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Eleanor Ringel Cater

In spirit of March Madness, my favorite basketball movies

By Eleanor RIngel Cater

For the longest time, the term “March Madness” had no real meaning for me.

At best, it summoned up Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter (loony from the dye fumes) and March Hare (loony with love). But basketball?

Well, as time went by, March Madness got me. Mostly due to the obsessive affection of one David Secrest, but there are others: My cousin Jane, Janet Ward, Jack Wilkinson…

So, why not go with the flow? Two men known as much for their fan passion as their movies have both brought roundball to the Big Screen: in 1971, Jack Nicholson made his directorial debut with “Drive He Said,” about a college player. Spike Lee tossed an anti-Celtics jab into “Do the Right Thing,” but basketball was his entire focus in “He Got Game,” a father-son conflict starring Denzel Washington.

Disney added Fred McMurray and Flubber to the mix in “The Absent-Minded Professor.” Michael Fox got furry in “Teen Wolf.”

But what movies do I think are worth a look, whether they are entirely successful or not? Here’s my Final 4:


Probably the best movie about basketball — and possibly about sports — ever made. Three hours of basketball may sound like, oh, 2 1/2 hours too much for non-fans. But trust me, this extraordinary documentary is about a whole lot more than backboards and rebounds.

Filmmakers Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert deliver a richly observed, superbly nuanced slice of the American dream — a film that uses the particular arena of NBA-prospect high school and college basketball to explore and reflect a larger American experience.

We meet Arthur Agee and William Gates when they are barely 14. Both have spent their short lives on the bottle-strewn, drug-dealing courts of inner-city Chicago. Both have exceptional ability, which gets them recruited by St. Joseph’s, a well-to-do suburban high school whose main claim to jock fame is that it spawned Isaiah Thomas.

To say much more would spoil the film’s precious, true-to-life unpredictability. In a lot of ways, it recalls a documentary series by Michael Apted called “7-Up,” only compacted into only 4 years for these NBA hopefuls.

And HOPE is the operative word here — hope prolonged, hope betrayed, hope turned upside-down and inside-out. This terrific film scores a slam-dunk for showing us the rules of the game, on and off the court.


I may like this more for its title than anything else. Still this was Ron Shelton’s follow-up to the classic “Bull Durham.”

While it didn’t do for basketball what that movie did for baseball, it’s not a bad jock comedy. Wesley Snipes—remember HIM? — and Woody Harrelson, who just gets more interesting as the years pass, are hot-shot hustlers who run scams on inner-city basketball courts based on the notion that the dopey-looking white guy (that’s Harrelson) can’t possibly be any good.

The movie is long on jive talk and smooth moves, short on character (compared to the incomparable Susan Sarandon in “Bull Durham,” the women here are beyond pathetic; they’re nasty money-grubbing shrews who trade sex for power…hey, wait a minute…)

Then, the female gender is redeemed (supposedly) by a kind of Jeopardy ex-Machina, in which Harrelson’s girlfriend’s knowledge of basketball trivia saves everybody’s day. I think the movie is interesting as a kind of period piece (early ‘90s). And as I said, the title is irresistible.


The theme of this flashily effective film is as old as the Bible: what profits a man if he wins the NCAA championship but loses his soul? Or, to paraphrase one famous sports saying, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you love the game.

Nick Nolte recently Oscar-nominated for “The Warrior” is at the top of his game as a driven but decent college coach, coming off his first losing season.

Desperate for some “blue chip” prospects, he reluctantly looks the other way when a few fat-cat alums make the proper arrangements to woo a trio of rookies (one of them played by Shaqille O’Neal; it’s the early ‘90s) Another Ron Shelton picture—at the time he was still Hollywood’s reigning jock laureate — and directed with high spirits by has-been (even then) William Friedkin of “The Exorcist” fame — the movie isn’t, perhaps, as deep or disturbing as it might have been.

Still, it’s as addictively watchable and as slickly played as, well, the Final Four.


The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye in this tale of the little Indiana team that could. Even so, director David Anspaugh invests this simple, well-acted picture with a rock-bottom authenticity.

The year is 1951 and the place is rural Indiana, where the Friday night game is more than a matter of mere sport.

It’s a focal point for a town’s self-worth…and this was made in 1988, a LONG time before “Friday Night Lights.” Anyway, Gene Hackman is the new coach in a hick burg named Hickory, looking for a second chance for himself and a state championship for his underdog team. Hmmmmm…Friday night Hoops?

The movie deals heavily in ‘50s nostalgia according to the late ‘80s. That is, anti-60s and early ‘70s. It manifests a longing for a time when high school sports was about playing the game…something I’m not so sure is longed for anymore.

In a sense, what “Hoosiers” says about the fortunes of the Hickory Huskers is as quaintly dated as its creaky scoreboards. Or, so it was. Now it seems oddly modern.

Perhaps scarily so. The actor who made the most hay out of this wasn’t Hackman, but Dennis Hopper, overacting like, well, a Mad Hatter as a mad dad (as in angry, mostly). He was aiming for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. “Entertainment Tonight” even went to his home at some ungodly hour to watch the nominee announcements.

To Hopper’s on-screen confusion, he did get a best supporting nod. But not for “Hoosiers.” Rather, he was recognized for a film I don’t think will ever seem quaint: “Blue Velvet.”

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.



  1. BraveJacket May 4, 2012 11:36 pm

    Perhaps overlooked was the Robby Benson movie (maybe from the 70s) “One on One?”  I know its an oldie…and MAYBE a “goodie.”Report

  2. Davit Anspaugh May 1, 2018 10:26 am

    Dennis Hopper was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, for, HOOSIERS. Kind words about the film, but his “overacting” earned him a nomination that should have rightly earned him the statue! Gotta do your homework.
    David Anspaugh
    Director of HoosiersReport


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