There are many days I cherish throughout the year—Oscar night, Opening Day, Christmas. But nothing can quite match the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament. Even as we mourn another early exit for our Hoyas, I cannot get basketball off of my mind. No matter who you root for, the tournament is bound to bring intrigue and excitement, along with the inevitable disappointment that comes with a failing bracket.
Basketball has captivated us for years, not only in real life, but also in films that try to capture meaningful, moving stories on the court. Some are great—thanks, Hoosiers. Some are not—sorry, Like Mike. But what separates them? What makes a basketball movie great?
There are a wide range of basketball movies with vastly different tones, from the retro farce of Semi-Pro to the gritty character study of He Got Game. Despite this array of styles, though, some tropes stand out. First and foremost, no basketball movie can succeed without the charismatic coach. Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, Josh Lucas in Glory Road, and Samuel L. Jackson in Coach Carter are just three of the best in this category. Just about every basketball-focused film starts out with a similar problem: a team lacks the talent or discipline needed to succeed, and they need some figure to step in to move them forward. Watching a coach push and push their team, alienating them before lifting them to new heights, is undeniably entertaining, and movie after movie takes advantage of this fact.
Besides having someone memorable at the helm, you’ll find that most basketball movies pull you in with a tormented star, a player with the talent to go anywhere but the head that needs some fixing. No, I am not really thinking of Air Bud here. Hoosiers has Jimmy Chitwood, the farmboy with the skills to escape small-town living but the head that could hold him back; He Got Game has Jesus Shuttlesworth, the NBA talent with the name to match and a tortured past; White Men Can’t Jump has Billy and Sidney, streetwise stars who don’t know when to stop. Just as we gravitate towards iconic players in real life, so too do we seek out silver-screen heroes, individuals forced to carry the weight of the team along with the weight of whatever threatens to hold them back. We find ourselves fascinated by talented players navigating fame and stardom, struggling to balance the importance of their performance on the court with the troubles that persists off of it.
Besides characters filling these roles memorably, one thing can make a basketball movie great: realistic game action. Creating movie moments without sacrificing the credibility of the game is extremely difficult. It is terribly easy to have a sports movie fall apart because the in-game scenes look staged and unbelievable. The best basketball movies combine tense game sequences with actors that look the part. The Basketball Diaries is a fascinating story, but its game scenes fall short largely because of the stars’ questionable abilities.
In contrast, films like Glory Road and Coach Carter achieve a balance between believable moments on the court and narrative melodrama, not sacrificing the excitement we expect in sports movies’ climactic moments but also maintaining the integrity of the sport as they reach them. This formula works across all sports movies, with films like Miracle thriving on a mix of incredible drama and sensible gameplay.
When you think about it, every March brings us a tournament—a real-life tournament—that seems to imitate fiction.
Charismatic coaches? We loved watching Georgia State coach Ron Hunter tumble from his chair as his son sunk a three to lock up the biggest win in school history. Memorable stars? Players like Steph Curry and Kemba Walker tear through the tournament every year, leaving us in awe. Realistic gameplay? Of course, though at times the madness of March seems too absurd to believe.
Even when our teams and brackets come up short—year after year after year—we stay glued to the television, waiting for a Cinderella or a comeback kid. We watch the movies because they glorify these moments. We watch the games because they’re something else altogether.