Like any game, basketball can be an exhilarating experience for people who love movies. Watching movies that take the world of basketball – both on and off the field, and turn it into something more than just winning and losing are the ones that truly understand the highs and lows of the adrenaline-fueled game. Throughout cinematic history, basketball has captivated audiences with its high-flying dunks, intense rivalries, and inspiring underdog stories that go beyond the court.
From the streets of Harlem to the NBA, this curated collection of the best basketball movies of all time celebrates the game’s passion, grit, and triumphs. With the release of the remake of the 1992 ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ and the recent love that Ben Affleck’s ‘Air’ has received, it’s a good time as any to visit these movies that have gotten a thumbs up from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
10. White Men Can’t Jump (1992)
Directed by Ron Shelton, the movie follows a white basketball hustler named Billy Hoyle (played by Woody Harrelson), who defies expectations and capitalizes on the underestimation of black players on the court. When he outwits Sidney Deane, played by the charismatic Wesley Snipes, a door opens to a world of lucrative opportunities. Together, they embark on a high-stakes con game, taking their hustle from one basketball court to another across the streets of Los Angeles.
Amidst the game of deception, Billy finds himself entangled with mobsters, desperately evading his mounting debts while trying to keep his quick-witted and Jeopardy!-obsessed wife on his side. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 77%, White Men Can’t Jump ranks at number 10 among the best basketball movies of all time. The website’s consensus reads, “White Men Can’t Jump provides a fresh take on the sports comedy genre, with a clever script and a charismatic trio of leads.”
9. He Got Game (1998)
Jake Shuttleworth (Denzel Washington) is a man haunted by a tragic past. After serving a six-year prison sentence for accidentally causing the death of his wife during a violent altercation, Jake’s estranged relationship with his son, the gifted basketball prodigy Jesus Shuttleworth (played by Ray Allen), hangs in the balance.
However, in an unexpected turn of events, the prisoner warden (played by Ned Beatty) offers Jake a life-altering proposition: a temporary parole to secure Jesus’s commitment to the governor’s former university, offering the promise of a reduced sentence if he succeeds.
With time ticking away, Jake embarks on an emotional journey, aiming to mend the shattered pieces of his fractured family while wrestling with his own demons.
Directed by Spike Lee, He Got Game has been called “One of Lee’s most accessible films” and currently holds an RT score of 80%.
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8. The Way Back (2020)
With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 84%, Ben Affleck’s return after a brief hiatus from acting in ‘The Way Back’ has secured the 8th position on the best basketball movies of all time. What makes it even more interesting and ironic is how Affleck’s life at that point in time had suffered due to his alcoholism, and this was meant to be his comeback.
The film follows Jack Cunningham (Affleck), a once-promising high school basketball superstar whose inexplicable departure from the sport left a trail of unanswered questions. Years later, Jack finds himself trapped in a monotonous and unfulfilling job, battling the demons of alcoholism that shattered his marriage and crushed his dreams.
But when fate intervenes, Jack is presented with a chance at redemption that could change everything. Tasked with coaching his alma mater’s struggling basketball program, he must confront the ghosts of his past and the regrets that haunt him. As he guides a team that mirrors his own journey from glory to despair, Jack discovers that the road to redemption is paved with adversity, resilience, and self-discovery.
7. Love & Basketball (2000)
Gina Price-Bythwood recently got recognized when she was tapped to direct big-budget films like ‘The Old Guard’ and ‘The Woman King.’ However, not many people remember that she started off with the 2000 film ‘Love & Basketball.’
Starring Sanaa Lathan as Monica Wright and Omar Epps as Quincy McCall, the film follows the two who have been inseparable since childhood and share a deep passion for basketball. They both dream of becoming professional players but have polar opposite approaches to their game. While Quincy, the son of Zeke (Dennis Haysbert), a legendary player for the Los Angeles Clippers, possesses natural talent and exudes leadership qualities, Monica is relentless and fierce on the court, letting her emotions sometimes get the best of her.
As they navigate the highs and lows of their basketball journeys, their bond deepens, and their friendship slowly blossoms into a love neither of them can deny. Despite the magnetic pull, they feel towards each other, the separate paths they pursue to achieve basketball stardom start to place strain on their relationship.
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6. The Heart of the Game (2005)
According to Rotten Tomatoes, the 2005 documentary ‘The Heart of the Game’ is one of the best basketball movies of all time, with an RT score of 87%. The website’s consensus reads, “This group of high school girls and their eccentric basketball coach easily win your heart with their unusual humanity and dynamism,“ with critics calling it ‘effective’ and ‘inspirational.’
Narrated by Ludacris and directed by Ward Terrill, The Heart of the Game is about Darnellia Russell, an African-American student who joins the predominantly white and affluent Roosevelt High School. Under the guidance of Coach Bill Resler, known for his motivational techniques using animal and nature themes, the girls’ basketball team sets out to win the Washington State championship but falls short in their first state tournament game.
