunes characters to play an epic basketball game against the “Goon Squad.” Among the classic characters making an appearance are Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, Marvin the Martian, Sylvester, Road Runner, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote. The first film’s Lola Bunny (here voiced by Zendaya) also returns.
Though not about basketball per se, Ben Affleck’s film revolves around one of the best players of all time (Michael Jordan, naturally) and Nike’s (successful) attempt at wooing him for his first sneaker deal in 1984. While Affleck made a conscious decision not to cast anyone as the larger-than-life Jordan, he and several others do play the real-life people involved in making the deal happen. Affleck himself plays Nike CEO Phil Knight, while Matt Damon portrays Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro, and Viola Davis plays Jordan’s mother, Deloris. (See more about the cast.)
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