The 40 Best Basketball Movies Of All Time Ranked - Looper (2024)


The 40 Best Basketball Movies Of All Time Ranked - Looper (1)

20th Century Studios

ByChris Hodges/

1927's "My Fair Co-Ed" — also known as "The Varsity Girl"— is generally considered the first-ever basketball movie (per Considering basketball itself had only been invented 36 years prior (via Springfield College), that's a pretty quick turnover. But thinly-veiled sports metaphors aside, basketball has clearly had a role in the world of movies for almost as long as movies themselves have existed. Due to the dynamic and quick-moving nature of the sport, it's not hard to see why it makes for the perfect backdrop for an exciting film. Whereas, say, a movie about baseball or golf needs to rely on a lot of off-the-field drama to keep audiences engaged, basketball movies can have long stretches that take place on the court or blacktop and it makes for as thrilling a set piece as a car chase or a fight scene.

When considering the best basketball movies, a mix of total fiction, full-on documentary, and everything in between has to be included. There's also room for movies that are about the NBA, the NCAA, and other organized leagues, as well as street ball or even a version of the sport that pits aliens against anthropomorphic bunnies. In addition, there are varying movies that are entirely about basketball, and movies in which the sport serves mostly as a backdrop to events and relationships largely adjacent to it.

Just as every player is different, every fan is different, and every era is different, every basketball movie is different— but the best ones all share a certain reverence for the game and the people who love it.

40. Celtic Pride (1996)

Full disclosure: There are definitely objectively better basketball movies than "Celtic Pride" that could've taken this spot on the list. But none of those movies have been reappraised for the better(per Salt City Hoops), to the point that they could now be considered certified cult classics. And certainly none of them have outlets like Vice doing thinkpieces on them 20 years after their release. Even just having people still talking about how bad a movie is decades later is the sign of a much more interesting film than most that are simply forgotten altogether.

As for the movie itself, it was written by a still-then-unknown Judd Apatow and stars Dan Aykroyd and Daniel Stern as diehard Boston Celtics fans who kidnap Utah Jazz player Lewis Scott (Damon Wayans) so the Celtics will have a better chance at winning the finals. It's a commentary on sports fans who take their love of the game too far, and in some ways was ahead of its time in predicting the kind of extreme levels of toxicity that fandoms of all types have reached in the internet age. In their review at the time, Variety summed it up best by saying it's "not a three-pointer, but definitely more than an airball."

39. Hurricane Season (2009)

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The Weinstein Company

While the "movie based on a true story of an underdog team who overcomes adversity to win in the end" formula has been done approximately 10,000 times already, there's a reason why it's a well that is returned to so often. It works, and it makes you feel good. In the case of "Hurricane Season," Forest Whitaker stars as a Louisiana high school basketball coach tasked with overseeing a team of students from five different schools who have been displaced because of Hurricane Katrina.

With many of the students being former competitors, there's obviously some challenge in getting them to play as a team, not to mention just trying to get back to the normalcy of something like school sports after the devastation that Katrina caused. The team ends up winning the championship — and later,an ESPY award — which teaches not only the kids but the community the importance of coming together after a tragedy. "Hurricane Season" doesn't do much to shake up the aforementioned formula, but it's still a story that's likely to inspire anyone who hears it.

38. Semi-Pro (2008)

It's not the best WillFerrell movie by a long shot. It's not even the best WillFerrell sports movie— "Talladega Nights" and even "Blades of Glory" are both superior. But "Semi-Pro" still sees Ferrell give 110% as Jackie Moon, a one-hit-wonder disco singer who somehow owns, coaches,andplays for a basketball team called the Flint Tropics. The Tropics are an ABA team hoping to become one of four that will join the NBA in the upcoming merger of the two leagues.

Not only do they need a winning record, they also need to bring in a certain number of fans per game— which results in Moon setting up wild stunts to draw crowds and also just forcing himself and his team to be as over-the-top and showy as possible. That's where most of the laughs come from, of course, supplied not only but Ferrell but by an equally-reliable comedic ensemble that includes Woody Harrelson, WillArnett, and Rob Corddry, among others. It might be a lesser WillFerrell movie, but it's still a fun sports comedy and one of the surprisingly few decent ones that focus on basketball.

37. Blue Chips (1994)

Come to see Ed O'Neill prove that he's a solid actor who didn't get the career he probably deserved because people couldn't un-see him as Al Bundy, and stay to see a top-of-his-game Nick Nolte co-star alongside a then-21-year-old Shaquille O'Neal. That'sthe basketball drama "Blue Chips." Nolte plays Pete Bell, a college basketball coach who hasn't had a winning season in a while and is being forced to compete with other schools who are partaking in the sketchy (and illegal) practice of secretly paying top prospects to play for them.

