20 Greatest Basketball Movies

The 20 Greatest Basketball Movies of All Time

 by Kent Jackson, Respect My Blog

Sports and cinema often go hand in hand. The drama. The underlying narratives. The stakes. All the important elements of a good story are present in most any sports competition, and Hollywood has known it for years. As a result, we’ve been blessed with a number of unforgettable sports flicks over the past few decades. Obviously, big names like Raging Bull and Rocky will always have a place in our hearts, along with other can’t-miss hits like Hoosiers or White Men Can’t Jump.

But with the 20th anniversary of one of basketball’s most memorable movies now upon us, we decided to take a look at the biggest slam dunks on the silver screen. Released on February 18, 1994, Blue Chips carried on a proud tradition of basketball films in America, and has since inspired a number of other quality films. Starring Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, and Nick Nolte, the flick set a standard for star power that few others have ever been able to touch. Now, I’ve named the movie as one of our 20 Greatest Basketball Movies of All Time, along with 19 other classics. And if you haven’t watched Cornbread, Earl, and Me, how can you call yourself a basketball fan. Check out our picks along with their trailers, in case you feel like doing some research.


20. The 6th Man

Year released: 1997
Director: Randall Miller

With Marlon Wayans in the lead role opposite Kadeem Hardison, The 6th Man was a supernatural sports comedy that tells the story of two brothers playing ball at the University of Washington. But, after tragedy befalls Antoine Tyler (Hardison), Kenny (Wayans) is suddenly left to carry the family name on his own and pick up a struggling Huskies squad. However, despite his death, Antoine is still available to aid Kenny, as he reaches out from the afterlife to help his brother and his former team realize their full potential without him.
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19. The Pistol: The Birth of a Legend

Year released: 1991
Director: Frank C. Schroder

“Pistol” Pete Maravich was one of the most creative and inspired players of his era, as well as one of the most widely under-appreciated. After his untimely death in 1988, filmmakers set forth in unearthing the legend of Maravich, who played for just 10 seasons in the league before injuries ultimately diminished his effectiveness. Focusing on his eighth grade basketball season, Pistol shows how Maravich earned his status as a basketball god from an early age, having had the fundamentals drilled into him by his militant father, Press, who also served as his biggest cheerleader.
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18. The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh

Year released: 1979
Director: Gilbert Moses

Led by Dr. J, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh is a cult sports comedy that features astrology, disco, and more in its tale of a Pittsburgh basketball team that needed a miracle to stay financially viable. Bringing together a team composed only of athletes who were born under the Pisces sign (the fish), the film is perfect for its era, and the ’70s fascination with the cosmos. It’s cinematic significance is close to nil, but The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh makes up for it by bringing a fun and fresh comedy to its viewers.

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17. O

Year released: 2001
Director: Tim Blake Nelson

Shakespeare certainly isn’t the most common source material for a basketball film, but O is able to do the Bard justice as it uses Shakespeare’s Othello as a platform for dialogue on the racial politics of sports. Featuring Mekhi Phifer as Odin James, and Josh Hartnett as his rival, Hugo Goulding, the film explores the tortuousness nature of expectations on athletes, and the underlying impacts it can have when a ball is taken out of their hands. A romance, a murder, and more, O strives to be better than an average sports film, and succeeds largely because of these ambitions.
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16. Finding Forrester

Year released: 2000
Director: Gus Van Sant

Finding Forrester centered on the friendship of William Forrester (Sean Connery) and Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), and the path that their unorthodox relationship creates for greater self-discovery. A reclusive writer, Forrester rediscovers his will to live when Wallace happens to step into his life, while Wallace is able to learn that he’s more than just a basketball player with Forrester’s help. Basketball is secondary to Finding Forrester‘s overall goal, which instead chooses to focus on the value of friends in unlikely places.
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15. Coach Carter

