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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