Bell is initially reluctant to participate in this practice, but soon finds himself almost unavoidably drawn into it, which brings top-tier prospects like Neon Boudeaux (Shaq), Butch McRae (Anfernee Hardaway), and Ricky Roe (Matt Nover) onto his squad — but also puts him in the crosshairs of sports journalist Ed (O'Neill), who suspects Bell is buying off his new all-stars and won't quit until he proves it. It's an unflinching look at the way the big business of basketball has even contaminated the game at the college level, and the disappointment of the old guard who are finding that the days of college sports purity are long gone.

36. Air Bud (1997)

Hold on, don't click out of this feature in disgust just yet. It's easy to write off "Air Bud" due to the abundance of terrible "an animal plays a human sport" movies coupled with the bafflingly large "Buddies" cinematic universe. But as ridiculous a premise as "Air Bud" has — "ain't no rule that says a dog can't play basketball"— it's a fun, surprisingly uplifting story about a team winning a game and a dog finding a better life.

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert gave the film a positive review and was quite generous with his praise, writing, "['Air Bud']has the structure of a traditional story ... but makes it seem new withgood performances, crisp editing, a lovable dog, and a new twist on the old movie tradition of the 'big game.'"

Any way that a well-worn sports movie trope can be given new life is always welcome, even if it's by way of a dog wearing tiny basketball shoes and hitting jump shots with his nose. It might not come anywhere close to the best use of a dog in a sports movie — that honor will always belong to "The Sandlot" — but "Air Bud" is an extremely entertaining kids' sports film that might even make adults smile, if they allow themselves to.

35. Just Wright (2010)

Some movies aren't wall-to-wall about basketball, but still have the sport as an effective backdrop. "Just Wright" is such a movie, a charming romantic comedy starring rapper-actor Common as basketball star Scott McKnight and rapper-actor Queen Latifah as physical therapist Leslie Wright. Yes, it's part of that long line of movies where the name of one of the main characters serves as wordplay in the title. What are you gonna do?

Needless to say, McKnight ends up getting injured and needing Wright's services, and the two begin a romance that goes through all the usual beats of hitting roadblocks and falling apart before the two ultimately live happily ever after. "Just Wright" rarely colors outside of the usual romantic comedy lines, although basing it in and around the world of professional basketball does give it an interesting enough wrinkle to elevate it a touch above the middle-of-the-road rom-com it otherwise admittedly is. At the end of the day, you definitely buy the romance between the two leads, and that's really all a romantic comedy is trying to sell you.

34. The Basketball Diaries (1995)

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Getty Images

In most basketball movies, a young player is made better by a coach who believes in him and pushes him to greatness. Sometimes, the exact opposite happens— based on the memoir of poet Jim Carroll, "The BasketballDiaries" sees Carroll (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a troubled teen exploring both writing and basketball as ways to express himself and maybe even get his act together. However, the latter turns out to be a nightmare when Carroll's coach assaults him in the locker room.

Things quickly spiral even further out of control for Carroll, as one of the people who could've turned his life around has ended up doing far greater damage to it. When that same coach finds out about Carroll's drug use, he actually has the nerve to ban him from the team for life. At that point, basketball is no longer a part of the movie or Carroll's life as things get more and more dire for him. It's still an important basketball movie in the way that it shows that not everyone in positions of authority in the sport use it for good, nor is the sport an automatic ticket out of a bad situation for every troubled kid who picks up a ball.

33. The Winning Season (2009)

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"The Winning Season" came and went pretty quietly in 2009, the story of a down-on-his-luck divorced dad who is given a shot by his principal friend to coach a girls' varsity basketball team. It's definitely one of the more far-fetched and head-scratching premises for a sports movie — or any movie, really — but right off the bat, the ever-reliable and extremely underrated Sam Rockwell sells a conceit that probably wouldn't have worked otherwise.

Rockwell has always had a special skill at making audiences root for characters that don't really deserve to be rooted for, and he definitely does that well in his portrayal of Bill Greaves. His relationship with his team ends up being mutually beneficial, as he helps them win while they help him reconnect with his estranged daughter. There aren't too many unexpected story beats in "The Winning Season" and it definitely could've been a little more adventurous. But to its credit, it at least isn't one of those sports movies where winning the championship automatically solves all of the personal issues of everyone involved — particularly the girls on the team.

32. The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979)

No list of the best movies of any given genre or subgenre would be complete without at least one campy, cult-classic, so-bad-it's-good entry. And when discussing basketball movies, the entry that fits that bill perfectly is 1979's "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" (per Lockhaven Express). After producing the 1976 classic "Car Wash," Gary Stromberg was looking to make another fantasy comedy romp that was heavily guided by a danceable '70s soundtrack (via Black Grooves). This time, instead of being placed in and around a car wash, the setting was the world of professional basketball— a highly-stylized and ridiculously over-the-top version of it, of course.

