Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Six Films for Sports Fans Suffering Withdrawal

8:45 AM 3/27/2020

by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The NBA Hall of Famer and Hollywood Reporter contributing editor picks his favorite movies by sport (including pool) so "we can get through this Sportcalypse together."

Hoosiers, The Harder They Fall and Breaking Away_Split - Photofest - H 2020
Courtesy of Photofest

I love sports. But like most sports fans, I'm suffering severe withdrawal staring at my TV screen with no one batting, kicking, clubbing or dunking balls of any kind. To re-create the thrill of sports competitions and all the sweaty and tearful drama they entail, I've taken to rewatching my favorite sports movies. Here are my top picks so that we can get through this Sportcalypse together.

My movie list is different from most people's because I'm not just interested in the excitement of watching athletes compete but also in the insight into how the sport defines the character's values. Sports are a crucible in which players are subjected to high pressure and heat that melt together their best and worst qualities. All emerge changed by the experience, hopefully for the better — but not always. For some, their best qualities are tempered into their character. For others, their worst qualities rise to the top and consume them until they're willing to sacrifice any sense of morality to win.

The problem with most sports movies is that they're primarily about winning. Winning the Big Game at the end is the automatic payoff for enduring and overcoming all the obstacles thrown in the character's way. When I played at UCLA, Coach Wooden taught us that winning definitely is a goal, but it's not the only goal. It's not even the most important goal. Becoming disciplined, educated and compassionate team members was his main goal for us. Good men who were also good players. And while sports movies pay a lot of lip service to that idea that "winning isn't everything," they usually flush all that well-meaning philosophy down the toilet by making sure the character wins at the end. Few movies have the courage to stick to their theme without slathering the ending with feel-good victories and sloppy sentimentality. While there's nothing wrong with a feel-good ending, a manufactured one sends a mixed message to our youth: Sports build character, but the only demonstration of that character is winning.

Ironically, having just lectured my contempt for winning-the-Big-Game endings, I pick six films that do just that. In some cases, the film is excellent despite the cheesy ending. In other cases, the endings aren't doused in cheap-perfumed sentiment, but rather reveal some inner truth about the many widely different aspects of winning. Sports films should not be about how to win, but how to be the person who deserves to win.

Here's my list of six memorable sports movies about five different sports. They are in no particular order. I focused on stories that I think elevate the sport and the audience. Spoiler alert: Key plot points may be revealed.

After watching these films, you'll feel like you've played every sport and weathered every possible team and family crisis that athletes go through. You may even need to take a knee to catch your breath.

  • Basketball: 'Hoosiers' (1986)

    Based on the Milan High School team's long-shot win of the Indiana state basketball championship in 1954, Hoosiers is definitely emotional. There will be tears. But this story of crusty high school basketball coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) guiding his team to both personal maturation as well as a state championship earns most of its audience's emotional commitment. Hackman's charismatic energy powers the entire film and two small cities. At its core, the movie is about how basketball can be an intense proving ground for youth as well as a subtle language of redemption and forgiveness.

    Runner-up: White Men Can't Jump

  • Baseball: 'Bang the Drum Slowly' (1973)

    At the end of J.M. Barrie's novel Peter Pan, the narrator comments that Wendy's daughter and her daughter and her daughter all will eventually take turns being Peter's mother: "… and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay [lighthearted] and innocent and heartless." That description of the complexity of children, on some level, perfectly describes professional athletes who have spent their whole lives playing the same sport they played as small children. Some part of them forever resides in a Neverland of sweaty clothes, Lost Boys (and Girls) and exchanging coaches like Peter exchanges Wendys. Some films capture the lighthearted immaturity perfectly (Semi-Tough, North Dallas Forty), but this film also reveals the innocence and the heartlessness. The story of star pitcher Henry Wiggen's (Michael Moriarty) reluctant friendship with the team's hick and soon-to-be-cut catcher (Robert De Niro), who is diagnosed with a fatal disease, stays with you forever. Wiggen risks his own career to help someone he doesn't even like, which begins a journey to the World Series that isn't just about baseball but a journey of understanding for them personally, as well as the nature of a team. The ending is one of the most powerful and memorable endings of any movie.

    Runners-up: 42, Moneyball, Bull Durham

  • Pool: 'The Hustler' (1961)

    OK, pool is more a game than a sport, but there's not a better movie around about the nature of competition and what it means to win and lose. Pool hustler "Fast Eddie" Felson (Paul Newman) is on a mission to beat "Minnesota Fats" (Jackie Gleason), the best pool player in the country. He learns some hard lessons along the way about what makes a winner and what makes a loser. His comeback victory at the end is hollow because he realizes what he gave up along the way.

    Runner-up: The 1986 sequel, The Color of Money

  • Bicycle Racing: 'Breaking Away' (1979)

    A group of post-high school townies compete with university students in a funny and touching story about American class differences. The opening scene introducing the main characters is a rich balance of humor and insight. The final bicycle race, despite being predictable, is still exciting.

    Runner-up: American Flyers

  • Boxing: 'The Harder They Fall' (1956)

    In his last role, Humphrey Bogart plays a down-on-his-luck journalist who takes a job as PR man promoting a good-natured boxer who is being set up for a hard fall. It’s all about fixed fights and the same kind of underhanded dealings and corruption that undermines sports, business and politics. Bogart’s descent from nice guy to fall guy and his eventual redemption is gritty realism at its best.

    Runners-up: Raging Bull, Champion.

  • High School Wrestling: 'Vision Quest' (1985)

    Except for the ending, this coming-of-age story is still one of the most original and inventive sports films ever made. High schooler Louden Swain (Matthew Modine) and his car mechanic dad struggle to make ends meet. He's counting on a wrestling scholarship to pay his way through college and eventually into med school. However, in a moment of insanity/inspiration, he decides to risk everything by dropping his weight class to wrestle the undefeated state champion. Had the director ended the movie just as he walks into his final match, it would have been perfect. Nevertheless, there is a lot of sports wisdom in this movie.

    Runner-up: Fighting With Family, Win Win