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Fran Blinebury

Spike Lee
Spike Lee's "He's Got Game" is among the top basketball movies.
Elsa/NBAE/Getty Images

Hollywood hoops help satisfy the need for hardcourt action


Posted Nov 30 2011 2:52PM

It was a long, hot offseason with summer leagues, free agency and trade talk replaced by dry and frustrating discussions of basketball-related income and system issues.

What was a hoops junkie to do?

Fortunately, Hollywood has served up dozens of basketball-themed movies down through the years and they certainly came in handy during the summer of our discontent. And no, we're not talking about memorizing every line of dialogue from "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" and "Teen Wolf."

Here's a list of our favorites that you might try to remember if the owners and players decide to re-open the new collective bargaining agreement in the summer of 2017:

"The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961)
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Leon Ames, Edward Andrews, Raymond Bailey, Paul Frees, Forrest Lewis, JackMullaney, Nancy Olson, Ed Wynn, Keenan Wynn.

A classic wacky black-and-white comedy out of the Disney vault centering on Professor Brainard (MacMurray) who invents a substance that he names Flubber (flying rubber) for its ability to defy gravity. Among the many subplots is flubber being put on the bottoms of shoes for the college basketball team. Every unlikely player turns into Spud Webb, the team wins the big game and Prof. Brainard winds up flying his flubber-fueled car over Washington, D.C. It's 50 years old and still funny.

"Hoosiers" (1986)
Starring: Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper, Barbara Hershey.

To many, it's the top of the mountain, the best basketball movie ever made. A wonderful period piece loosely based on real-life coach Marvin Wood guiding the 1954 Milan High School basketball team to a remarkable upset miracle victory and the Indiana state championship. Hackman is the gruff coach Norman Dale, Dennis Hopper earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Shooter and Maris Vilainis as Jimmy Chitwood knocked down the winning shot. The American Film Institute ranked Hoosiers No. 13 it's "100 Year...100 Cheers" list of most inspirational films. It's still a kick to watch Hackman pull out his tape measure to show his team that the basket in the state championship gym (Hinkle Fieldhouse) is still just 10 feet off the ground.

"White Men Can't Jump" (1992)
Starring: Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, Rosie Perez, Tyra Ferrell.

It's the play on the stereotype, it's the con, it's the raunchy, snappy dialogue and the streetball play on the outdoor court at Venice Beach (Calif.) that make "White Men" a candidate to wear out the DVD player from repeat viewings. Hey, you could watch this one just to see Rosie Perez at the top of her game. Billy Hoyle (Harrelson) and Sidney Deane (Snipes) as the jawing rivals turned teammates turned friends give it heart and realism, even if you can see the final play -- Billy taking a feed from Sidney and slamming home a dunk -- coming from a mile out in the ocean.

"Blue Chips" (1994)
Starring: Nick Nolte, Mary McDonnell, J.T.Walsh, Ed O'Neill, Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, Matt Nover, Bob Cousy. Cameos from ex-NBA players Marques Johnson, Bobby Hurley, Geert Hammink, Rick Fox, Greg Graham, Rodney Rodgers and more.

After "Bull Durham" and "White Men Can't Jump," writer Ron Shelton stayed in the sports world to take on all of the seediness of college recruiting and corruption. Though it definitely overdoes the preaching on the subject, Nolte does a nice turn as conflicted coach Pete Bell. Ed O'Neill took time off from his role as Al Bundy on "Married With Children" to play the sports writer who uncovers Bell's scandal. Part of the fun is looking for all of the famous faces -- Bob Knight, Larry Bird, Rick Pitino, Jerry Tarkanian, Dick Vitale, Robert Wuhl, Jim Boeheim, Allan Houston, Kevin Garnett, Rick Fox, Calbert Cheaney -- who show up in the film. Cousy even gives a free throw shooting lesson.

"The Basketball Diaries" (1995)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Bruno Kirby, Marilyn Sokol, Mark Wahlberg, James Modio, Ernie Hudson.