Whereas "Car Wash" featured a cast of some of the era's biggest musicians (plus a couple of comedians), "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" s stacked with the era's biggest basketball players (plus a couple of comedians). The impressive lineup of players includes Julius Irving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon, and Spencer Haywood, with the comedian quota being filled by legends like Jonathan Winters and Flip Wilson. Like most films of its ilk, the production values are low but the music is excellent, the acting is wooden but everyone is clearly having a blast, and it's altogether a bad movie that still manages to be extremely entertaining.

31. Heaven Is a Playground (1991)

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New Line Cinema

The 1991 film "Heaven is a Playground" was in development for so longthat Michael Jordan was attached to star while he was still just an up-and-comer in the NBA (via The New York Times). By 1990, when the production was finally ready to begin, Jordan was much more established and no longer interesting in appearing — something the filmmakers would eventually take Jordan to court over and lose (per The Chicago Tribune). Younger player Bo Kimble would eventually be cast in the lead role instead.

"Heaven is a Playground" follows a lawyer from the suburbs (D.B.Sweeney) who comes to bond with a group of inner-city street ball players after frequently shooting hoops with them. He and a local coach try to keep the youths on the right track, and also help them fend off the questionable intentions of an agent who comes sniffing around looking for his next big client. The movie definitely feels like the product of a film that had a long, troubled production, with a lot of jarring tonal shifts and scenes that feel like they were written at different times by different people. But there is definitely a very watchable movie in there if you can overlook the rough edges.

30. Like Mike (2002)

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Scott Gries/Getty Images

There are two glaring issues with "Like Mike" that need to be addressed right off the bat. First, the movie was released after peak Michael Jordan mania had already subsided— he was three years removed from his time with the Bulls and his most recent championship, and was about to retire for the third and final time (per USA Today). And second, Jordandoesn't even appear in the movie. For the entire film's premise to be based around a kid idolizing Jordan and the events of the story being set in motion by the kid coming into possession of an old pair of MJ's shoes, to not have it end with a surprise cameo by the man himself is a major missed opportunity. Maybe they asked him and he said no (or wanted too much money for the appearance), but either way, it's a huge letdown.

All that aside, "Like Mike" is one of the better basketball movies aimed at kids, and one that most adults should be able to enjoy as well. The then-15-year-old Lil' Bow Wow proves an extremely talented and likable young actor, finding great chemistry with Morris Chestnut, who plays the fictional NBA player who comes to adopt Bow Wow's character by the end of the film.

29. Above The Rim (1994)

There's no getting around it: the most important legacy that "Above the Rim" has left behind is its soundtrack, particularly the all-time classic hip hop track "Regulate" by Warren Gand Nate Dogg. It definitely kept the movie in the public consciousness a lot longer than it would have stayed without an iconic song attached to it, and in "All-Star"/"Mystery Men" fashion, people still listen to and remember the song but have long since forgotten what movie it originally came from.

But none of that is to say that "Above the Rim" is a bad film. In fact, it's a really good one, about a young street baller named Kyle (Duane Martin) who was signed to play in the NBA but was ultimately cut and went on to have a successful acting career instead (via BET). Kyle must decide if he wants to stay in the dangerous world of street ball or risk the violent retribution of thug Birdie (Tupac Shakur) by leaving it behind and pursuing a path to playing for Georgetown. The many basketball scenes in the film are incredibly staged and are an absolute treat to watch, which definitely elevates what would've otherwise been a merely decent dramatic flick.

28. Glory Road (2006)

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The story of the first NCAA team to ever have an all-Black starting lineup — which should've happened much sooner than 1966, of course — is told in "Glory Road" (per IndyStar). As a Disney movie, a lot of the nastiness of what went on at the time is softened significantly for the sake of a more feel-good, family-friendly film. Still, it's a story worth telling, even if it means glossing over just how hard the players on the '66 Texas Western College team had it.

Taking home the 2006 ESPY award for Best Sports Movie, "Glory Road" portrays coach Don Haskins as someone who wasn't looking to make history or to be some civil rights trailblazer. He just wanted to put the best team on the court that he could assemble, and that just so happened to be a team that featured a lot of Black players, with five Black starters. There's little doubt that this movie gets into white savior tropeterritory, but the fact that Haskins wasn't specifically trying to "save" anyone and just wanted to give a shot to players that deserved it goes a long way in keeping things from going too far in that direction.

27. Uncle Drew (2018)

It's easy to write off the basketball comedy "Uncle Drew" because it's based on a series of commercials(via Hollywood Insider) — but a series of basketball commercials from the '90s starring a certain Chicago Bull and a certain animated bunny eventually spawnedtwomovies, toys, video games, clothing, and much more. So we should be willing to forgive NBA all-star Kyrie Irving for trying to capture a little bit of that same magic and success.