Year released: 2005
Director: Thomas Carter

Featuring Samuel L. Jackson in the title role, Coach Carter is the classic tale of using sports in order to ignore life’s darker realities. But, more importantly, it’s also a story about how sports can be used to educate, and how academic integrity and discipline should never be sacrificed for the sake of a few wins. Leading a rag-tag group of players, Jackson’s role focuses more on a coach’s responsibility to mold men then to simply teach X’s and O’s.
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14. Cornbread, Earl, and Me

Year released: 1975
Director: Joseph Manduke

Laurence Fishburne and Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes star in this cult-classic. Wilkes plays Cornbread, a high school basketball player headed to college on an athletic scholarship. Being the first athlete from his district to go to college because of his athletic achievements, he gives his neighborhood optimism that others will be able to do the same. However, tragedy strikes in a way that leaves no one feeling good about the future, as Cornbread, Earl and Me delivers a swift reality check to the anyone feeling hopeful in the hood.
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13. The Basketball Diaries

Year released: 1995
Director: Scott Kalvert

Based off of the novel of the same name by the famous poet, Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries is not your average basketball movie. You’ll find no cliches here about the game and its ability to help people rise from unfair circumstances, instead, Carroll (Leonardo DiCaprio) views it as a harrowing metaphor for society, as the film explores drug addiction, sexual abuse, and a number of other unseemly realities. However, just because the movie is difficult to stomach doesn’t mean that it should be ignored. The Basketball Diaries tells an uncommon coming-of-age tale, and what we have to do when reality begins to encroach upon our dreams.
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12. Fast Break

Year released: 1979
Director: Jack Smight

A quirky comedy starring Gabe Kaplan and Bernard King, Fast Break tells the tale of an unlikely college coach hired for the sole purpose of winning one game against the team’s rival school. We all wonder what would happen if a fan were to ever coach or manage a basketball team, and Fast Break answers that question with style as it places David Greene (Kaplan) in charge of a small-time program just looking to string together a few wins. Hilarity ensues, but Fast Break somehow still remains one of the most overlooked comedies of its era.

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11. Teen Wolf

Year released: 1985
Director: Rod Daniel

Teen Wolf is one of the most famous films of the ’80s, starring Michael J. Fox as he continued to cement his place as one of the biggest stars of the decade. If anything, this film proved that Fox was a miracle-worker at the box office, as he took a movie about a basketball-playing teen werewolf and turned it into a hit. It’s a ridiculous high school story about a kid who uses his differences to gain popularity and attention and, for that reason, you can’t help but identify with the movie a little bit, even if you don’t sprout fur and fangs when the moon is full.

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10. Sunset Park

Year released: 1996
Director: Steve Gomer

Sunset Park, what time is it? It’s time to get live, it’s time to represent! Every junior high and high school team sung this in the huddle back in the late ’90s. Starring Rhea Perlmen, Fredro Starr, and a then-unknown Terrance Howard, Sunset Park is about a high school varsity team filled with misfits looking for meaning. When new coach, Phyllis Saroka, a woman, takes over the team the kids give her a hard time but they eventually inspire each other and turn into a family. It gives an interesting look at the locker room dynamic and the parental role a coach must assume for inner city kids.
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9. Space Jam

Year released: 1996
Director: Joe Pytka

Talk to anyone who grew up in the ’90s, and it’s likely that they’ll cite Space Jam as one of their favorite childhood movies. There are too many reasons to love this film: the presence of the NBA’s greatest superstar in combination with cartoon legends, the epic final game between the Monstars and the Toon Squad, and, of course, the unforgettable opening track by Quad City DJs. Space Jam was an enjoyable basketball movie that never took itself too seriously from start to finish, always privileging fun over fact.
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8. Glory Road

Year released: 2006
Director: James Gartner

Telling the story of the first all-black starting lineup in college basketball history, Glory Road stars Josh Lucas as coach Don Haskins, a real-life figure who led UTEP (formerly Texas Western College) to a national championship during the 1965-66 season. Basing his team around skill and not skin color, Haskins is able to mold a roster of young stars and take them all the way to the top, downing Kentucky and the legendary Adolph Rupp in the process. Well-acted and historically significant, Glory Road shows us how much has changed in the past half-century of basketball by celebrating the pioneers who forever altered the way the game was played.
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7. Love & Basketball

