One knock on this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament—aside from the absence of Wayne Tinkle’s crew—is the lack of Cinderella stories. March Madness looked more like March Milquetoast for those who cherish upsets.
No matter. When it comes to basketball films, Hollywood offers enough big studio air balls—Semi-Pro, Eddie, Glory Road, etc.—to help the occasional small-budget underdog rise to prominence. With this weekend’s Final Four set for Detroit, we look at five films worth watching before tip-off.
Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot (2008)
Beastie Boy Adam Yauch cut his documentary filmmaking teeth with Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! In that 2006 effort, Yauch handed a bunch of fans hand-held digital cameras before a Beasties show at Madison Square Garden and told them to film whatever they wanted. That could have been a train wreck, but the edited results turned out a solid film, and an especially visceral perspective for fans of the band.
Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot follows a more traditional approach than Awesome, but offers a similarly intimate viewpoint for hoops fans. Yauch follows eight of the best high school basketball players in the country as they prepare for and compete in a playground all-star game at Harlem’s famed Rucker Park. The footage on the court plays like an And 1 mix-tape—tons of high-flying dunks, no-look passes and dizzying dribbling displays caught from multiple camera angles. Yauch doesn’t dig deep off the court, but we see a little of how today’s NBA rookies, including Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Jerryd Bayless, adapted to premature stardom at age 17.
The best parts of Gunnin’, howerver, come from the soundtrack. M.I.A.’s “Amazon,” Jay-Z’s “My 1st Song,” the Staples Singers’ “Let’s Do It Again” and Kool and the Gang’s “Hollywood Swingin’” make up a fraction of the film’s perfectly placed tracks. Inexplicably, Yauch hasn’t posted a complete play list or released an official soundtrack, meaning you’ll have to watch the movie to hear it all.
The Heart of the Game (2005)
Whenever Montana PBS holds its annual pledge drive, it seems two things run in constant rotation: something with John Denver and the moving 2008 documentary about Montana women’s high school basketball, Class C. And good for them—on the Class C part, at least. I still have trouble turning away from the documentary, and I’ve seen it now at least seven times.
The Heart of the Game captures a similar intensity and meaning as Class C, but in a completely different context. Here, a laid-back college tax law professor, Bill Resler, moonlights as the eccentric coach of a Seattle high school women’s team. On one hand, Resler’s a bit over-the-top—he inspires the women by likening them to a school of piranhas or pack of wolves, telling them to hunt down opponents and “sink your teeth in their necks!” On the other hand, he’s a folksy goofball who’s able to keep his team’s passion to win in check with more worldly responsibilities. That comes in handy as Resler’s two best players—one graduating senior, one freshman phenom—face sobering real-world challenges.
Director Ward Serrill spent seven years filming the team, providing an uncommon depth to this story. Consider it a contemporary re-make of the best basketball film ever made, Hoop Dreams.
He Got Game (1998)
It’s hard to call a Spike Lee joint starring Denzel Washington an underdog, but critics cried foul when this big-budget basketball drama was first released. At the time, Lee seemed to portray high school and college basketball the same way Oliver Stone portrayed Vietnam. But this film stands up over time, especially the raw acting of real-life NBA star Ray Allen as Jesus Shuttlesworth, Washington’s son and a prized recruit searching for his identity. I’d actually rather watch this than the presumed Godfather of basketball films, Hoosiers.
Don’t Nobody Love the Game More Than Me (2002)
This short indie film by New York’s Martha Pinson starts with the last point of a pick-up game between four middle-aged black men on an outdoor court. What follows over the next 10 minutes is an inspiring philosophical debate disguised as the most naturally lyrical trash talk you’ve ever heard. It’s worth paying the five bucks to download this short from indiepix.net.
Whatever Happened to Michael Ray? (2000)
Local Griz fans probably know the answer: Michael Ray “Sugar” Richardson, the most talented men’s basketball player ever at the University of Montana, rebounded from a drug-filled NBA career and eventual ban to become a star in European leagues. This award-winning documentary, narrated by comic Chris Rock, follows Richardson’s dramatic rise—Larry Bird and Magic Johnson both praise his natural abilities—and frustrating fall.
The old footage reinforces just how incredible Richardson was on a basketball court, physically dominating on offense and wildly disruptive on defense. But the most telling parts come when former teammates speak bluntly about Richardson’s unpredictable behavior, like when he disappeared for weeks at a time during the season.
The film doesn’t gloss over the problems, but leans heavily toward Richardson’s eventual reinstatement by the league and his success playing into his 40s in Italy. A heartening postscript: Richardson now coaches in the United States, most recently leading Oklahoma’s fledgling CBA franchise to consecutive championships.