An under-appreciated film, and one that feels even more relevant today.
For the first 10 years of my life, the Boston Celtics were terrible. How terrible? So terrible that people would just give tickets away. As a young fan with a family willing to take the tickets and the heartbreak in person, it was anything but terrible (okay, it was pretty bad, but still fun). I can remember sitting behind the backboard as Paul Pierce flicked the ball towards a soaring Ricky Davis, who jammed it home. I spent hours sitting in the stands listening to drunk fans debate whether the Celtics should keep Al Jefferson or Kendrick Perkins. Believe it or not, I also remember being excited to see… wait for it… Delonte West in person. But, then, something changed. On the night of the 2007 NBA Draft, the Celtics traded their first-round draft pick for Ray Allen. A year or so later, the Celtics were NBA champions for the 17th time.
Like every basketball-playing 10-year-old kid in Massachusetts at that time, I wanted to be like Ray Allen. I can remember practicing my shot for hours in the driveway and then running into the house to play NBA Live 2009 as Allen. More specifically, I remember one time I scored 101 points with Allen in a single game, and just as the record-breaking shot touched nylon, my friend unplugged the PlayStation in anger. I don’t blame him. Allen’s shot is so smooth, so deceptively simple, playing as him in a video game is basically like using a cheat code.
To those of us who only know Ray Allen as the clutch shooter, as a member of the new (now old) “Big Three,” it is hard for us to appreciate just how great a player he was early in his career. After I saw that Allen had been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this year, I went on YouTube and began searching. Eventually, I stumbled upon a video of Chauncey Billups and Tracy McGrady talking about him. McGrady summed it up best: “He had the athleticism. He had the play making ability. He never got tired. He was clutch.”
Could it also be said that he, had game? If you’re Spike Lee, the answer is: yes. (Smooth transition, right?)
When I first saw that Allen starred in Lee’s 1998 film, He Got Game, I was not surprised. After all, if there is one basketball player whose shot is so elegant that it could be called cinematic, its Ray Allen’s. But, to my surprise, Allen’s jump shot is mostly absent from He Got Game. Instead, his athleticism is put on display, coupled with an acting performance that is surprisingly strong. If, like me, you follow Spike Lee on Instagram, you know that this month is the 20th anniversary of He Got Game, and since the NBA Finals are drawing near, I’m taking this opportunity take a look back at this under-appreciated film.
Allen plays Jesus Shuttlesworth, the best high school basketball player in the country. The film begins one week before Jesus must decide where he will play college ball. Denzel Washington plays Jesus’s father, Jake, who is currently serving time in prison for murdering Jesus’s mother. As we learn later in the film, he pushed her into a kitchen counter in a drunken rage. The story begins after Jake is called to the warden’s office and offered a deal from the governor of New York: if he can convince his son to attend Big State (the governor’s alma mater and one of several hilariously named colleges in the film) then the state will move up his release date. Jake accepts and is given one week of freedom to get the job done. He is just one of countless people trying to exploit Jesus’s success for their own gain.
As the country’s top prospect, Jesus is offered everything under the sun: cars, watches, money, women. Everyone around him, from the uncle who raised him after his father went to prison, to his high school basketball coach, are asking where he will go to school and how and when they will get a piece of the action. Even Jesus’s girlfriend is pretending to like him in order to convince him to sign a deal with a sports agent/family friend. With no guidance, and no one loyal around him (accept his cousin and sister) Jesus navigates the process alone and, as much as he would like to pretend otherwise, afraid.
On top of all that, he must also deal with Jake, who shows up uninvited one day at his apartment. Jesus, who witnessed his mother’s murder, wants nothing to do with Jake and kicks him out. Jake soon tracks Jesus down on the basketball court and slowly convinces his son to talk with him. We learn their history, about the late nights they spent together on the basketball court, where the former pushed the latter to be the player he became. Father then tells son why he is out of jail. Naturally, Jesus recoils, telling Jake that he is just like everybody else. But, deep down, he is really not. We know it and so does Jesus. Unlike everyone else who tries to take advantage of Jesus, Jake is at least honest about his motives and does not really pressure Jesus into anything.
Jake is a kind of antihero. On one hand, we are disgusted by the fact the he murdered his wife. On the other, we can feel his remorse and genuine want to do right by his son. Rather than beg Jesus for help, Jake tries to earn his freedom in the fairest way he knows how: challenging his son to a game of one-on-one. It is in this father/son battle that we see that basketball is about so much more: it is about pride, self-respect, earning what one wants and has, and understanding what lineage means. Here, basketball transcends athletic competition.
The film also shows how capitalism and big business have come to define collegiate and professional basketball and overshadow the purity of the game. The exploitation of young athletes, especially poor, black athletes, is well-documented. Athletes like Jesus make the rich richer with their talent. In doing so, they are not only unpaid but risk injuries that could inhibit them from reaching the pros and actually making any money. And as these young athletes try to do what is best for them and their families, there are countless individuals, disguised as friends, trying to take advantage of them along the way and claim a piece for themselves. At one point in the film, Jesus’s uncle accepts a Lexus behind his nephew’s back.
In the end, Jesus beats Jake in their game of one-on-one. The following week, Jesus chooses Big State. But, when Jake returns to the warden’s office seeking news of his release, he learns that he was falsely accused of having broken out of jail, and there is nothing the governor can do for him. Even though Jake has upheld his end of the bargain, those with the power have screwed him over.
Although the film is an effective critique of capitalism, it is also a celebration of its purest form: athletic competition. Unlike the cheating and inequality that defines big business, two things define basketball: how good you are and how hard you are willing to work to be that good. And because Jesus is willing to do both, it does not matter where he plays basketball (this is, in part, why the names of the schools in the film are so ridiculous). Instead, his decision to go to Big State is his way of forgiving his father, or at least recognizing the bond that they share over their mutual love of basketball. In one of the film’s final and most poetic moments, Jake throws a basketball over the prison fence into the stadium at Big State. Jesus catches it and drains a shot.
He Got Game is a celebration of sports as the great equalizer. The film begins with a montage of boys, girls, black people, white people, poor people, rich people, kids in Brooklyn, in Indiana, all playing basketball. Why? Because when you step out onto a basketball court, there is only one thing that matters: whether you got game.