Style - Kicks and Gear / May 28, 2010 / 11:00 am

Top 10 Best Basketball Documentaries Of All-Time

I think most fans will agree with me when I say basketball documentaries > basketball movies. Sports are obviously much easier to showcase authentically in this format. And yes, I did include three of ESPN’s 30 for 30 episodes. I didn’t really want to, but when breaking it all down, all three deserved a spot on this list. All 10 of these are special films, but none are touching the one in the top spot.

10. Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot
SUMMARY: Beastie Boy Adam Yauch does a fabulous job directing and editing this documentary. He uses a lot of the same weird camera techniques that can be seen in the Beastie Boys videos and they works. The content? It couldn’t be much better. Yauch follows eight high school All-Americans leading up to the inaugural 2006 Boost Mobile Elite 24 Hoops Classic in the famed Rucker Park. Some of his subjects, guys like Tyreke Evans and Michael Beasley, went on to become big-time NBA stars. In this film, you dive into their personal lives and see what makes them tick. Plus, the court action is predictably great.
BEST SCENE: When Beasley pulls another player’s pants down to their ankles in the middle of New York City. Goofball.

9. Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks
SUMMARY: Reggie Miller‘s chokehold on New York Knicks fans’ psyche is well documented. But, it was never done as well as Dan Klores did it for the ESPN 30 for 30 series. This film wasn’t just about one game, or even two. Yes, it covered in-depth Miller’s fourth quarter explosion in the 1994 playoffs and then his 8 points in 8 seconds the following year. But, the director also took time to set the stage for both teams: the style of each team and city, what made it such a heated rivalry and how Miller factored into that. This made me wish David Stern hadn’t resorted to wearing skirts.
BEST SCENE: The scene focused on Spike Lee‘s impact. It’s absolutely hilarious and kind of made me feel bad for Spike.

8. Soul In The Hole
SUMMARY: This is a relatively unknown film that follows one New York summer team around the city for the summer. “Kenny’s Kings” hail from Bedford-Stuyvesant and are anchored by a kid named Ed “Booger” Smith. Most will remember “Booger” from AND 1 games/tours and the old Streetball video game. In this video, it shows him in his own realm and includes him as a young kid, intent on being either an NBA player or a drug dealer (crazy). The team’s coach, Kenny Jones, is up and down in his behavior. Sometimes you get the feeling he has the kid’s best interests in mind. Other times, his ambitions get cloudy. He’s always funny though. This movie is kind of a loosely edited version of Through The Fire.
BEST SCENE: Some of the best basketball action ever in a movie. And don’t forget about some of the clips of a young Booger doing his thing.

7. Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals
SUMMARY: This HBO documentary debuted earlier this year. While the topic of discussion is played out, this show gets great quotes and interviews from the two stars. Plus, journalists in the know like Bryant Gumbel and Jackie MacMullan give their own outlook. While much of the story did focus on their NBA rivalry, the best and most interesting segments dive into the legends’ lives as teens and also their college years. Even after all the shows, books and movies documenting this great rivalry, this show may have actually topped them all.
BEST SCENE: When Bird let it be known that he really did hate Magic and refused to socialize or be friendly with him at first. Magic wanted to be friends; Bird didn’t. That scene alone gives you everything you need to see the differences between the two characters.

6. Without Bias
SUMMARY: It’s the case of the unknown. Most people, even some of the biggest hoopheads, don’t know much about or even saw Len Bias play. It doesn’t matter that many experts and NBA front office people pegged him as the piece to keep Boston’s dynasty brewing or that some people in the ACC thought of Bias as a more impressive player than Michael Jordan. He may never fully get his due as a player because of his untimely death. This ESPN 30 for 30 special may be his best shot. Dozens of well-known personalities and sports people spend most of the film gushing about Bias. And the director’s breakdown of that final fateful night is perfect. I was surprised most of the people who were actually in the room with Bias came forward to give specific details about what happened.
BEST SCENE: Bias’ interviews showing him with a positive outlook on life, talking about where he will be once he gets in the League and beyond. Very sad.

5. More Than A Game
SUMMARY: While offering up crazy home footage of LeBron James as a youngster, this documentary takes a look at what made not only ‘Bron, but also his entire high school team, a dynasty. While the film seems to focus a lot more on LeBron, and there is nothing wrong with that, it still attempts to keep its focus on more than just one person. The best part of the film is all of the never-before-seen footage of these kids as teens. It’s crazy to look at LeBron as a skinny, middle-school kid knowing that in just four years, he would develop into maybe the best high school player ever. Overall, this joint far exceeded the expectations many had for it.
BEST SCENE: Maybe not a particular scene, but all of the footage of these kids as eighth graders in the AAU Nationals is crazy. No way is the movie any good without a lot of that stuff.

