These Basketball Movies Will Help You Survive the NBA Offseason
Tide yourself over until games return in the fall by watching these hoops-centric gems.
Another basketball season may have ended, but the sport never stops streaming. To help you cope with the total lack of serious hoops action until October, we've put together this round-up of essential feature films (and one docuseries) that every NBA fan should see.
But first, the ground rules: We're only interested here in the pro game (real and fictional), which excludes anything focused on high school (He Got Game and Hoosiers), college (bye-bye, Blue Chips), amateurs (White Men Can't Jump) and shapeshifters (Teen Wolf). We're also limiting things to Earth-bound basketball, so you won't find either Space Jam film, despite their literal All-Star casts. But even without the many (many) films about the amateur game, there's plenty to hold NBA fans over until the fall.
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The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979)
In this cult comedy directed by Gilbert Moses, the world's wisest ballboy (James Bond III) teams up with a local astrologer (Stockard Channing) to devise a plan to fix the abysmal NBA-esque pro squad the Pittsburgh Pythons: Convince the team to surround star player Moses Guthrie (Julius "Dr. J" Erving) entirely with other Pisces, in the name of cosmic compatibility. Tryouts follow, and the rebranded outfit of "weirdos, misfits, and some other guys" keeps on winning (look for cameos by Bob Lanier, Spencer Haywood, Cedric Maxwell, and other NBA notables), ultimately landing (literally, via hot-air balloon) in the league finals against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the "Los Angeles team." On the one hand, this is an absurd way to build a winning basketball team. On the other hand: Have the Knicks at least considered it? (Rent on Amazon)
High Flying Bird (2019)
In this Steven Soderbergh drama produced for Netflix, a fictional lockout in a fictional NBA turns off the money spigot for fictional agents and fictional players, which complicates life for fictional rookies preparing for their first pro season. The phenomenon depicted is both very real and very of-the-moment. Agent Ray Burke recognizes the leverage basketball players have in the business of the game and grasps that the lockout presents an opportunity to rebalance the power dynamic. Given the lockout in question, very little actual basketball-playing happens in this movie, but it's an excellent portrait of the modern pro game nonetheless. (Watch on Netflix)
The Last Dance (2020)
Was ESPN's 10-part documentary the most objective project ever? It was not. And is it more of a docuseries than a film? Definitely. But whatever. This compelling episodic tale about the 1990s Chicago Bulls—and the backstories of its key figures—dominated the pop-culture landscape during the COVID lockdowns in the spring of 2020, and every basketball fan should watch it. Even those familiar with Michael Jordan's hyper-competitiveness likely came away with a new appreciation for how the basketball legend motivated himself, and with at least some filtered insight into Jordan's complex life off the court (including his much memed laugh), even as his on-the-court dominance appeared rather effortless. (Watch on Netflix)
Love & Basketball (2000)
This romantic drama, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, isn't strictly about pro hoops: There's also high school basketball and college basketball and driveway basketball and, in one dorm-room scene, strip basketball. But while the main storyline traces the evolving relationship of fellow standouts Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy McCall (Omar Epps), it's also a movie about two promising careers unfolding in parallel, and about how much the game means to those who devote their lives to it. (Rent on Amazon)
Once Brothers (2010)
"To build a friendship takes years," says former NBA big man Vlade Divac in this documentary from ESPN's "30 for 30" series about his relationship with former teammate Dražen Petrović. "To destroy it, one second." Indeed, Divac and Petrović had once been very close: playing together on the Yugoslavian national team, entering the NBA at the same time, and talking constantly as they adjusted to life in America. This moving documentary, written and directed by Michael Tolajian, explores the abrupt end to their friendship during the Yugoslav Wars, and the burden Divac felt that they were unable to mend it before Petrović's tragic death at age 28 in a 1993 car crash. (Watch on ESPN+)
This comedy about the fictional ABA Flint Tropics holds its own in the Will Ferrell sports-movie pantheon, which also includes Blades of Glory and Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Jackie Moon is hardly the best fictional athlete to appear on this list, but he's probably the best singer, and he's certainly the best post-game bear-fighter. And while Semi-Pro culminates with the clichéd Big Game, at least this Big Game purportedly awards the glorious 12-foot-tall MegaBowl trophy to its victor. (Watch on HBO Max)
Uncut Gems (2019)
The tension of the NBA playoffs has nothing on the life of Adam Sandler's New York City jeweler Howard Ratner, whose gambling on basketball sends him into an increasingly seedy spiral. Actually real NBA action exists in the background for most of this Safdie brothers' thriller, tracking the bets Howard places on costar Kevin Garnett (playing himself) during the 2012 playoffs after the then-Celtic power forward becomes obsessed with an opal at Ratner's store. It also gets bonus points for casting KG's 2008 NBA Championship ring (or at least a replica) he uses as collateral. (Watch on Netflix)
Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks (2010)
Spike Lee has been behind the camera for more than one movie in the basketball canon, having directed both He Got Game and the documentary Kobe Doin' Work, but in this "30 for 30" film directed by Dan Klores, he's a main character. Reggie Miller was Public Enemy No. 1 to Knicks fans in the mid-'90s, and no fan sparred with him more directly than Lee, who famously trash-talked the Pacers star as he dropped eight points in a dizzying 8.9-second stretch late in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals. (Watch on ESPN+)