When it comes to basketball in the movies, a handful of hands down, no-brainer, blue chip flicks hold the top seed rankings of all time in the genre: Hoosiers. Teen Wolf. BASEketball. (OK, maybe not BASEketball. ) But why do so many basketball movies -- including this week's Just Wright, in which Queen Latifah romances an injured NBA player played by rapper-turned-thespian Common, who TOTALLY, REALISTICALLY chooses her over Paula Patton -- combine the team sport with other random themes, like race relations and "Jeopardy!" (White Men Can't Jump), fathers and sons and America and religion (He Got Game), or Will Ferrell (Semi-Pro)?
Maybe it's the myriad number of metaphors a good, emotion-laden game of one-on-one can contain. Or the meaning in which team you back, right down to the shared fandom that can bring two people together in lurve -- like, say, a physical therapist like Queen Latifah and a New Jersey Net like Common. Either way, why hate when you can celebrate? Here are five of the best "____ & Basketball" movies around:
Theme: Love & Basketball (Love & Basketball)
Let's start with the obvious one. Former collegiate track athlete Gina Prince-Bythewood made her feature-length debut with this romantic drama about Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps), neighbors and college-bound basketball standouts that fall in love while navigating school and sports in late '80s-early '90s Los Angeles. In addition to avoiding the clichés that haunt both the sports and romance genres, Love & Basketball is one of very few sports flicks that show attention to the ins and outs of balancing competition, love, and life as a female athlete -- and much of the credit goes to Lathan, whose turn as the driven ladies hoops player helped her break out as a lead actress. The film's Big Important Game, of course, is one of the most emotional games of one-on-one you'll ever see, a nighttime showdown of hurt feelings set to the sounds of Meshell Ndegeocello's "Fool of Me" where the prize at hand is -- what else? -- LOVE. Omar Epps = Best trophy ever.
Theme: Drugs & Basketball (The Basketball Diaries)
Catholic school teen Jim Carroll (Leonardo Di Caprio) is like a cheetah on the basketball court -- and an amoral troublemaker off of it. But for the meantime, life is good, and as long as the wins keep on coming, Jim and his pals at St. Vitus High are the kings of their world. When his terminally ill BFF passes away, Jim's downward spiral kicks off with an anarchic game of hoops in the rain with Marky Mark and their other hooligan buddies. (Does it look just a tad like that one Backstreet Boys music video? Maybe.) Then come the harder drugs. When he hits rock bottom, beat up and strung out, who nurses Jim back to health? Ernie Hudson, the wise former addict who used he used to play friendly pick-up games with at the park. By that point, basketball is replaced by drugs and pretentious voice-overs as the main motivating forces in Jim's life, and "pass the rock" takes on new meaning.
Theme: Literary Geniuses & Basketball (Finding Forrester)
If you're like me, the first thing you think of when you think about Finding Forrester is a white-bearded Sean Connery barking, "You're the man now, dawg!" Let's just agree, it wasn't 007's finest hour. The second thing you might think of then, is basketball -- more specifically, how basketball-as-salvation is a tired movie cliché that Gus Van Sant's drama turns on its head. Sixteen-year-old Jamal (Rob Brown) is an inner-city teen who's gifted both on and off the court, only he likes to keep his intellectual smarts secret. After striking up a friendship with a reclusive writer (Connery) who begins mentoring him, Jamal's inner writer emerges and he throws a key game in favor of earning his way in the world academically. And Sean Connery comes out of hiding to read an essay about friendship. So basketball is like writing because … it's like finding new teammates! In the game of life!
Theme: Statutory Rape & Basketball (Coach)
Look, back in the '70s, a high school kid who scored with the hot teacher was a campus hero in the teen sex comedy genre. And so, Michael Biehn circa 1978 became every high school kid's idol when he hooked up with Coach Randy Rawlings (Cathy Lee Crosby), the very female former Olympian hired on to whip a boys' basketball team into championship form in the Crown International picture Coach. In Crosby's defense, her Coach Rawlings was as excellent at her job as she was unafraid of tackling the progress-resistant school board that hired her, and besides -- have you seen the young Michael Biehn?
Theme: Hip Hop & Basketball (Above the Rim)
Basketball and hip-hop culture have long shared a mutual acquaintance, but that particular link never was as strong as it was in the 1994 sports drama Above the Rim. Duane Martin (who was reportedly once drafted by the Knicks) starred as promising high school basketball player Kyle Watson, who must make a simple choice: play for the good guys in a local street ball tournament, or go over to the dark side and play for Tupac Shakur. Reviews were mixed, but the real historic impact of Above the Rim came in its soundtrack, packed with songs by the likes of 2Pac himself, Snoop Dogg, SWV, and Warren G., the latter of whom debuted the now-classic "Regulate" before officially releasing it on his own album months later. Above the Rim was even co-conceived by recording exec Benny Medina, who took a producing and story credit, and its last act tournament sequence features quite possibly the highest number of ostentatious street ball dunks and flashy moves seen in a single basketball movie to date.