Rather than trying to be some big-budget, special effects-intensive, intergalactic epic, "Uncle Drew" instead opts for a simple comedy with Irving reviving the titular character alongside an ensemble full of current and former NBA stars and a few comedic actors. Yes, that sounds a bit familiar — "Uncle Drew" never really bothers to go out of its way to tread any new ground or avoid tropes and clichés. But it's still an extremely charming film full of hilarious in-jokes and cameos for longtime basketball fans, and Lil Rel Howery, Nick Kroll, and Tiffany Haddish do a great job picking up the slack for the often-stiff performances from many of the real-life players.

26. Coach Carter (2005)

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Paramount Pictures

Samuel L. Jackson plays Ken Carter in "Coach Carter," the true story of a high school basketball coach who realizes that sports aren't everything and that the players on his team — one of whom is played byChanning Tatum in his film debut —need to hit the books as hard as they hit the hardwood. He even makes them sign contracts that promise they'll take their academics seriously if they want to stay on the team. Surprisingly, this draws the ire of not only the players' parents but the school's administrators, who say he's setting the students up to fail and accuse him of overstepping his bounds as a coach.

Carter proves just how serious he is about the players focusing on their studies when he starts forfeiting games as the players' grades begin to slip and he discovers some have been skipping classes altogether. The team eventually make it to the state quarterfinals, and more importantly, six members of the team graduate and go on to college— something that likely wouldn't have happened without Carter pressing them so hard to take school seriously.

25. Amateur (2018)

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Netflix is host to some unfairly overlooked basketball movies among their originals, seemingly released with zero fanfare and quickly buried beneath the hype of their latest action-comedy starring A-list actors or reality show full of sexy people in bathing suits. But just because a particular sports drama might not take the trending charts by storm doesn't mean it's not worth your time and attention.

"Amateur" follows Terron Forte, a 14-year-old basketball player who is clearly on the path to greatness in the sport. When an NCAA prep school begins to take notice of him, Forte soon learns that the road to NBA superstardom is an often dark one full of backdoor deals, one-sided contracts, and people more interested in how to make money off of him rather than do what's best for him. The decision to have the movie dull its edge in the home stretch and retreat into cliché heart-tugging, feel-good sports movie territory is disappointing and turns what could've been a great sports movie into a merely good one, but "Amateur" is still well worth watching.

24. Soul in the Hole (1997)

The 1997 documentary "Soul in the Hole" flashes back to 1994, when the locally-famous Brooklyn streetball team Kenny's Kings were at the top of their game (per Sports Illustrated). Led by coach Kenny Jones, the Kings' most notable player at the time was 18-year-old Ed "Booger" Smith. The film follows Jones as he tries to get Smith on the path to success despite Smith doing just about everything in his power to veer off of it.

Jones said of Smith (per Slam Online), "Other people wanted more for him than he wanted for himself."Jones tries to get Smith to see that as both his coach and a surrogate father figure, but Smith just can't seem to get out of his own way and allow himself the ambition needed to be anything more than a guy who plays a little basketball from time to time on the streets of Brooklyn. Smith was so uncomfortable with having any kind of spotlight on him that he even initially refused to sign the necessary releases for his appearance in "Soul in the Hole." But luckily he did, because even if Smith never became the superstar that everyone but him believed he could be, maybe the movie will inspire the next Ed "Booger" Smith not to make the same mistake.

23. O (2001)

There was a huge trend in the mid-'90s through the early-'00s of taking William Shakespeare's plays and adapting them into modern teen movies. The most well-known and successful of these was definitely "10 Things I Hate About You," the iconic 1999 high school rom-com that was loosely based on "The Taming of the Shrew" and helped to make a movie star out of Heath Ledger. His co-star, Julia Stiles, was clearly a good fit for that type of thing, as she would return for another high school retelling of a Shakespeare play two years later: "O" (aka "Othello").

The themes explored in the original story of "Othello" were still relevant in 2001, and unfortunately remain relevant to this day. Bringing the classic tale to the world of high school basketball is a clever way to modernize it, and the film handles the violence and racism in a surprisingly mature and nuanced way. All due respect to Baz Luhrmann's terrific "Romeo + Juliet," but it's nice to see a dramatic Shakespeare adaption from this era that doesn't feel like a two-hour music video.

22. Linsanity (2013)

As of a 2020 reportfrom the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, Asian players only comprise about 0.04% of the NBA. This makes it extra important to celebrate a player like Jeremy Lin, who became the first American player of either Taiwanese or Chinese descent in the league, and eventually earned the distinction of being the first Asian American to win an NBA championship (per NBC Sports). Sharing its title with the name given to his meteoric rise in the sport, the documentary "Linsanity" might not go especially deep on its subject, but is nonetheless an engaging look at Jeremy Lin's life and career.

