The Best Films About Young NBA Prospects and the Game Behind the Game
No matter how many times it’s been done, and how many different angles on the subject have been covered, basketball movies never get old. We seem to always be thirsty for more hardcourt drama. Recruiting scandals are often the center of the dramatic basketball movie plot, always involving classic tropes of good vs. evil, moral vs. immoral, underdog vs. giant, and poor vs. rich. As long as the rules and restrictions that limit amateur athletes exist, there will be people with deep pockets ready to take advantage of talented players who aren’t allowed to make a dime. And thus, this type of film will continue to multiply.
In light of the 2018 NBA Draft on the near horizon and recruiting scandals still being a hot-button issue, let’s revisit a few of the best basketball films, both classic and contemporary, that deal with young basketball stars navigating their way through everything they have to deal with off the court in pursuit of the ultimate goal: having their name called at the podium on that fateful June night.
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)
In the opinions of many (including my own), Hoop Dreams is the greatest basketball film of all time. This epic three-hour documentary is the real-life story of two young basketball stars growing up in the poverty and violence stricken ghettos of Chicago, each with the goal of one day punching their ticket out of the hood with a college scholarship, and ultimately, an NBA contract. The film, directed by Steve James, documents the lives of Arthur Agee and William Gates for five years from their freshman year of high school to their first year of college. Their journey starts when both are given a chance to attend and play basketball for St. Joseph’s, a Catholic high school in the suburbs of Westchester, Illinois.
Almost immediately, the story begins exposing many controversial practices of high school and college sports in relation to concerns of race, class, and poverty. What makes the film so universally impactful and bigger than just basketball is that these issues affect not only talented young athletes, but millions of people across America. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert, who hailed Hoop Dreams as his favorite film of the ‘90s, once stated it was “one of the best films about American life I have ever seen”. It’s truly a moving, sometimes heartbreaking, and totally riveting story of these two boys who are chewed up and spit out by the system of high school basketball. A better basketball film couldn’t be scripted, and hasn’t been so far.
In regards to the controversy of recruitment, the film shows a first-hand account of the way disadvantaged youth are exploited for their athletic talent. The lives of Gates and Agee go down different paths by the end of the film, but the way both are used by the system begins the same: as two kids that would absolutely never have the opportunity to attend a private high school in the suburbs if they couldn’t hoop.
A quote from Spike Lee, who appears in Hoop Dreams speaking to basketball prospects at a Nike ABCD camp, perfectly summarizes the film, and this whole issue for that matter:
“You got to realize, that nobody cares about you. You’re black. You’re a young male. All you’re supposed to do is deal drugs and mug women. The only reason why you’re here, you can make their team win, and if their team wins, these schools get a lot of money. This whole thing is revolving around money.”
3. He Got Game (1998)
If Hoop Dreams is the best basketball movie ever made, then He Got Game is the best fictional hoops film. The story chronicles the nation’s top high school basketball prospect, Jesus Shuttlesworth played by Ray Allen, during the week leading up to his pivotal decision to announce what college he’ll be attending. What could merely be a tale of Jesus fending off money-hungry agents, crooked coaches, and other distractions around his native Coney Island is taken up a few notches by including his estranged father who is in prison for killing his mother. Jake Shuttlesworth, brilliantly acted by Denzel Washington, is allowed to temporarily leave prison to try to convince his son to sign a letter of intent to Big State University, by orders of the governor. If Jake is successful in recruiting his son for the politician’s alma mater, he is promised a reduced sentence.
Although it has the most extreme plot of the top 5 basketball films here, in some ways it’s the most accurate and authentic portrayal of the basketball recruiting topic. Spike Lee’s direction and the gritty cinematography give the film a documentary-like feel at times. The fact that Lee casted the Lincoln High team with Allen and other actual pros like Travis Best and Walter McCarty adds to its authenticity (at the expense of better acting, but oh well).
While all the films cover how coaches, agents, and the other powers that be are ready to take advantage of star athletes, He Got Game does a better job showing how a player’s own relatives can also be ready to cash in on their talent. His uncle, who is adamant about getting a piece of the action, eventually shows up in a brand-new Lexus, gifted to him by a college recruiter. Jesus’ girlfriend tries to convince him to sign with a very sketchy agent so he’ll go straight to the pros instead of going to college and leaving her behind.
Illustrated by Lee’s aforementioned speech in Hoop Dreams, it’s clear that the issues surrounding young athletes and the recruiting process is a topic he truly cares about and it shows through in his direction of this classic film. It’s not only one of the greatest basketball films, but a contender on any list of greatest sports movies.
3. Blue Chips (1994)
Blue Chips is certainly a Hollywood-ized story, but one that still deals with the themes of recruitment and temptation on the way to the ultimate goal of an NBA contract. While Hoop Dreams focuses solely on the trials and tribulations of the players, Blue Chips passes the ball to the perspective of the coach.
