The 21 Best Basketball Movies Ever

Let's face it: For the most part, basketball movies are bad. It's such a beautiful game, filled with such balletic human athleticism, that it seems like a natural fit for cinema. And yet, there are only a handful of great basketball films, and only one real masterpiece.

The reason for the relatively low quality, even compared to football films, seems to be that most serious directors aren't big fans of the game. Spike Lee is the only notable exception. Basketball is otherwise largely a backdrop for mediocre comedies, like Billy Crystal's "Forget Paris," or Whoopi Goldberg's even more forgettable "Eddie." Even Will Ferrell couldn't make the game all that amusing in his ode to the funky pre-NBA-merger era, "Semi-Pro."

The best basketball films understand the inherent drama of the most competitive sport on Earth. True basketball talent is worth more money than any other athletic skill, and most players who lace up know they're not in this elite running. And yet, the game is so accessible that its magic is available to everyone. If you have two shoes, a ball, and a neighborhood park, it's game on. On the court, it's easy to catch yourself dreaming, counting down the seconds to the buzzer-beating shot that exists only in your head ... and when you make it, the crowd goes wild! These films capture that feeling, which only basketball can provide.

Many of these films deal with drug or alcohol addiction. If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Above The Rim

"Above the Rim" isn't good, exactly, but Tupac Shakur only made six films as an actor. None of them are great, but his screen presence is undeniable. Here, Shakur leverages the sinister side of his oversized charisma as Birdie, a gang member, drug dealer, and streetball coach. He wants a talented neighborhood kid with aspirations of playing college ball, Kyle (Duane Martin), to join his squad for a big outdoor tournament. When Kyle refuses, however, Birdie's retaliation goes way beyond hard fouls on the court. This is a violent, bullet-riddled melodrama, but it evokes the intensity of elite streetball culture, which does sometimes intersect with organized crime.

  • Starring: Duane Martin, Leon, Tupac Shakur
  • Director: Jeff Pollak
  • Year: 1994
  • Runtime: 93 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 50%

The Basketball Diaries

The film adaptation of Jim Caroll's memoir, "The Basketball Diaries," stars a young Leonardo DiCaprio as the student-athlete, whose promising basketball career was cut short by drug addiction. DiCaprio isn't much of an athlete, and the b-ball scenes will recall the moments in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" where editing is used to make Will Smith look like he's dominating high school hoops. 

The real Carroll became addicted to heroin at 13, and the film uses basketball to portray Jim's physical decline, particularly in a scene where he and a teammate (Mark Wahlberg) mix up their pills and play while zonked out on downers. At times, "The Basketball Diaries" can feel like a '90s D.A.R.E. speech, but this cautionary tale is true, and it's soundly anchored by one of Hollywood's true greats before "Titanic" made him into a megastar.

  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruno Kirby, Lorraine Bracco
  • Director: Scott Kalvert
  • Year: 1995
  • Runtime: 102 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 47%

Blue Chips

"Blue chips" is the nickname that Western University coach Pete Bell (Nick Nolte) gives to elite high school prospects that he just can't get his hands on. His fortunes change, however, when he's approached by a crooked booster who convinces him to get into the pay-for-play recruitment game. Soon, Bell has landed the two hottest young stars available, played by real-life NBA duo Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway. Pete will, of course, pay for succumbing to the pressure, as one sporting sin begets another. This 1994 film plays a little differently today than it did on release, as modern changes no longer bar amateur athletes from earning some (meager) compensation from the universities that make millions from their labor.

  • Starring: Nick Nolte, Mary McDonnell, Shaquille O'Neal
  • Director: Rod Daniel
  • Year: 1994
  • Runtime: 108 minutes
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 37%

Coach Carter

Samuel L. Jackson's tough-guy movie persona makes him a great fit to play the no-nonsense basketball coach to a team of troubled teens, and with 2005's "Coach Carter," he seized the day. Carter turns around the squad at his high school alma mater, but when they start slacking off in class, he shuts down a successful season, locks them in the gym, and brings them to the ultimate school of hard knocks. Pro hoop dreams are usually just a fantasy, and this is a coach who understands that after-school athletics are mostly about providing kids with the structure they need to stay on the straight and narrow. "Coach Carter" is formulaic and too long, but Jackson makes it work.

  • Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Richard, Rob Brown
  • Director: Thomas Carter
  • Year: 2005
  • Runtime: 136 minutes
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%

Finding Forrester

With "Finding Forrester,"  "Good Will Hunting" director Gus Van Sant tells another story about hidden genius. Sean Connery plays reclusive novelist William Forrester, who has hidden away in his New York apartment following the publication of his seminal masterpiece. He's basically J.D. Salinger, but Connery cuts more of a Hemingway-like figure. At any rate, Forrester's gray paternalism comes in handy when he begins mentoring talented Bronx basketball star Jamal (Rob Brown); when the authenticity of Jamal's written work comes into question, the unlikely friendship might just save them both.

  • Starring: Sean Connery, Rob Brown, F. Murray Abraham
  • Director: Gus Van Sant
  • Year: 2000
  • Runtime: 133 minutes
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%

Glory Road

Critics bashed "Glory Road," a sentimental 2006 film about the first all-Black starting lineup to play in the NCAA championship. Audiences, however, quite liked affable good-ol'-boy Josh Lucas as Don Haskins, the coach of Texas Western, who led the team's run for the title in 1966. Racial tensions mount as Haskins recruits and favors Black players, and instructs them to compete with a modern style that begins getting real results. The final showdown against a team of exclusively white players hits too many predictable notes, and the film wildly overstates the efficacy of emotional speeches during time-outs. Real coaches bark orders and draw up plays — that's all there's really time for. But this film isn't trying to be more than a basketball melodrama, and it's about a team that's worth remembering.

  • Starring: Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, Austin Nichols
  • Director: James Gartner
  • Year: 2006
  • Runtime: 117 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%

He Got Game

"He Got Game" is not so much a basketball movie as a religious experience. Director Spike Lee has spent a lifetime courtside at the Garden, aka the Mecca of basketball, watching the hapless New York Knickerbockers. His frustrations on the sidelines, though, have not hampered his love for the game. In "He Got Game," NBA great Ray Allen, who had absolutely no acting experience before filming, stars as Jesus Shuttlesworth. He's a basketball god about to make it big, but his cheating girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) and convict father (Denzel Washington) are both complicating his rise. "He Got Game" is operatic in its ambition, and uses this solemn tone to illustrate the weight resting on the shoulders of a generational basketball messiah.

  • Starring: Denzel Washington, Ray Allen, Rosario Dawson
  • Director: Spike Lee
  • Year: 1998
  • Runtime: 134 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%

High Flying Bird

One of the great American directors, Steven Soderbergh, takes an interest in the business side of the NBA in "High Flying Bird." The film follows the social media travails endured by a fresh draft pick, but really, this is a boardroom drama about NBA agent Ray Burke (André Holland), whose job prospects dim during a lockout as the players and league owners play off-the-court hardball. Against this backdrop, Burke must devise a scheme to get himself and his rookie client back to work. Soderbergh shot this 2019 film entirely on an iPhone, and the cheap look is its weakest element, particularly given the movie's business-oriented themes. Still, Holland is excellent in this rare effort at a serious look into the business of basketball.

  • Starring: Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz, Bill Duke
  • Director: Steven Soderbergh
  • Year: 2019
  • Runtime: 90 minutes
  • Rating: TV-MA
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%

Hoop Dreams

follows two talented inner-city Chicago ballplayers through prep school and into the college recruitment process. Both William Gates and Arthur Agee dream of NBA glory, but both struggle with the grind of high school games, family life, and academics. Arthur and William have compelling backstories, and were picked as subjects for their talent. And yet, in an indication of how impossible the "hoop dream" really is, neither ever sniffed professional success. This nearly three-hour film is one of the most remarkable documents of this beautiful game you'll ever see.

Starring: Steve James, William Gates, Arthur Agee

Director: Rod Daniel

Year: 1994

Runtime: 174 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%


In "Hoosiers," Gene Hackman plays a former college basketball coach, Norman Dale, with a checkered past. An old friend hires him to coach a high school team for the 1952 season, and he's soon tasked with shaping up a dismal team in a basketball-crazy town in rural Indiana. The squad loses their best player when Dale brings on a local drunk (Dennis Hopper) as an assistant coach, and Dale's unorthodox methods nearly have him pushed out the door before his defensive-minded, disciplinary approach starts paying dividends; the team ends up making a Cinderella run through the state tournament. This is the ultimate underdog sports movie.