Jeremy Lin himself is an affable and endearing presence on camera, and helps to spice up what is often a heavy reliance on existing game and media footage in the movie. Christians among basketball fans will also appreciate Lin's open reverence for and dedication to his faith, something that gets a surprising amount of attention here. While Lin's impressive basketball career is of course the focus, "Linsanity" is also a movie about a man who is proud of both his race and his faith and doesn't care what effect his trumpeting of either might have on his fame or even his career.

21. On The Shoulders Of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Team You Never Heard Of (2011)

Going much further into the past than most basketball or sports documentaries in general typically go, "On the Shoulders of Giants" flashes all the way back to the 1930s. It focuses on an all-Black team known as the New York Renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance, or most commonly, the Rens (per Britannica). Not allowed to play in any professional leagues at the time, the Rens initially had to settle for playing an exhibition game against one of the era's best white teams, the New York Celtics aka OriginalCeltics (via Celtics Hub). And, no, they didn't eventually become or have any direct relation to the Boston Celtics.

Though the Rens got demolished by the Original Celtics in their initial meeting, the Rens eventually got to play more white teams and soon began racking up wins. Still, inclusion in official leagues continued to elude the Rens. Finally, in 1939, the world's first integrated professional basketball tournament was launched, allowing black and white teams to play each other for the first time outside of a purely exhibition setting. It's a story not enough people know, and this documentary — produced and co-narrated by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — is an excellent look at a groundbreaking moment in sports history.

20. Michael Jordan to the Max (2000)

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Is an IMAX movie all about how great Michael Jordan is a little on the indulgent side? Sure. But "Michael Jordan to the MAX" captures Jordan's larger-than-life legacy in a way that a standard-size multiplex screen just wouldn't have been able to convey. It is also serves a perfect snapshot of an era where Jordan was still idolized as this mythic figure that didn't seem like a mere mortal, long before things like "The Last Dance" dug deeper and revealed there was indeed a flawed human being behind "His Airness."

Though Jordan would render yet another so-called retirement null and void when he made his second comeback in September 2001, the release of "Michael Jordan to the MAX" came at a time when it seemed like he had finally left his basketball career behind him.The movie serves as a summation of what was then his entire career, but also looks back at his childhood in North Carolina and at some of his ventures off the court. Anyone interested in a warts-and-all look at Michael Jordan isn't going to find it here — this movie is pure hero worship. But sometimes that's okay.

19. Through the Fire (2005)

When that rare high school basketball player is already good enough to go straight to the NBA, he has a choice to make— go right into a professional sports career, or go to college first to both further his education and also continue to hone his skills. One such player to face this choice was Sebastian Telfair, already gracing Sports Illustrated covers and being offered lucrative endorsem*nt deals while still trying to navigate being a high school player and student (per ESPN).

Obviously, the ending of "Through the Fire" isn't a big surprise, as it's about a real life player who had already begun his NBA career by the time the documentary was released. Still, it's hard not to get wrapped up in the anxiety and suspense of the choices Telfair has to make, at an age where he is too young to have to make such huge decisions about his life and career and have so much money already being thrown at him. It's a story that has played out many times in the history of sports, but rarely have cameras been there to capture the story as it happens.

18. The Year of the Yao (2004)

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Al Bello/Getty Images

Before Jeremy Lin broke multiple barriers for Asian Americans in the NBA, Yao Ming was the first player from China to play in the league. The fantastic documentary "The Year of the Yao" follows Ming through his rookie season in the league, showing him as he initially struggles to adapt his play style to a league that's much different than what he's used to. The movie follows him as he slowly adapts to both the NBA and living in the U.S. in general, eventually living up to his potential and becoming a dominating force on the court.

"The Year of the Yao" is also engaging in what it shows off the court. Not only is there a lot about Ming trying to adjust to the vast differences between Chinese and American culture, but it shows Ming bonding with and eventually befriending his interpreter in what could've probably been its own movie. As a few critics pointed out (the Los Angeles Times, for instance), the fact that the doc is an NBA co-production means it often comes off as a little too polished and leaves out anything that might make Ming or the league look bad. But that's a fairly nitpicky gripe against what is otherwise a pleasant and endearing look at a player that remained a fan favorite despite an often uneven career (via Bleacher Report).

17. More Than a Game (2008)

Another journey with a talented high school athlete who was no doubt about to become an NBA all-star, "More Than a Game" looks back at LeBron James when he was still playing at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. Though the team had five impressive players on its dynamite squad, James was the one who was drawing the attention of the media — Sports Illustrated had already dubbed him "The Chosen One" — and becoming a young celebrity, something that would soon become a major issue for the squad.

The movie sometimes tries too hard to squeeze itself into sports movie tropes by portraying the team as underdogs when they clearly were no such thing (per SFGate), the story it's telling is no less engaging. That we can see the beginnings of the career of one of the greatest NBA players of all time is a treat, and makes one wish that cameras had been there and had as much access at this point in the lives of other future NBA legends. And the fact that James was already being lavished with so much praise at such a young age and didn't completely fall apart under such ridiculous pressure is an accomplishment all its own.