4. Hooked: The Legend of Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell
SUMMARY: The first time I saw this, this short cat that was dunking with complete ease in the prison yards blew me away. He looked like he was aging in dog years, yet still had hops like Nate Robinson. Hooked is the story of Demetrius Mitchell, one of the greatest playground players ever. The film gains credibility from people like Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Brian Shaw, all NBA guys who grew up with “Hook” and admit he was better than all of them. Payton’s father adds a level of comedy to the movie. Another sad, “what could have been” tale, this can get boring in some segments. But, the actual dunking footage is crazy.
BEST SCENE: Watching Hook completely dominate a prison yard game, dunking repeatedly as a washed-up druggie. Realizing all of that, some of the outrageous stories told in the film become much more believable.

3. Through The Fire
SUMMARY: An internal look at what it means to be a famed high school basketball player on the brink of the NBA in the Mecca of hoops. Once upon a time, Sebastian Telfair was considered the next great thing and was being compared to NBA All-Stars. He broke the New York High School scoring record and had celebrities of all levels sitting courtside at his games. This documentary follows his final high school year, detailing not only the basketball side, but also the family side. As part of a basketball-breeding family, Telfair’s cousin is Stephon Marbury, the documentary brings to light the pressure Telfair faced under the weight of his name. What was once a 50-50 choice between college and turning pro eventually morphed into Telfair being basically forced into the Draft.
BEST SCENE: The great action between Telfair and Darius Washington during an ESPN televised high school regular season showcase. At the time, both looked like they were on paths to stardom. Looking back, it is kind of sad.

2. No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson
SUMMARY: I know it just came out and that it was first released as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, but this was very powerful. Plus, being that Iverson might be the face of the past decade in the NBA and one of the more polarizing athletes ever, the anticipation for this was crazy. He’s like an entity to himself. Everyone knew about this story and we all were just waiting on someone to tackle the topic. It didn’t disappoint at all and the director, the same guy who did Hoop Dreams, does a better than admirable job of getting both sides from people of all different backgrounds and classes. With it looking more and more like The Answer is done, I really needed this joint. Can we turn back time to 1996? Please?
BEST SCENE: Seeing the old Reebok commercials with Jewelz in them. Everyone remembers the Jadakiss collaborations, but even the other ones are classic.

1. Hoop Dreams
SUMMARY: This is the apex — the magnum opus — of all hoop films. Nothing comes close, nothing is even comparable. This is CLEARLY the best movie/documentary involving basketball ever. The scope of the movie is insane. Most documentaries, even other great ones, may follow a team for a season or a player through a trying time. This joint followed two kids, William Gates and Arthur Agee, from middle school to college. You see their best and their worst. William’s superstar recruitment, Arthur’s drug-abusing father, William’s knee injuries, Arthur’s rise to city fame…it’s all there and director Steve James editing is perfectly executed. Not only is the basketball action great, but the film takes a look at greater problems within society as a whole. Watching this movie as a hoop fan is like a rite of passage.
BEST SCENE: Arthur going back to his former school to see old friends and teachers who barely recognize him four years later. Also, Arthur and William finally meet up again, two former classmates whose disappointments resonate with the audience.

What do you think?

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  • Paul Mokeski

    Spot on with the ranking of the 30 for 30s. Haven’t seen some of these, but can’t deny the awesomeness of the Bias piece. Heartbreaking. Iverson was slightly better, which is to say really awesome/intense.

  • D A

    How about: 1 Love: A Tribute to Basketball in America

  • Promoman

    Can’t argue with Hoop Dreams being #1. That movie isn’t just the best basketball documentary, it’s one of the best movies period in the past 15 or so years. To this day, everytime the discussion of films that robbed of an Academy Award, Hoop Dreams is always at least a top 5-6 film if not the #1 movie. This movie is single-handedly responsible for the current nomination process for Academy Awards.

  • B-Rad

    What about Space Jam!?? lol

  • Sweet English

    I have never seen Hoop Dreams.

    I am ashamed.

    Anyone got an e-copy or a site i can download/stream it from?

  • Sweet English

    LOL @ B-Rad.

    Clearly a documentary. Moron Mountain hasnt been the same since.