  • Starring: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper
  • Director: David Anspaugh
  • Year: 1986
  • Runtime: 114 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%

The Last Dance

Let's not split hairs by calling this a miniseries. ESPN Films makes films, and this incredibly engrossing movie about the last ride of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in 1998 is the best NBA documentary ever made. "The Last Dance" delves into the entirety of Jordan's incomparable career, from his explosion into the league in the late 1980s to his utter domination of global sports culture through the 1990s. What really sets it apart, though, are the interviews with Jordan, former teammates, and ex-Bulls employees. It all gets inside the pathologically competitive mind of basketball's true GOAT. Jordan's physical gifts were overwhelming on their own, but his psychological edge is almost terrifying to behold, and his former rivals still seem shaken by the experience of playing against him.

  • Starring: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman
  • Director: Jason Hehir
  • Year: 2020
  • Runtime: 500 minutes
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%

Love & Basketball

When the credits roll on "Love & Basketball," you realize that you aren't quite done hanging out with these characters. Spike Lee produced this movie, but it was written and directed by veteran TV creator Gina Prince-Bythewood, and marks her feature film debut. Quincy (Omar Epps) and Monica (Sanaa Lathan) are childhood friends who form a bond over a surprisingly competitive game of one-on-one. They both dream of being pros, but while Quincy has an easy road ahead of him — his father is already a Clipper, and he seems destined for stardom — Monica's path is much rockier. Over time, their ambitions tear them apart, but the game always brings them back together. "Love & Basketball" is low-budget and treacly, but the fantasy of finding a partner who shares your passion is irresistible. 

Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Alfre Woodard

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Year: 2000

Runtime: 124 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%

More than a Game

"More than a Game" is ostensibly about LeBron James and his "rag-tag" high school squad in Akron, Ohio as they fight their way through the state championships. If you're familiar with LeBron's pro career, you know that he has dragged some seriously motley crews of pros to NBA titles, so you can imagine how this story goes. The more interesting insights in this film might be secondary to the filmmaker's hype-video intentions: LeBron's era of prep-school ball saw a serious escalation of the national media's habit of descending on a "chosen" teenager to be basketball's next great savior. James handled it well, but few are similarly well-equipped for that kind of pressure.

  • Starring: LeBron James, Dru Joyce, Romeo Travis
  • Director: Kristopher Belman
  • Year: 2008
  • Runtime: 105 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 71%

The Other Dream Team

There is no better example of American basketball dominance than the United States' 1992 Olympic squad, which was dubbed "The Dream Team." Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and the rest utterly embarrassed the rest of the world en route to earning gold, but there was also a scrappy Lithuanian squad that fought its way to a bronze medal, a journey that's documented in "The Other Dream Team." Lithuania lost by 50 points to the U.S. in the semi-finals, but that's not really too shabby, especially given that the eastern European country had just won its independence after the collapse of The Soviet Union. The Grateful Dead actually funded this underdog's trip to Barcelona, and the team arrived in tie-dye warm-up gear. Their dream was simply to compete as free people after decades behind the Iron Curtain.

  • Starring: Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis
  • Director: Marius A. Markevičius
  • Year: 2012
  • Runtime: 88 minutes
  • Rating: NR
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%

Quantum Hoops

There really isn't anything more fun on planet Earth than organized five-on-five basketball, even if you're not actually any good. The documentary "Quantum Hoops" follows the 2006 division three Caltech Beavers basketball team and its efforts to break an almost unfathomable 26-year losing streak; the squad features five seniors who didn't even suit up in high school. However, this mathematically astute group notices that their losing margins are narrowing from 60 points per game to just 29. That's when the double-dribbling physicists and various valedictorians begin to eye a soft spot on their schedule and plot their historic upset.

  • Starring: Jonathan Bird, David Duchovny, Brett Bush
  • Director: Rick Greenwald
  • Year: 2007
  • Runtime: 85 minutes
  • Rating: NR
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%

Rebound: The Legend of Earl the Goat

Basketball talent is a funny thing. You can be the best player that anyone has ever seen, and yet you may never even get an NBA workout. For the most part, the game favors height, and this film focuses on a streetball legend who was lacking in that department. In "Rebound," Don Cheadle plays the diminutive Earl, whose only shot against his elite contemporaries comes in a Harlem streetball tournament. Earl's equalizer was his gravity-defying vertical, but what brought him down to Earth was a crippling drug addiction. Earl's cult status helped popularize the now ubiquitous "GOAT" acronym, ("Greatest of All Time") and this TV-movie from HBO does a decent job of lionizing a local legend. 