16. Finding Forrester (2000)

Perhaps the basketball movie on this list with the least amount of actual basketball, "Finding Forrester" is still very much a basketball movie— and a great one at that. Sure, the thing that people remember most about the movie is Sean Connery's ridiculous recitation of the line "You're the man now, dog!" that would go on to become the name of one of the internet's first websites dedicated entirely to memes. But the movie deserves a legacy beyond that.

Many might be eager to point out the similarities between "Finding Forrester" and "Good Will Hunting."The fact that they both put a character name into the title in a punny way and also share a director (Gus Van Sant) certainly doesn't help things much. To be sure, the friendship that is forged between high school basketball player Jamal (Rob Brown) and novelist Forrester (Connery) recalls the one at that heart of "Hunting." And yes, Jamal has an important choice to make about his life much in the way that Will Hunting did. But "Hunting" didn't invent that conceit, so "Forrester" is welcome to use it as well— and the result is an effective character drama about how to follow your heart when it loves two things equally.

15. Doin' It in the Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC (2013)

You don't have to know much about streetball to have heard of Robert "Bobbito" Garcia, one of the most prominent and well-known figures in the history of the sport. The player, coach, DJ, and author is the perfect person to put together what is arguably the definitive documentary on New York City's legendary streetball scene. And he does just that in "Doin' It in the Park," a fittingly scrappy project that Garcia and filmmakerKevin Couliau put together in 2013, basically teaching themselves how to make a movie as they went along (via TheHollywood Reporter).

That approach is appropriate for a movie about streetball culture, of course. It's a sport that was created on the fly over many years of casual contests between random players who eventually formed their own teams and tournaments. Every frame exudes the love that Bobbito has for the culture surrounding streetball, and it's equal parts history lesson and celebration. Unfortunately, its low-budget, self-distributed nature means that "Doin' it in the Park" is difficult to find, but keep on checking those streaming services and watch it the moment it should happen to pop up on one.

14. Space Jam (1996)

Sorry LeBron, but if there's one area in which you don't hold a candle to MJ, it's in who made the better "Space Jam" movie. In all fairness, 2021's "A New Legacy" isn't nearly as bad as most critics made it out to be, but it's simply impossible to recapture the lighting in the bottle that made the original "Space Jam" the favorite movie of an entire generation of MJ- and Looney Tunes-loving kids.

The plot of "Space Jam" doesn't hold up to very much scrutiny, but trying to make sense of it isn't the point. What matters it that it's an absolute treat to watch, from the for-its-time cutting edge effects to the hilarious cameo by Bill Murray. If you were a kid in the mid-'90s, you owned the "Space Jam" VHS and watched it until you wore it out. Jordan's actual acting is ... fine, but it's important to remember that he filmed much of this movie basically by himself against greenscreens. To that end, his performance is actually pretty impressive. Oh, and that soundtrack? It was way, way better than it had any right to be, and we dare you to put on the theme by the Quad City DJs and not at least tap your feet.

13. Cornbread, Earl and Me (1975)

This underrated coming-of-age film — featuring a very young Lawrence Fishburne in his first-ever film role— starts off as the inspiring story of a teenager named Nathanial "Cornbread" Hamilton, the pride of his neighborhood with basketball skills that seem destined to lead to great things. But that all comes to a tragic end when Cornbread is shot to death by police, who mistake him for an assault suspect.

In a story that still feels tragically familiar, justice for Cornbread starts to look unlikely as the police hamper the investigation and intimidate people who could otherwise prove that Cornbread was innocent, and was indeed murdered in cold blood. "Cornbread, Earl and Me" definitely goes a little too heavy on the melodrama at times, which does occasionally hamper the power of the message. But that complaint definitely doesn't come anywhere close to keeping this from being an excellent and heartbreaking movie about how difficult it is for people of color to break out of the cycle that systemic racism that goes on generation after generation.

12. He Got Game (1998)

Spike Lee writing and directing a basketball movie starring Denzel Washington sounds like a surefire recipe for a classic, and "He Got Game" definitely lives up to those lofty aspirations. It stars Washington as convicted felon who, through a series of fortuitous events, is given the chance at parole and to reconnect with his estranged son. What follows is a movie that's actually subdued for Lee in terms of his usual commentary on politics and race, with the filmmaker preferring to tell a somewhat straightforward father-son drama with basketball at the center of their potential reconciliation.

Make no mistake: Many Lee trademarks are present in "He Got Game," though most come by way of his direction rather than the script. The result is a movie with much more visual style and flair than this sort of family drama would normally have, which manages to elevate the material rather than distracting from it. And in addition to the expectedly excellent work from Washington—who worked hard on his b-ball skills for the role — is NBA player Ray Allen as his son. Allen delivers an astoundingly assured and seasoned performance despite it being his very first acting gig.

