Screen and Roll
Dribble like someone is watching
Of all the sports, basketball is the most difficult to re-create, so that’s the reason why there have been so few satisfying basketball movies.
— Spike Lee
I love going to the movies. I love the ritual of it, from sneaking in my own snacks and the inane pre-show trivia to the ceremony of settling into silent communion with a bunch of strangers in the dark. Yet over the past two and a half years of restrictions and lockdowns, “going to the movies” has mostly meant going to one’s couch — which isn’t, obviously, the same thing. But if you’re anything like me, you’ve still spent your pandemic “going to” a lot of movies. And if you’re exactly like me — five foot seven, delicately balding, and rabidly obsessed with a certain James Naismith invention — a lot of them have featured basketball.
Never more than during the coronavirus epoch have my braided obsessions with movies, hoops, and movies about hoops been so all-consuming. Since March 2020, when the Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert hilariously fondled a bunch of microphones, then tested positive for COVID-19 and effectively shut down the league, I’ve watched over a hundred games and spent hundreds of hours reviewing highlights, reading analyses, obsessing over stats and trade rumours, and scouring YouTube for video mix tapes of the Next Big Thing. But for hard-core fans, the off-season can be a fallow time. The months between the champagne showers that conclude the finals in June and the next regular season’s tip-off around Halloween feel as purposeless and empty as the Sacramento Kings’ playoff schedule. And my commitment to the NBA is so obstinately loyal — and time-consuming — that it precludes investment in FIBA tournaments, the WNBA, or even Ice Cube’s three-on-three league, the Big3. So I turn to the movies, where I can at least watch people pretending to play.
The problem with most basketball films is that, more often than not, they’re kind of disappointing. Beyond their generic story arcs and saccharine melodrama, they rarely depict on-court action convincingly, so they alienate any viewer hoping to see something like real hoops. The most egregious among them feature actors who can’t play at all. Perhaps more than in any other team sport, the textures of personal style on display in basketball are impossible to fake if they don’t develop fluently, through skill and practice. As the poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib has written, “There’s something about the mechanics of basketball that makes it clear who can play and who can’t, even if they’re acting as though they can.”
There’s an extensive cinematic history of that stylistic ineptitude, which fractures countless films’ illusion of reality. One must suspend not just disbelief but all fact-based rationale to accept the athletically deficient Leonardo DiCaprio as a high school star in The Basketball Diaries or the goofy kayfabe of Michael J. Fox leading the Beacon Town Beavers to victory without turning into a werewolf. Most embarrassingly, in a pivotal scene in American History X, a racially divided pickup game at Venice Beach culminates with Ed Norton’s neo-Nazi anti-hero jumping the passing lane and using his outside hand to steal the ball and dunk for game point. While this white supremacist fantasy muddles the film’s critique of racism, the scene is most disruptive because Norton looks ridiculous playing basketball: not just incompetent but illiterate.
It’s even more dismaying when productions cast decent ballers and the action still looks fake. Love & Basketball features some believable on-court work from Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan. Yet those clips also feel a bit too spotlit, staged, and, accordingly, unnatural. Even the otherwise credible Blue Chips, with performances by the NBA stalwarts Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, and Allan Houston, seems too choreographed in its key moments, which demand specific actions to serve larger storylines: a shot needs to be blocked, so one actor subserviently lofts the ball up for another to swat into the stands; a basket must be made, so a defender lunges out of position to permit a layup, the ball embraced so lovingly by the mesh that the net seems to be swaddling a baby.
The Way Back, Hustle, Rise, and Boogie, all released “during the pandemic,” feature leads, supporting characters, and extras who can actually ball. (They also share formulaic trajectories that trudge dutifully toward indistinguishable realizations of their protagonists’ hard-won American dreams — but I digress.) Sadly, the moves in Boogie and Rise feel as authentic as those Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episodes where Will Smith buried seventy-five points into an oddly low hoop on a court the size of a two-car garage. The basketball in The Way Back is actually pretty good, except for a few defenders obediently absconding so that requisite (plot) points can be scored, though it’s mostly overshadowed by Ben Affleck’s bearded sad-sack performance as a washed-up hometown hero grudgingly coaching at his old high school.
