March Radness: Best in Basketball Films


America’s Finest City has a spotty record when it comes to basketball. San Diego State was robbed of a birth at the NCAA Tournament and ended up looking dominant in the NIT. Does college basketball really need two tournaments? Around 100 college teams line up to play to determine who is the best team in the country and who was the best of the second-tier teams that got invited to the NIT and relegated to ESPN12, which is only available on your Roku device. But I digress. The Aztecs are awesome, but big time hoops has had a record of failure here, which is sad. It’s a great game.

I have fond memories of seeing the San Diego Conquistadors play in the American Basketball Association after the NBA San Diego Rockets left town under the cover of night and headed for Houston. I loved the three-point shot, the red, white and blue ball and the always lousy Conquistadors. Even when they were renamed the Sails (horrible nickname and their logo was not nearly as cool), I would see them whenever I could. Caldwell Jones was amazing to watch, but the Sports Arena was always near empty.

After the ABA folded like a tent in a hurricane, we got the abysmal Buffalo Braves, renamed them the Clippers and we had Swen Nater and Lloyd (or World B.) Free, the Prince of Mid-Air. Both were fun to watch, but then came Donald Sterling, the hideous jerk who plastered his face on the sides of buses and promised to make San Diego proud of our team. Then he moved the team to Los Angeles. He turned out to be an even bigger, and callously racist, jerk than most of us thought. Maybe we got the better end of that deal after-all. What we are left with is a series of great basketball movies and my beloved Aztecs. It’s easier to get a movie ticket, so enjoy.



Hoosiers (1986)

David vs. Goliath. On a basketball court. Redemption. With Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper. Hackman is Norman Dale, a basketball coach who once hit one of his players and destroyed his career. Directed by David Anspaugh, “Hoosiers” is a story of redemption and hope. Dale comes to town and divides the locals take basketball seriously in a state that takes basketball as somewhat of a religion. Based on real life coach Marvin Wood who guided the 1954 Milan High School basketball team to an upset victory and the state championship.



The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979)

The Pittsburgh Pythons are woefully bad. Bad and desperate. So desperate they turn to a mystic, Stockard Channing dressed as 70’s-era Stevie Nicks to help a team comprised of all Pisces (the astrological sign, naturally). Okay, it is as horrid as it sounds, but Julius “Dr. J” Erving is was and always will be a work of art when he has a basketball in his hands. Not a bad actor either. There are roles filled by James Bond III, Jonathan Winters, Flip Wilson, Meadowlark Lemon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Norm Nixon and Marv Albert have cameos.




The team

Glory Road (2006)

The well-made and historic true story of the Texas Western College Miners men’s basketball team. In 1966, they were the first all African-American starting lineup of players to take a Division I national championship, winning the NCAA tournament title, beating the all white University of Kentucky 72–65. Josh Lucas is better than he usually is as Hall of Famer Don Haskins, the coach who changed the history of college basketball. There’s funny bits, seeing kids from New York settle into life in West Texas downright amusing, as well as real drama. There’s also the mother of one of the players showing up to his classes to make sure he has done his homework. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the world began to change. Jon Voight as Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp is just as creepy as real-life Jon Voight.



Drive, He Said (1972)

A well-made film and the directorial debut of Jack Nicholson. It centers around an Ohio basketball star being pressured to quit playing games and take up campus activism. Bruce Dern looked old and intense even back in 1972. He’s very good here as the coach. Even if plenty of the dialogue is dated, the basketball action is great and it is a film worth watching. Featuring William Tepper, Karen Black, Michael Margotta and David Ogden Stiers.



The Harlem Globetrotters On Gilligan’s Island (1980)

It’s a movie with Bob Denver, The Harlem Globetrotters and someone who is definitely not Tina Louise. What more do you need to know?



One On One (1977)

There was a time when someone in Hollywood thought it would be a great idea to make Robby Benson a sex symbol. We as a society need to hunt this person down and force them to watch this film. Benson is Henry Steele, a small town boy with big dreams of being a college hoops star. His plans are foiled by a tough coach, corruption and the big time. Or are they? Also featuring Annette O’Toole, G.D.Spradlin, Gail Strickland and Melanie Griffith.




Hoop Dreams was eventually given the Criterion treatment

Hoop Dreams (1994)

There was more than a little controversy that “Hoop Dreams” did not get nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. The simple fact is, director Steve James and ”Hoop Dreams” were robbed. As a result of the slight, the rules were changed to allow documentary filmmakers to vote in that category. It’s the true story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two young men chasing athletic scholarships at Catholic High School and dreaming of the NBA. It does not flinch from pressing academic, sociological or religious issues or the blight that was Cabrini-Green. There is plenty of insight into the cutthroat process of high school and college recruitment. Cameos by Bobby Knight, Spike Lee, Isaiah Thomas, Dick Vitale and pretty much anybody who has ever said the words “basket” or “ball” together or separate.



Space Jam (1996)

Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny save the world. Well, sort of save the world. Smarmy interstellar tycoon Swackhammer is the owner of Moron Mountain, an amusement park/planet and he is desperate get new attractions. He dispatches his underlings to Earth to snatch Bugs, Daffy Duck and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang. In desperation, a deal is struck: A basketball game with their freedom on the line. Kind of like Chess against the Grim Reaper in “The Seventh Seal.” Except “Space Jam” has His Royal Airness and Bill Murray. With Wayne Knight, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Muggsy Bogues, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson.