  • http://diaryofatiredblackman.wordpress.com/ Cal

    I thought that Magic Bird one was earth shattering. So well done,, told an old story n a new way, to a new generations. That one was number 1 to me
    http://diaryofamiseducatedblackman.com/

  • chillin

    “The great action between Telfair and Darius Washington during an ESPN televised high school regular season showcase. At the time, both looked like they were on paths to stardom. Looking back, it is kind of sad.”
    telfair is actually doing his thing,giving he was never on a team that complimented his talent. Honestly if they would at least gave him a chance in the playoffs the outcome have have been surprising.

  • don

    without a doubt hoop dreams is #1…..i rarely ever remember movies but hoop dreams was mad so impressively that i can remember eveery scene……

  • Neil K.

    Dan Klores’s Black Magic is conspiciously missing.

  • http://bt.davka.info/ Sparkyjay23

    Hoop Dreams is epic.

    watch it here Sweet English

    http://freedocumentaries.org/int.php?filmID=314

  • Brown

    My only problem is saying AI was the face of the NBA for the past decade. Really? Not Kobe?

  • Chise

    Hoop Dreams is my Bible.

  • s.bucketz

    @10
    AI brought a different culture to the NBA…he was one of the first to be all tatted up with corn rows and all that..he brought a street ball flare to the league like no1 else b4 him (tim hardaway had a more effective cross but AI’s was more street and its more of what you see in games today)
    he also really brought in baggy shorts i think…which I have to personally thank him for one day

    Kobe is arguably the best player over the past decade (my personal vote goes to TD or Shaq tho) but he didn’t have the cultural impact that AI did

  • GFrank

    Black Magic should be on this list….the inventor of the “Falll Back Baby” aka the Fade away. All the great are in this documentary and really tell where all the source of today game came from….Awesome move. Great footage of Earl the Pearl,and other greats.

  • shourjo

    Has anyone seen the Nike Battlegrounds co-production w/ MTV2, where in the finale it pits a Chicago amateur squad against a NYC amateur squad at a court Nike builds in Lebron’s Akron, OH? It’s pretty well-made.

  • sh!tfaced

    Props to Sparkyjay23 for the link.

    Haven’t seen Hoop Dreams either.

    but I’ve seen Space Jam, Like Mike & Semi-Pro…

    I am MORE ashamed.

  • http://www.espn.com Sho-Nuff

    Laughing at #8. Telfair is not a quality NBA player. He just doesn’t get it.

    I must have watched Hoop Dreams 8 times start to end and at least a dozen more in 20 or 30 minute segments. Funny how neither of the big men for that other squad did anything. One went to Wisconsin but did nothing in the leauge. Not sure about the other one’s college choice but I know he did nothing in college or beyond that.

  • AZ

    On hollow ground?

  • Brown

    @ s.bucketz

    The Fab Five from Michigan actually started the baggy shorts trend.

    So you’re saying AI’s impact was his “thug” image and his me-first mentality? I don’t see how that makes him the face of the NBA.

  • http://getyourishbusted.net Chicagorilla

    Thank you.

    Hoop dreams is the epotime of basketball. Being from Chicago and knowing these guys story brought me even closer to the movie. And now as an adult, it’s even more intriguing. there’s not a more real movie/documentry involving sports and whats crazy is that the movie doens’t get the pub it should.

  • GV13

    AZ… u mean ‘on hallowed ground’?
    gotta love soul in the hole, some sick footage on that one. all the films are great ..well i havnt seen no crossover bt no doubt i will soon. cant argue with hoop dreams, probably the best documentary ive seen, regardless of basketball.

  • GV13

    having said that… surely u couldve sneaked in one of the jordan documentaries. plus black magic is good, like others said before me

  • frank white

    what about “rebound”? The story of earl the goat manigual.

  • Henry

    “Hoosiers” and “Glory Road” are two of the best I have ever seen.

  • http://www.dimemag.com Lucas Shapiro

    Great great list. I love how my two favorite movies of all-time were on the top of today’s article and yesterday’s.

  • http://getyourishbusted.net Chicagorilla

    @Sho Nuff

    The two big men you speak of are the twin towers from Martin L. King highschool. Very popular team back then and once Marshall and Arthur Agee beat them, it put Arthur on the map big time.

    Big Man #1 – Rashard Griffith
    Played 4yrs at Wisconsin on a couple good teams with Michael Finley. Actually was drafted by the Bucks in 95′. He was a big stiff, but he was 7ft and wide. think Greg Oden without any skill.