Hustle is putatively similar to The Way Back, with Adam Sandler, also morosely bearded, as the burned-out star dragging younger, brighter lights into his own orbit. Starring young NBA talent — the Toronto Raptors’ Juancho Hernangomez as the Spanish outsider prospect Bo Cruz and the twenty-one-year-old wunderkind Anthony Edwards as his rival, the jazzily named Kermit Wilts — the film’s basketball scenes tantalizingly approach the feel and style of the pro game in certain moments. Ultimately, though, they also suffer from puzzling directorial choices, particularly POV shots alternating between Cruz and Wilts as they face each other down in showcase runs. There’s a theatricality to these moments that feels neither like watching the sport nor like playing it — too performative, too aestheticized. Most of all, the two resemble first-person shooters for the Xbox or PlayStation: at any moment, it seems, one character might blow the other’s head off.
Basketball games, with their linear structure and culminative endings, offer a type of storytelling. But if the results of NBA contests were all that beguiled me about the league, I’d be happy watching recaps and reading box scores. I’m much more intrigued by the sport’s non-narrative textures, particularly the almost spiritual jubilation of witnessing otherworldly ability, athleticism, inventiveness, and instinct synthesize amid competition. And what’s most captivating isn’t just how balletically baskets are scored but how the victimized defenders are duped, evaded, or disregarded in the flow of the game. Basketball isn’t gymnastics: at least two bodies — the offensive player and whoever’s guarding them — are necessary to create its most exhilarating artistry.
The critic and iconoclast Dave Hickey has written about this interaction in reference to a sweeping, physics-defying, under-the-backboard finger roll by the Philadelphia 76ers’ Julius Erving in the 1980 NBA finals. “Just the celestial athleticism of it is stunning, but the tenacity and purposefulness of it, the fluid stream of instantaneous micro-decisions that go into Erving’s completing it . . . ,” enthuses Hickey. “Well, it just breaks your heart.” However, he is quick to contextualize Dr. J’s creativity as a response to the Los Angeles Lakers’ opposition: “It was Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]’s perfect defense that made Erving’s instantaneous, pluperfect response to it both necessary and possible — thus the joy, because everyone behaved perfectly, eloquently, with mutual respect, and something magic happened.” Perhaps this borderline-erotic spontaneity is what’s missing from the basketball of feature films: two bodies in unscripted contact, coincidentally, from which emerges something unexpected and, occasionally, previously unimaginable.
One of the great basketball scenes in cinema occurs at the climax of Spike Lee’s He Got Game. Jesus Shuttlesworth, portrayed by the future NBA champ Ray Allen, is challenged to some one-on-one by his dad, played by Denzel Washington, hyped up and abundantly knee-padded, for the right to decide where Jesus plays college ball. Notoriously, the script called for Jesus to win easily, 11–0, but Washington had other ideas on set and scored a few buckets before Allen took over. To any hoops-savvy viewer, it’s clear immediately that the two men are actually playing — moving not simply off script but into pure improvisation. Jesus Shuttlesworth vanishes as we watch Ray Allen emerge, cycling through bemusement and irritation before turning ruthlessly purposeful; and that’s certainly the actor Denzel Washington strutting around in shocked glee after he sneaks a scoop shot under the future Hall of Famer’s outstretched arm. Until the gifted son knocks his father down and dunks for the win — and the resolution of the film’s major conflict — there seems nothing staged about the contest; it’s shot beautifully in subdued light, as if occurring in a dream.
There’s a similar moment in Hustle, and it’s my favourite part of the film. When his tryout invitations stall, Bo Cruz takes to the internet with a viral video scheme to get considered for the NBA draft. A series of one-on-one challenges culminates with a matchup against the active Philadelphia 76er and perennial borderline all-star Tobias Harris. I can’t say for certain, but their game looks genuine: each shot block and step-back appears to be responsive and spontaneous, and neither man strikes me as a talented enough actor to fake how much he appears to be enjoying himself.
Watching these two scenes again, I realize that what I’m seeking — and what’s disappointed me about how basketball is portrayed in film — has actually little to do with cinematic realism. It’s more that I want to see that particular intimacy wrought from competition when one person, armed with a set of skills but requiring opposition to deploy them, faces off with another. It’s the reactivity I love: the connection amid enmity, and the dialectical beauty that emerges.
Seemingly antidotal to basketball feature films, with their cliché wish fulfillment, are basketball documentaries, the best of which tend to focus on the sport’s darker side. Often scored with plaintive jazz and featuring slow fade-outs that mirror the gradually eclipsing dreams of their stars, these offer correctives to the idealistic narratives of their fiction equivalents. Hoop Dreams and Lenny Cooke, which have both got the Criterion seal of approval, and Manchild, the story of the high school phenom Schea Cotton, all examine how basketball’s exploitative systems discard prospects who exhaust their profitability. Among docs about the lucky few who actually make it to the NBA — excepting sanitized, hagiographic portraits like the ten-hour Michael Jordan brand advertisement, The Last Dance — critical accolades tend to be reserved for those that chart some ignominious fall from grace. A Kid from Coney Island and Mr. Chibbs, about Stephon Marbury and Kenny Anderson, respectively, detail the players’ seemingly limitless potential and comparatively disappointing pro careers. Marbury seems relatively content with his life now, but Anderson, once touted as the greatest high school player ever, spends a lot of the film sobbing and lamenting what could’ve been.
