Sunday , Oct , 21 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

Hardwood and Cellulose: Basketball in ’90s Cinema

Numerous movies that find large success at the box-office are sports-related films. Often they are based on inspiring themes such as determination, will to succeed, and overcoming difficult odds to rise above the competition and find self-realization and fulfillment. On other occasions, they can depict the life of a magnetic sports figure and all his or her dynamism and/or their personal conflicts and issues. As one of the world’s premier sports, basketball has been a predominant theme in a large sum of contemporary and classic theatrical features.

“He Got Game”, a 1998 drama written and directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington and Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics, is the rare basketball film that manages to deal with complex moral and emotional issues in addition to showing high-quality basketball action.  Based on the story of a convicted-felon and former basketball star father trying to reconcile with his estranged son, who is regarded as the best high school basketball player in the country, the film succeeds on many levels.  First of all, from its opening montage with people of different races and backgrounds playing basketball in diverse parts of the world, it is clear that Spike Lee appreciates and respects the game of basketball.  A lifelong fan of the New York Knicks, many of his films contain references to certain aspects of the basketball world.  Throughout “He Got Game”, he presents the viewers with a complete look at the pressures a young star athlete has to deal with on a daily basis.  Aside from the choice of going to college (and therefore having to choose which one to attend) or declaring for the NBA draft, he also has to decide if he should get an agent, what offers to listen to, and has to be able to discern who is really concerned with serving his best interest.  As if that was not enough, his father has come back into his life, and now he has to come to terms with his past and learn to accept the man he lost all love and respect for.   

A more lighthearted example of a basketball movie is the 1991 comedy “White Men Can’t Jump”.  Its title works at grabbing the attention of the non-basketball-following public, yet it also accommodates basketball fans, who, fully aware of the stereotype (some would say reality) that Caucasian males are not as athletic as their African-American counterparts, would consider it humorous and would probably want to see what the film is about.  It centers around the life of two street basketball players who participate in playground games in which money is at stake.  One of these men, played by Woody Harrelson, takes advantage of the fact that he is a white man to make black players think that he lacks basketball skills, which he in fact has in abundance.  Wesley Snipes’ character sees this and decides to team with him in order to get a piece of the action.  Most of the films laughs come as a result of seeing these two men of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds interact in hostile yet silly situations.  The quality of basketball that is played in the film is of note too, as both Snipes and Harrelson proved to be talented players more than capable of putting on an entertaining athletic display for casual moviegoers and basketball fans alike. 

Few films of any kind are as all-encompassing as the1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams”, perhaps the most celebrated of all basketball-related motion pictures.  Filmed over five years, the cameras follow two high-school players from inner-city Chicago in their journey to establish themselves as top players destined for college and NBA careers.  Throughout their journey, they face many hardships that would make any less-driven person quit, such as violence, poverty, family-related drama, and poor academic performance.  The film ultimately accomplishes to present a realistic and gripping example of how the sport can be used as a tool to improve one’s situation and how it resembles life itself with both its triumphs and adversity. 

Many similarities exist between sports and cinema.  The primary purpose of both is to entertain a group people, and they provoke spontaneous reactions to situations that can leave a profound emotional impact.  Therefore, a marriage between these two mediums is only natural, and in occasions such as the three presented in this article, produce relevant and enduring artistic achievements.