Based on the Jim Carroll cult book published in 1978, the film shows the ugly details of how a young DiCaprio's character goes very quickly from being a Catholic high school basketball star to becoming a strung-out heroin addict. It is quite grim and has far more crime and violence than basketball, but DiCaprio's performance is worth the look.

"He Got Game" (1998)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Milla Jovovich, Rosario Dawson, Hill Harper, Zelda Harris, Jim Brown, Bill Nunn, John Turturro.

Director Spike Lee tells the story of Jesus Shuttleswoth, the most highly-recruited player in the nation in a film that looks and sounds authentic from start to finish. In fact, critic Roger Ebert said that in the starring role as Jesus, Ray Allen "is that rarity, an athlete who can act." Denzel Washington hits the right notes as the father Jake, who is serving a life term in prison for killing Jesus' mother. Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley -- "I believe in Jesus!" -- appear in cameo roles in what is likely the only movie to challenge "Hoosiers" as the best basketball flick of all time. All that time sitting courtside at Madison Square Garden allowed Lee to connect with a slam dunk.

"Rebound" (1996)
Starring: Don Cheadle, James Earl Jones, Michael Beach, Forest Whitaker, Clarence Williams III, Eriq La Salle, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ronny Cox.

Before there was an And 1 mix tape tour, there was Earl "The Goat" Manigault, carving out a legend at Harlem's Rucker Park with moves like the double-dunk. He would dunk the ball, catch it with his left hand, switch it to his right hand and dunk it again, all on a single leap, all without hanging on the rim. This HBO film tells the tale of Manigault's heroin addiction that cost him a shot at an NBA career and led to his death from congestive heart failure in 1998 at 53. Abdul-Jabbar, who once called Manigault the greatest player he'd ever seen, makes an appearance as himself. Keep an eye out for Kevin Garnett in the role of Wilt Chamberlain.

"Space Jam" (1996)
Starring: Michael Jordan, Bugs Bunny, Bill Murray, Daffy Duck, Charles Barkley, Wayne Knight, Larry Bird, Muggsy Bogues, Shawn Bradley, Larry Johnson and Patrick Ewing.

Sufferin' succotash, since they never could beat him in real life in the NBA playoffs, why would you think an animated Michael Jordan would lose to a toon team of Barkley, Ewing, Johnson, Bogues and Bradley? Many critics bashed the flick, but it is wildly entertaining fun for all ages and came at the peak of Jordan's popularity. To show that life imitates art, Jordan eventually followed the advice of his Looney Toons friends and the film's script to return to the NBA, while Sir Charles turned his larger-than-life cartoon character into a regular role on the TNT set with Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson.

"Coach Carter" (2005)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Ri'chard, Rob Brown, Rick Gonzalez, Ashanti.

Director Thomas Carter recycled some of the old plotlines from the classic TV show "The White Shadow," in which he co-starred. Jackson stars as Ken Carter, who returns to his old high school in Richmond, Calif. and tries to teach his players that there's more to life than basketball. It's heavy on the preaching and at times seems to go on forever. But Jackson stands above the potential syrupy sentimentality while he's locking his players out of the gym until their grades improve. The team eventually gets back onto the court and loses in the playoffs and yet the defeat actually makes the point that Coach Carter was trying to deliver.

"Glory Road" (2006)
Starring: Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, Austin Nichols and Jon Voight.

The true story of the Texas Western University Miners -- now known as the University of Texas-El Paso Miners -- who became the first all black starting lineup to win the NCAA championship in 1966 with a win over heavily-favored Kentucky, led by coach Adolph Rupp. The team of David Lattin, Bobby Joe Hill, Willie Cager, Willie Worsley, Jerry Armstrong, Orsten Artis, Nevil Shed, Togo Railey, Harry Flournoy, Dick Mybers, Louis Baudoin and David Palacio was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007. Based on the late coach Don Haskins' autobiography, it takes liberty with some facts to dramatize the story. But overall it's a solid recount of a landmark game in American sports history. Look for an interview with Pat Riley, a member of the Kentucky team, accompanying the closing credits. The real Haskins and Lattin can be seen in the roles of a gas station attendant and bartender, respectively.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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