Somewhat anomalous among basketball documentaries, then, is Showtime’s recent NYC Point Gods. The film, which profiles several legends of the game, is an eighty-three-minute catalogue of the personas and individual artistry that defined a style of hoops invented on the Big Apple’s playgrounds and honed in its school gyms and community centres, from the Bronx to Coney Island. The point guard, as the “floor general” who runs a team’s offence, has traditionally been the player most often charged with handling the ball, and the athletes featured in the film helped transform dribbling from a means of moving play up the court into a form of play in itself. Ball handling is now equal parts sleight of hand, breakdancing, and martial art. The goal isn’t just to beat your defender but to do so with charisma and flair — and to have more fun than anyone else on the court.
Alongside profiles of NBA greats like Pearl Washington, Kenny “the Jet” Smith, and Mark Jackson, NYC Point Gods includes tributes to the WNBA legend and Hall of Fame inductee Nancy Lieberman and to Niesha Butler, who holds the New York high school record for career points — among both boys and girls. Also featured are the cult figures God Shammgod, who developed a crossover move so iconic it remains named after him, and Rafer Alston, a dribbling magician commonly known by his streetball nickname, Skip to My Lou. (“He should be inducted into the Hall of Fame . . . for style,” claims the DJ and author Robert “Bobbito” Garcia, one of the many charismatic talking heads in the film.)
Everything about the documentary is a pure, spectacular delight, from the troves of vintage highlights to stories about how players developed their personal swagger on the court; Kenny Anderson also cries a little. Tellingly, the film lacks an overarching narrative, though there’s a thread of spoken-word poetry that bundles the portraits into a loose structure. An epilogue features hoopers from all over the world, showing off their handles for the camera with all the stagecraft of jazz soloists flaunting their chops. They look like they’re having the time of their lives.
If NYC Point Gods offers a counter-narrative to the reductive success/failure binary of basketball movies, it also articulates a crucial element missing from most of them: basketball is fun. Naismith’s modest ideas for a group activity have become a perfect vehicle for personal style and creative expression; few other team sports feature players taking turns going head-to-head in isolation, where almost anything can and might happen. It’s relational and communal and individualistic, all at once. And it’s thrilling to watch one player befuddle or outwit another with ball-handling wizardry or aerial acrobatics — or even, on occasion, to witness something new concocted in real time.
Like certain modes of live performance art, basketball affords spectators the opportunity to experience the act of creation, in which process and product are synthesized in a moment of spectacle. Film, meanwhile, is an inherently commemorative art form, which captures the past and relays it to an audience as a sort of collective memory. Perhaps the two are irreconcilable in some fundamental way; certainly, the preoccupation of basketball movies with winning and losing fails to capture the textural, essentially atemporal spirit of fandom. It’s harder to get excited about footage of the Lakers winning that 1980 championship, for example, than it is to marvel at clips of the Doctor’s stunning, superhuman brilliance, again and again — and let’s not forget that his team lost that series.
Over the past couple of years, joy has been hard to come by. I realize that festivity is way down the list of pandemic-induced personal and social priorities — surely several slots behind “not suffocating to death” and “feeding one’s family”— but seeking light amid a lot of gloom still feels imperative to me. I’ve been lucky recently to have had my lifelong affection for the Golden State Warriors rewarded with a number of euphoric moments — and I wouldn’t even count their four NBA championships since 2015 among those. Winning offers only conclusive relief, tinged with melancholy knowledge that the season is over and the void looms until opening day.
No, the satisfaction of being a Warriors fan is in what that team does on the court, whether it’s Steph Curry’s preternatural brilliance, Klay Thompson’s laser-eyed shooting stroke, or Jordan Poole slinking past defenders with the guile and cunning of a cat burglar. Their coach, Steve Kerr, has instilled “joy” as a guiding principle of the team, and it transcends victory to achieve an ethos of freewheeling play that is the envy of players elsewhere around the league. It’s that sort of joy I was seeking at the movies — the rapture of pure potential, of what can happen when bodies find themselves in proximity to one another, and of the spontaneous beauty that arises from moments of communion, contact, and instinctual creation.