Teen Wolf (1985)

Not every movie can be “Citizen Kane.” But if a movie knows it is never going to make a critic’s Top Ten list, it might as well be fun. Michael J. Fox is his typical every-teen self, who happens to be a werewolf. Rob Daniel directed this slightly amusing diversion. It is worth noting that an extra wearing a red sweater can be seen toward the end of the film with an unzipped fly. Despite the Internet rumor that the extra is a man exposing himself, it is a woman whose pants were too tight, so she unbuttoned and unzipped them. I am shocked that you cannot believe everything you read on the internet.



Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987)

A little league pitcher becomes a media sensation when he quits the team until all nuclear weapons are destroyed. In the days before Twitter and all other social media, nationwide notoriety on this level was a rare and unique happening. Alex English plays Boston Celtic star Amazing Grace Smith who joins him. English pulls off the role in fine fashion. Celtics coaching legend Red Auerbach has a cameo. Also starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Gregory Peck, William L. Peterson, Joshua Zuehlke, Dennis Lipscomb and Lee Richardson.



Tall Story (1960)

This film serves a few functions: it is the film debut of both Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Fonda plays Jane Ryder, a serious college student who falls for Custer College star Ray Blent (Anthony Perkins). Another function is it shows how bad an athlete Perkins is, though he looked more awkward in “Fear Strikes Out.” Blent is in love, insecure and wants to marry Ryder. The issue gets clouded when a shady man offers him gobs of cash to throw a game. Redford has a small, uncredited, role as a basketball player. Joshua Logan’s directorial style seems adequate but uninspired. With Ray Walston, Marc Connelly, Anne Jackson, Murray Hamilton.



Maurie (1973)

Based on the true story of Cincinnati Royals star and 1958 Rookie of the Year Maurice Stokes (Bernie Casey, believable and subtle) and his battle with paralysis. A tragic accidental blow to the head derails his career and upends his life. There’s a solid performance by Bo Svenson as Jack Twyman, Stokes’ teammate who dedicated himself to Stokes’ rehab. Slow-paced, but not dull. A worthy, rewarding film. The film was re-released with a very altered ending.



Fast Break (1979)

A College coach (Gabe Kaplan) recruits New York street players in an attempt to breathe life into a horrid Nevada college team. Kaplan is in fine Mr. Kotter form, dispensing wisdom to his team full of misfits, a criminal and a girl, Mavis Washington, who pretends to be a boy to play on the team. Laurence Fishburne has a moment or two on screen, blink and you miss him. It’s actually an enjoyable film about coming together as a team, becoming a better person and learning what you are capable of accomplishing.




Ray Allen went on to become a championship caliber NBA player

He Got Game (1998)

Spike Lee never lets you forget you are watching a Spike Lee film. “He Got Game” is a very good, if somewhat long, film directed by Spike Lee as a show of Spike Lee’s amazing ability to craft a Spike Lee Joint that lets the world know Spike Lee has an immense talent that is Spike Lee’s gift to the world. It is also a Spike Lee film that has Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Milla Jovovich and Rosario Dawson and an emotional story about an ex-con trying to reconnect with and inspire his talented but damaged and bitter son. Spike Lee uses flashbacks and points out the immense pressure on young athletes in a world that owes a debt of gratitude to Spike Lee for gracing us with his Herculean strength at telling a story as only Spike Lee can. With cameos by Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal. Did I mention this is a Spike Lee film?



Pistol: The Birth of a Legend (1991)

Pistol Pete Maravich was a unique individual. He was a star basketball player throughout high school, college and the NBA. If ESPN had been around when he played, kids would be wearing Air Maravich shoes. Pistol Pete was flashy on court and a the film focuses on 1959, the year he made the high school varsity team as an eighth-grader. Maravich died tragically from a heart attack in 1988 at age 40. Plenty of subtle acting from Adam Guier, Millie Perkins, Nick Benedict and Boots Garland.



Rebound (1996)

Don Cheadle is one of the most talented actors working. He shines in “Rebound,” a film about New York playground legend Earl, “The Goat” Manigault. Directed by TV vet Eric La Salle, the cast is loaded with talent and everybody digs into their roles. James Earl Jones, Michael Beach, Clarence Williams III, and Forest Whitaker could have stood in front of the camera talking about the weather and this would still be a brilliant film. It’s the true story of Manigault, who lost his opportunity at NBA stardom because he loved one thing more than shooting hoops: drugs. He did get a tryout in 1971 with the ABA Utah Stars, but did not make the team. Instead, he sobered up and helped his community, running an Inner City drug program and making a difference. He did so until he died of heart failure in 1998. Many films manufacture drama to lure viewers in; “Rebound” merely has to put Cheadle in front of the camera and watch a genius create a character that is at times detestable, but in the end, he is downright inspirational.


Author: Barry Benintende

Barry has spent his entire adult life watching movies, listening to music and finding people gullible enough to pay him to do so. As the former Executive Editor of the La Jolla Light, Editor of the South County Mail, Managing Editor of D-Town, Founder and Editor of sQ Magazine, Managing Editor of Kulture Deluxe, and Music Critic for San Diego Newsline, you would figure his writing would not be so epically dull. He has also written for the San Diego Reader, the Daily Californian, the Marshfield Mail, Cinemanian and too many other papers and magazines that have been consigned to the dustbin of history. A happily-married father of two sons and a daughter, Barry has an unhealthy addiction to his hometown San Diego Padres and the devotion of his feisty Westie, Adie. Buy him a cup of coffee and he can spend an evening regaling you with worthless music or baseball trivia. Buy him two and you’ll never get rid of him.

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