Later, Russell, recognized for her talent, joins the varsity team but faces setbacks when she becomes pregnant and drops out of school. The rest of the documentary charts her tumultuous journey to get back to the court, fighting battles both on the court and beyond it.
5. High Flying Bird (2019)
Steven Soderbergh’s 2019 Netflix film was shot on an iPhone, with the RT consensus rightly saying, “High Flying Bird takes a thoughtful and engrossing look at professional sports that sees Steven Soderbergh continuing to test the limits of new filmmaking technology.”
With a score of 91% based on 138 reviews, the film revolves around the world of professional basketball during a lockout, focusing on the behind-the-scenes negotiations and power dynamics within the sport. The story follows a sports agent named Ray Burke, played by André Holland, who finds himself caught in the middle of the lockout and seeks to challenge the established system.
Ray comes up with a bold plan to disrupt the power structure of the NBA by encouraging his rookie client, Erick Scott (played by Melvin Gregg), to take control of his career. With the help of his assistant, Sam (played by Zazie Beetz), Ray navigates the complex and cutthroat business of basketball, aiming to empower the players and shift the balance of control from the league owners to the athletes themselves.
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4. Hoosiers (1986)
Failed college coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) finds a shot at redemption when he’s unexpectedly hired to lead the basketball program at a small high school in rural Indiana. When their star player Jimmy Chitwood is pursued to take his academics seriously, Dale faces an uphill battle in developing a winning squad.
The close-knit community, initially skeptical of his abilities, constantly criticizes Dale for his occasionally fiery temper and his unorthodox choice of assistant coach: Shooter (Dennis Hopper), a former basketball star struggling with alcoholism. However, in spite of the setbacks, their perseverance, teamwork, and unwavering belief help them develop into a cohesive unit, defying the community’s initial doubts.
As the RT consensus states, “It may adhere to the sports underdog formula, but Hoosiers has been made with such loving craft and features such excellent performances that it’s hard to resist,” the film follows all the possible cliches of the underdog templet. Yet, there’s no way you wouldn’t put the film in a list of the best basketball movies of all time.
3. Air (2023)
The most recent addition to the list is Ben Affleck’s Air. Currently, at an impressive Rotten Tomatoes score of 92%, the film finds a place on the list in spite of not being entirely focused on Basketball. However, since the great Micheal Jordan’s name is associated with it, one can’t help but really dig at the core of the film and its love for the game.
Unveiling the game-changing partnership between an aspiring young Michael Jordan and Nike’s burgeoning basketball division, the film follows the deal that created a revolution in the realm of sports and contemporary culture with the iconic Air Jordan brand. The story delves into the career-defining risk undertaken by an unconventional team to court the greatest basketball player of all time to be on their side.
Set against the backdrop of Jordan’s rookie year and a shoe brand that we have since come to know as Nike, Air is a formidable retelling of a real-life story. Light on its foot but measured in its approach, Ben Affleck’s Air is one of the best basketball movies, even when it heads to the court only once.
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2. Hustle (2022)
Sandler loves basketball. The American actor/comedian has professed his love for the game at least a dozen times on numerous occasions. So, it was only about time he went on and made a movie about it. Made under Sandler’s very own Happy Madison Productions and as a part of his movie contract with Netflix, Hustle has thus far proved to be his best-received Netflix movie yet.
Currently, at an RT score of 93%, the consensus claims that “Hustle doesn’t have any fancy moves, but it doesn’t need them — Adam Sandler’s everyman charm makes this easy layup fun to watch.”
The movie, on the other hand, follows Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler), a tireless Philadelphia 76ers scout with an unwavering passion for basketball who yearns for more than just scouting talent from the sidelines. Despite his love for the game, he harbors a deep desire to become a coach and make a lasting impact. However, he finds himself perpetually on the road, searching for the next hidden gem in far-flung locations.
During one of his scouting trips, Stanley’s journey takes him to Spain, where he stumbles upon Bo Cruz (NBA player Juancho Hernangómez), an extraordinary streetball player with a troubled past. Hustle is all about the connection Stanley and Bo forge – both on and off the court; discovering that they are not only driven by the desire to win but also by their roles as devoted family men.
The story is about these two underdogs trying their best to succeed in what they really wish in life.
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Touted as not only the best basketball movie of all time but also securing the numero uno spot on Rotten Tomatoes’ list is Steve James’s 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams.
Shot over the course of 5 years, the movie is about William Gates and Arthur Agee, two talented African-American teenagers who, on every school day, embark on a challenging 90-minute journey to St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois, from their place in inner-city Chicago.
The reason being the suburban school boasting a renowned basketball program that the two want to be a part of. Predominantly composed of white students, the teenagers who have dreams of achieving NBA stardom try their best to become a part of the game in spite of facing numerous social and physical obstacles.
The documentary, which sheds light on racial inequality, cultural assimilation, and the challenges of being outsiders, paints a nuanced picture of their journey, highlighting the resilience and strength required to pursue dreams amidst adversity.