In a powerhouse performance, Nick Nolte plays Pete Bell, the longtime coach at the fictional Western University in California. Bell is the prototypical old-school college hoops coach, who’s an established winner and face in the community. He’s led the team to two titles in the past, but after a dismal losing season, the pressure is on. Does the hot-headed yet moral Coach Bell stick it out and hope to land recruits the old-fashioned, honest way, or give in to the temptations of modern college basketball recruiting tactics and bribe top prospects to come play for his team? If he chose to do the former, there wouldn’t be much of a movie here, so you can guess what he decides to do: whatever it takes to get the latest young phenoms (including Shaquille O’Neal as Neon Bordeaux and Penny Hardaway as Butch McRae).
Blue Chips touches on a few of the topics at hand like bribing recruits, sleazy alumni association members (AKA “friends of the program”), and point-shaving better than other basketball films, but my initial thought after rewatching it is that it’s almost like the “white privilege” perspective of the controversy. The players being recruited are the ones that seem to be gaming the system to climb out of poverty — one player straight-up requests money to play for Western and Penny’s character secures a new job and house for his mother — while risking their eligibility and future to do so. The already wealthy coach just suffers through the moral dilemma of breaking some rules to keep winning. Do we really need to feel that sorry for him?
4. Amateur (2018)
The newest addition to the family of basketball films with a plot concerning the issues of recruitment is Amateur. The 2018 Netflix film is admittedly a bit amateurish itself in terms of production quality, but the story offers a poignant take on the concerns surrounding athletic recruitment at the high school level. Think of it as a modern, fictional retelling of Hoop Dreams—with the new factor of social media thrown in.
The film tells the story of an 8th-grade basketball phenom, Terron Forte, who is recruited by a shady prep school to play among high schoolers (one of which is actually an older, foreign-born player posing as a teenager). The story covers the corruption, exploitation, and greed we’ve seen in basketball films of the past — all issues which now seem bigger than ever in the current era with even more money flowing around the court.
Beginning at his small middle school, we watch the journey of Terron as he adjusts to life at the prep school, struggles with academics due to a learning disability, and deals with a coach that seems to legitimately care for him, yet is not above exploiting him when necessary. The young star settles in nicely, but it all comes crashing down when he sends out a video clip across social media of his coach and father arguing about how the family was paid to get him to join the team. After the clip goes viral, Terron is kicked off the team and the coach is fired. The solution: he waives his college eligibility to turn pro overseas and pick up endorsement deals. It’s all wrapped up perhaps a little too easily in the end, but Terron’s choice is an option that could become more of a reality in the current one-and-done era of college basketball.
To illustrate the absurdity that is the system of amateur athletics, for this film, director Ryan Koo had trouble casting the main character because paying a formidable young basketball star would be against the athletic rules. Between the film industry’s labor restrictions and the NCAA’S rules (disqualifying any prospect from college hoops eligibility if paid for acting), the director’s desire to cast a young basketball star almost crippled the whole production. Koo eventually found his man in Michael Rainey Jr., a young professional actor (known for the TV show Power) that could hold his own on the court, and the film was made. It’s yet another example of the ridiculous restrictions placed on young athletes by the NCAA. If a kid can get paid for acting or any other talent, why not athletics?
“The whole thing’s rigged against the people it should be helping the most.”
5. One and Done (2016)
One and Done documents current NBA star Ben Simmons’ one year of college basketball at LSU. As the title implies, the documentary covers — and puts under a microscope — the current “one and done” phenomenon in college hoops. The rule states that in order to be drafted into the NBA, players must be either 19 years old or at least one year out of high school. The practice of young phenoms playing one year of college ball just because they have to raises all kinds of issues, including it being a mockery of higher education. As evidenced by Simmons first hand in the film, kids barely even go to class if they know they’re going to be in the NBA in a few months. The controversy has been covered ad nauseum since the rule was instituted by the NBA in 2005, so I won’t get into that, but the film also raises many of the same concerns we’ve already seen in the other four movies.
My biggest takeaway from One and Done is how unique Simmons’ situation is compared to most young athletes. Raised in Australia, his father Dave was a professional basketball player who provided the family with a comfortable and safe life. Ben also received massive support from his entire family, which included his parents picking up and moving to Orlando, Florida with him when he left to play high school ball at Montverde Academy. His sister also became his manager during his year at LSU, guiding every aspect of his life from providing moral support to keeping a record of receipts for shoe purchases (to prove to the NCAA he wasn’t getting hooked up with free stuff, of course). Although numerous sons of former pros have made it to the NBA throughout the years, this is still not the average life for a student athlete.
One powerful scene is Ben shopping at Wal-Mart, complaining how he has almost no money left in his bank account. Despite being the biggest star in college basketball, the kid could barely even afford a trip to Wal-Mart for some essentials. This once again illustrates how ludicrous it is that players aren’t paid, but it’s also alarming when you think about how other athletes who don’t come from a privileged background with full family support and a guarantee of going pro can even survive with the restrictions placed on them at every level of amateur play.
"Everybody's making money except the players. We're the ones waking up early as hell to be the best teams and do everything they want us to do. And then the players get nothing. They say 'education', but if I'm there for a year, I can't get much education."
From Hoop Dreams in 1994 to Amateur in 2018, the various struggles depicted in each film are all unified in one clear solution: allow the players to be paid.