  • Starring: Don Cheadle, James Earl Jones, Michael Beach
  • Director: Eriq La Salle
  • Year: 1996
  • Runtime: 111 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: N/A

Space Jam

Michael Jordan was working on his basketball comeback during the production of "Space Jam" and needed a place to train. The answer was a state-of-the-art facility built on the set called, informally, the Jordan Dome. It became a summer pickup spot for the best players on Earth, and started attracting a celebrity audience. Jordan's admirers were mystified as to how he could shoot a movie all day, lift weights, and then dominate these practice games. Doesn't this man sleep? The following season Jordan won the NBA title, and he trained for it all on set. 

The actual movie, which sees Jordan and Bugs Bunny take on aliens, isn't great, but for '90s kids, MJ was on our walls already. Watching him conquer space in addition to the NBA seemed too reasonable.

  • Starring: Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, Theresa Randle
  • Director: Joe Pytka
  • Year: 1996
  • Runtime: 87 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 44%

Teen Wolf

The extent to which kids today just won't vibe with "Teen Wolf" can be summed up by the long-running MTV series that's loosely based on this silly 1985 comedy. MTV's version is just "Twilight" with werewolves instead of vampires: horror visuals, lots of mythology, and plenty of high school-set melodrama. In the original film, though, Michael J. Fox charms as an ordinary and very undersized kid who plays on his struggling high school hoops team. When changes to his body come in the form of a transformation into a werewolf — it turns out that his father is cursed – he suddenly begins dominating the court and becomes the coolest kid in class. Puberty would be so much easier if it involved lycanthropy instead of just acne and awkwardness.

  • Starring: Michael J. Fox, James Hampton, Scott Paulin
  • Director: Rod Daniel
  • Year: 1985
  • Runtime: 88 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 42%

Uncut Gems

Admittedly, "Uncut Gems" is not strictly — or even mostly — a basketball movie. It's an anxiety-inducing crime-thriller about a degenerate gambler, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), who hocks jewels in New York's diamond district by day and leverages his whole life by betting on basketball by night. When NBA legend Kevin Garnett comes into his shop and takes an interest in a hunk of rare rocks, Howard sees a chance to make a score that could turn things around. But, of course, writer-director siblings the Safdie brothers make movies about men who break from bad to worse, and here they really run up the score against hapless Howard and his addiction.

  • Starring: Adam Sandler, LaKeith Stanfield, Julia Fox
  • Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
  • Year: 2019
  • Runtime: 135 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%

The Way Back

"The Way Back" almost didn't happen. As director Gavin O'Conner told 34th Street, Ben Affleck entered rehab during a crucial stage of pre-production, and exited it the day before shooting began to play a boozy former high school hoops star who gets a chance at redemption while coaching his alma mater. "People with compulsive behavior, and I am one, have this kind of basic discomfort all the time that they're trying to make go away," Affleck told the New York Times in 2020. Big Ben is one of the few Hollywood stars tall enough to convincingly play an ex-basketball phenom, but he's also lived this character's struggles, and as a result his performance transcends the film's somewhat formulaic story.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar

Director: Gavin O'Connor

Year: 2020

Runtime: 108 minutes

Rating: R

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%

White Men Can't Jump

There has always been racial tension in basketball. The sport may have been invented by a white Canadian, but it was innovative Black Americans who turned the game into the global phenomenon it has become. In "White Men Can't Jump," Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson play two hard-court hustlers in Los Angeles. They use Harrelson's awkwardness and the general assumption that, as the title says, white men can't jump to lure suckers into big streetball bets. Of course, Harrelson's Billy Hoyle can shoot the lights out, and he's slick with the pick-and-roll, too. However, as the money piles up, so does the duo's temptation to run the grift on one another.

  • Starring: Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, Rosie Perez
  • Director: Rob Shelton
  • Year: 1992
  • Runtime: 115 minutes
  • Rating: R
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 77%