11. Quantum Hoops (2007)

The Caltech Beavers had, at one point, a 259-game losing streak (per Christian Science Monitor). The school is largely known for academics and doesn't put much emphasis (or money) towards its basketball team, even though it does have one. The charming and quirky documentary "Quantum Hoops" is another story about a team trying to win the big game — only this time, that means winninganygame.

Featuring interviews from former players— most of whom are now scientists, computer programmers, and the like— "Quantum Hoops" is a unique kind of underdog story, and one that's impossible to watch without watching. The people on the team are used to solving problems with equations and experiments, and attempt to apply those principles to the game of basketball, even when they don't have the athletic prowess to match. A fictional movie with this premise would've easily evolved to insulting "look at these nerds trying to play sports" cliché territory, but the fact that these are real people gives "Quantum Hoops" a completely different flavor, one that never mocks its subjects in any way.

10. The Way Back (2020)

Ben Affleck gets a lot of flack as an actor, but the man truly can act when he wants to — and performances like the one he gives in "The Way Back" prove that. David Sims of The Atlanticeven called it "the performance of his career." The basic premise is standard sports movie fare, with Affleck playing a high school basketball star who has grown into a down-on-his luck alcoholic whose path to redemption just so happens to be coaching the struggling team of his old school. But it's Affleck's performance that does most of the work in elevating "The Way Back" beyond its unremarkable setup, and elevate it he does.

To be fair, the movie itself does a great job at subverting some of the expectations of the premise. There are the usual ups and downs both on and off the court, but just when it seems like it's going to be a straight road to victory and redemption for everyone involved, things take a few surprising twists that manage to shock without feeling cheap. The result is a movie that ends much more realistically than it began, and earns its place as both one of the best basketball movies and one of the best Ben Affleck movies.

9. Rebound: The Legend of Earl 'The Goat' Manigault (1996)

Earl Manigault is one of those players that is the favorite player of a lot of players, even if he isn't a household name otherwise. The HBO biopic "Rebound" helps to establish this early on by having Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (as himself) report that Manigault was the best player he'd ever seen. Manigault was on the path to become one of the GOATs, but addiction ended up stopping his professional basketball career before it started.

But the movie is called "Rebound" for a reason. Manigault may have never been the NBA all-star he should've been, but there is still a redemption arc to his story. Not only did he overcome his addictions, but he would spend his later years coaching and counseling young basketball players while working forthe New York Supportive Children's Advocacy Network (via The New York Times). Don Cheadle does a stellar job playing Manigault in all his ups and downs, and "Rebound" does an admirable job at telling a complex story within a standard movie runtime.

8. Love & Basketball (2000)

While a movie like "Just Wright" rests a bit too heavily on basketball as a crutch for what is otherwise a pretty so-so rom-com, the romance at the heart of "Love & Basketball" is fleshed out well enough that it would be just as engaging if basketball wasn't even part of the equation. But it definitely is, and so "Love & Basketball" is simultaneously a wonderful movie about a childhood romance that endures through adulthood, and a wonderful movie about two people with a deep mutual admiration for the game of basketball.

It might sound ambitious for a movie to be about two people that have to simultaneously balance their relationship with each other andalso their individual paths toward success in their sport, but "Love &Basketball" doesn't falter one bit in handling that task. There's no "big game," no buzzer beater shot, no game seven comeback— "Love &Basketball" is confident enough to not fall back on any sports movie tropes, and in that way, turns out to be an excellent sports movie as well as an excellent romantic drama.

7. The Heart of the Game (2005)

The incredibly ambitious documentary "The Heart of the Game" was filmed over a seven-year period(per Slant Magazine), following a high school girls' basketball team. An all-too-rare basketball movie — documentary or otherwise — to focus primarily on female players, "The Heart of the Game" deserves praise for that reason alone. But don't count out Bill Resler, the eccentric coach who watches over these girls as they experience more triumphs and heartbreaks in the span of just a few years than some players do in entire NBA careers.

Another facet of "The Heart of the Game" worth calling attention to isDarnellia Russell, one of the only players of color on the team.For this reason and more, Russell encounters a lot of issues that make it difficult for her to stay in the game. There's obviously an appeal to sports documentaries based on players or events we're already familiar with, but sometimes, the ones that show us something we've never seen before are the most effective. And that's what makes "The Heart of the Game" well worth checking out.

6. One on One (1977)

The 40 Best Basketball Movies Of All Time Ranked - Looper (36)

Warner Bros.

It's not clear how the excellent 1977 basketball drama "One on One"has become lost to time, as it deserves to still be talked about with the same reverence as any other sports movie from its era. It's extremely predictable, sure, but a lot of the ground it covers wasn't yet completely trod down to nothing in 1977 like it would be in the decades that followed. It came out a year after "Rocky" and lacks a lot of that movie's pomp and bombast, but that's a big part of why "One on One" stands out— its willingness to tell an intimate, character-driven sports story without trying to be another "Rocky."