Year released: 2000
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Starring Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan, Love & Basketball brings romance to the hardwood, as it explores all the difficulties of two athletes trying to make it playing basketball at USC, while also caring for each other. More than anything, Love & Basketball is about how our passion for one pursuit can often blind us in the search for life’s greater joys.
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6. Blue Chips

Year released: 1994
Director: William Friedkin

This movie was the reason Orlando drafted Penny Hardaway. While filming, he and Shaq became close, O’Neal then went to the Magic front office and requested that they draft Hardaway. Nick Nolte plays head coach Pete Bell at national powerhouse Western University. He’s used to recruiting by the rules but the new landscape of college basketball polluted by big money boosters and agents with empty promises forces him to break them. Penny and Shaq make their acting debuts and the film features a bunch of college and NBA players, coaches, and media personalities to add authenticity to the action on the court.
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5. Above the Rim

Year released: 1994
Director: Jeff Pollack

A cast featuring Duane Martin, Marlon Wayans, Bernie Mac, Wood Harris, Leon, and Tupac Shakur, Above the Rim tackles the obstacles a star high school player faces in the streets of New York. Like his role in Juice, Shakur turns in a villainous role as Birdie, a neighborhood pusher that seduces Martin’s character Kyle Lee Watson with money, clothes, and girls.
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4. Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault

rebound

Year released: 1996
Director: Eriq La Salle

Earl Manigault could’ve been a Hall of Famer. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said he was the greatest player he’d ever seen. Rebound starring Don Cheadle as “The Goat,” tells the story of the New York playground legend. He loved basketball but he loved drugs more. The film follows Manigault from his dominance on NYC basketball courts to his downfall into the world of hard drugs to his resurrection as a pillar in his community. This is a must watch for any historian of the game.
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3. White Men Can’t Jump

Year released: 1992
Director: Ron Shelton

Billy Hoyle and Sidney Dean let America get a glimpse of real street basketball. Set in Southern California, White Men Can’t Jump tells the tale of two street hustlers just trying to get by playing the game they love. Featuring a deep cast including Rosie Perez, Kadeem Hardison, and former NBA player Marques Johnson, this movie is a classic comedy centered around Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) and Dean (Wesley Snipes) as they play pick-up games for money in order to survive. These guys can actually play too. Every game is entertaining and some will even have you on the edge of your seat as if it were a close NBA game.
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2. Hoosiers

Year released: 1986
Director: David Anspaugh

Regardless of the sport, Hoosiers can lay claim to being one of the greatest sports movies of all time. Set in one of basketball’s cradle states, the film tells the story of a small town in Indiana and how its high school goes on to win a state title against all odds. Featuring a stunning performance by Gene Hackman in a starring role as the team’s coach, Hoosiers is richly detailed and real to life, as it spares no expense in making sure that every obstacle that the team must overcome is examined. Whether it’s overbearing parents, gossip, or otherwise, Hoosiers shows how our greatest battles in sports often happen before we even step foot on the court.
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1. He Got Game

Year released: 1998
Director: Spike Lee

Since its release, Spike Lee’s classic film, He Got Game has stood out as one of Lee’s strongest joints. Telling the story of Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) and his strict father, Jake (Denzel Washington), the film follows Jesus—the No. 1 high school prospect in the nation—as he tries to decide where to play big-time basketball without anyone reliable to guide him through the process. He Got Game isn’t afraid to tread into the shadier territories of recruiting, father-son relationships, and the importance of athletics in America as we see Jesus constantly at odds with those trying to influence him one way or another.

Is it a tad long? Sure. But like any of Lee’s films, it loves to focus and harp on the themes of the film in a way that will allow everyone to connect with the larger stakes at work. He Got Game isn’t just about basketball, it’s about life.

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