    Big Man #2 – Thomas Hamilton
    Thomas was the more skilled of the two big men, but he was the lazy one. His greatest contribution to basketball will now be his son Tommy Hamilton Jr. who is a freshman at Whitney Young (Quentin Richardson and Marcus Jordan’s old highschool). Young Tommy is a beast right now and is only getting better. His pops, well he didn’t do so well. Played a few NBA games, never played in college due to grades. But was 7’2 and 360lbs. Yes, he was gigantic. But had no hops and was lazy. Sad thing, and later Eddy Curry followed in his footsteps of wasted talent.

  • Papa Smurf

    I’d put Soul in the Hole at #2. It’s a great flick.

    Chicagorilla,

    I knew you’d agree with the Hoop Dreams pick. And everyone who says it is # 1 is correct. It was groundbreaking. I’ve heard that they are making a sequel that examines the main characters’ lives after the movie came out.

    Also, I believe that Thomas Hamilton played at least a few games with Pitt.

  • http://getyourishbusted.net Chicagorilla

    @Smurf

    Nah Thomas signed with Illinois out of highschool but couldn’t make the grades. So he went to Pitt, but he never played. He played about 25 games in the NBA later on though. Then he reincarnated his game into the Eddy Curry you see today.

  • Papa Smurf

    You’re correct. I was mixing him up with Mark Blount.

  • pipdaddyy

    Hoop Dreams deserves #1, and the sequel has already been out a few years focusing on Arthur Agee as a “grown-up” and his relationship with another Marshall player who went to college in Arkansas.
    Soul in the Hole should be #2, and Hardwood Dreams deserves top ten, should check that one out, its about a Cali HS team, much better than “More than a game”.

  • http://FantasyBasketballDaily.com Tippy

    Honorable Mention to another ESPN 30 for 30, ‘Guru of Go’ about Hank Gathers.

  • http://dimemag.com Sean Sweeney

    @pipdaddyy Thanks for the reminder on Hardwood Dreams. That’s one of my all-time favorites, another slip of the mind I guess. I definitely would have included that one in this list. My fault.

    And I believe the follow-up to Hoop Dreams is called Hoop Reality.

    @GV13 – I didn’t really see any MJ movie as a documentary. Yes, they are awesome and I’ve watched His Airness, MJs Playground, Come Fly With Me, etc. like 150 times, but It didn’t seem like they belonged on this list.

    Forgive me, I have not seen Black Magic, but have heard great things.

  • Papa Smurf

    Quantum Hoops is a very good movie, too. Certainly not great basketball in it, but a good story about true student-athletes.

  • Billy Sunday

    What bout Hoop Reality???

  • Will

    Chiefs – Hoops on the Res’ and racism off of it. The story of a HS team made from two tribes in Wyoming.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0369086/

    Heart of the Game – Ludacris narrates the story of HS girls team and their star over 5 years.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478166/

  • realist

    i think hoop dreams is on youtube

  • realist

    ^it is effectively all on youtube in 17 parts lol.

  • http://dimemag.com Austin Burton

    I’ll co-sign on “Chiefs.” Very good doc.

    “Flintown Boys” (about basketball in Flint, Mich.) isn’t exactly well-made, but it’s real. I wouldn’t put it near the Top 10, but check it out if you have a chance.

  • http://www.passersremorse.com Connor

    So glad gunning for that #1 spot is on the list. I came out of that 07 class. I was coincidentally in NYC that weekend and went to Rucker to see HS rivals JJ Hickson and Chris Allen play but the game got pushed up 2 hours w/o notice to the fans. Missed the game but the Documentary was amazing.

  • Doc

    Dan Klores’ “Black Magic” rivals anything Ken Burns has done. Five out of four stars.

  • http://bouncemag.com LowerEastScribe

    @ shourjo

    I watched the entire season of the Nike BG: NY vs. Chi and I missed the FINAL GAME! Haha, a few of my boys played on the NY team but I’m still sick about not seeing the finale. Do you (or anyone else) have a link for it or know where I can get it?

  • bsteezy3

    I LOVE the 30 for 30 films! “Hoop Dreams” is the best doc by far…

  • ghostface

    Good List. Hoop Dreams is a lock for the #1 spot. But how about Black Magic and the ESPN 30 for 30 that they did on Hank Gathers.

  • country boi

    @ lower east scribe
    sorry you missed the game. lets just say you missed chicago punking New York, till the end when some dude named cam from new york went straight huts on them. they had no answer for his new york slashing to the basket style game.

    I heard Through the Fire was better than Hoop Dreams….i think it shud have been
    3. Hoops Dreams
    2. TTF
    1. The Iverson Story

  • http://twitter.com/Somagol Esteban Gómez

    Have you seen Rebotes???

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZeJ3oB8pZE

    It’s about american ball players playing in the chilean league…. definetely goes into the top 10