That isn't to say there aren't any moments that will get the adrenaline pumping or make you want to stand up and cheer in "One on One."Take, for instance, the climactic final game, which is surprisingly action-packed and almost feels like it came out of another movie. If you can retroactively forgive the movie for being a bit predictable, since it didn't seem as much so then as it will now, you'll likely find "One on One" to be one well worth its high placement on this list.

5. The Other Dream Team (2012)

The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona belonged to the Dream Team, the collection of basketball legends that played for the U.S. and lived up to its name as a ridiculously stacked team of athletes (per The Lithuanian team, like most other teams, knew that the best they could hope for against the Dream Team was a silver medal. But that's not to say that the other teams don't have stories worth telling, as evidenced by the documentary "The Other Dream Team."

Not only following the Lithuanian men's basketball team but the various other political and social events that happened around the time of the 1992 Summer Games, "TheOther Dream Team" sees the team eventually win the bronze— but that's not even the point. It's a movie about athletes giving their all to their sport and to each other, having a true love for the game with zero interest in fame or fortune. They're all just happy to be there, ultimately, and it's such a treat to watch.

4. High Flying Bird (2019)

Here's another basketball movie from Netflix that flew under the rader, despite the fact that this one comes from the writer of "Moonlight" and director Steven Soderbergh. It's also amazing, not only one of the most unfairly overlooked Netflix sports movies but unfairly overlooked Netflix movies, period. Further proving that Soderbergh can not only tackle any genre but master any as well, "High Flying Bird" capitalizes on the director's unmatched ability to follow characters as they pull off an elaborate plan in a short amount of time.

"High Flying Bird" is about a lot of things, arguably the most crucial of which is asking the question: What would happen if a professional sports league was actually run by the players themselves rather than businessmen and executives? It's "Jerry Maguire" without the sentimental pap, a biting look at the fraught relationship between players, management, and sports agents. If you have a Netflix account, watch "High Flying Bird" tonight. If you don't, pay for a month just to watch it. You will not be disappointed.

3. White Men Can't Jump (1992)

Every sport has that one comedy. Baseball has "Bull Durham," football has "The Longest Yard" (the original), and basketball has "White Men Can't Jump." Back when Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, and Rosie Perez were all still "young actors," they were firing on all cylinders and proving why none of them were going away anytime soon. Snipes and Harrelson are electric as two streetball hustlers who spend much of the movie flip-flopping between friends and rivals. Part of their effectiveness at their grift is that it's sometimes difficult to tell whether we, the audience, are in on their plans or if we're being conned by them along with the other characters on screen.

In all the ways it's the perfect basketball comedy, it's also the perfect buddy comedy, romantic comedy, and just early-'90s comedy in general.It's one of those films that is dated by its era in the best possible way, and will instantly make anyone who was of a certain age in 1992 want to grab a boombox, plop it down onto the concrete, blast some Jody Watley, talk some trash, and play some ball.

2. Hoosiers (1986)

When considering the best basketball movie that isn't a documentary, there's only one clear choice: the 1986 masterpiece "Hoosiers." Gene Hackman delivers one of his best performances — which is saying a lot considering pretty much all of his performances are a slam dunk — as a failed college coach who has to rebuild his career at a small-town Indiana high school. As he tries to build a winning team, he butts up against the community, first for his rough style, and later for choosing the alcoholic father of one of the players (Dennis Hopper) as his assistant coach.

The final act ticks off a lot of underdog sports movie boxes, to be sure. But when that game-winning shot is hit at the buzzer there isn't a dry eye in the house, whether that house is full of first-time "Hoosiers" viewers or people who've seen it 20 times. "Hoosiers" instantly became the template by which all future sports movies would be judged, and very few of them have risen to the challenge.

1. Hoop Dreams

Boasting an impressive (and well-earned) 98%on Rotten Tomatoes, "HoopDreams" is both an incredible basketball movie and just an incredible documentary, period. Following two Black high school students in Chicago with aspirations of one day playing in the NBA, "Hoop Dreams" was filmed over a five-year span and sees the dreams of these kids get heartbreakingly crushed at almost every turn.

It's definitely a tough watch, and an uplifting ending is ultimately not in the cards. But it's well worth the frustration and sadness that comes along with watching it, as it's one of the most unflinchingly honest looks at racism, poverty, and education in America ever put on film. It quickly becomes apparent that these boys don't stand a chance, through no fault of their own, and you'll be as infuriated as you are saddened to watch them be failed by so many people and so many institutions — people and institutions who are supposed to be on their sides and have their backs.

The 40 Best Basketball Movies Of All Time Ranked - Looper (2024)


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