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A Brief History of NBA Players in the Movies

To mark the release of Space Jam: A New Legacy, here’s a look back at some of the other movies to feature NBA greats.
NBA players in movies Space Jam Lebron James
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on July 21st, 2021

Ray Allen in He Got Game

In Spike Lee‘s He Got Game (1998), Ray Allen stars as Jesus Shuttlesworth, the best high school basketball player in the country. The story begins one week before he must decide where he will play college ball. His father is serving time in prison when the governor of New York offers him a deal. If he can convince his son to attend Big State (the governor’s alma mater), then he will be approved for early release. Jesus’ father accepts and is given one week of freedom to get the job done. He becomes just one of countless people trying to exploit his son’s success for their own gain.

Three years ago, I wrote a celebration of the movie to mark the 20th anniversary of its release. He Got Game is a crushing depiction of the business at the heart of collegiate and professional sports, and in particular the exploitation of young Black athletes. It’s a film that feels particularly prophetic today, especially in the wake of the recent US Supreme Court ruling that many believe may pave the way for compensation for college athletes.

Allen is surprisingly great in the movie and, even though he was two years into his NBA career at the time, convincing in the role of an eighteen-year-old basketball player. One of the movie’s best scenes involves a game of one-on-one between father and son. All of the love, hate, frustration, guilt, and fear that consumes their relationship comes to the surface. 

Shaq, Shaq, and more Shaq

Since the ’90s, no other NBA players have been more at home in the movies than Shaquille O’Neal, who dominates the big screen just like he did the paint. O’Neal made his screen debut in the 1994 sports drama Blue Chips, alongside his then Orlando Magic teammate Penny Hardaway. The movie also features a number of former and then-current NBA players in supporting and cameo roles: Bird, Garnett, Bob Cousy, Marques Johnson, and Allan Houston

Two years later, O’Neal landed his first leading role as the titular genie character in KazaamOne day, a group of bullies chases a young kid through the streets of Brooklyn. He hides in an abandoned warehouse where he finds a boombox. Kazaam, who has taken refuge in the boombox, grants the boy three wishes. In his review, Roger Ebert summed up O’Neal’s status as a performer: “Shaq has already proven he can act (in Blue Chips, the 1994 movie about college basketball). Here he shows he can be likable in a children’s movie. What he does not show is good judgment in his choice of material.”  

And in 1997, he sort of became the first Black person to portray Superman in his starring role in the DC Comics adaptation Steel — which cut all ties to the Superman aspect of the character. Since then, O’Neal has appeared in more than a dozen other movies, often in a cameo role or as a fictionalized version of himself. My friends and I love his appearance in the hilariously bad Grown-Ups 2where he plays Officer Fluzoo. 

O’Neal also played Big Fella in the 2018 comedy Uncle Drew. The movie features a number of NBA players: Kyrie Irving, Reggie Miller, Chris Webber, Nate Robinson, Aaron Gordon, and former WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie. In a 2018 interview, O’Neal said, “I’ve come a long way [as an actor] since Kazaam.” That may be true, but I still think he is a much better performer than most of the movies in which he has appeared deserve. Perhaps the Safdie brothers could team up with him next? 

Kevin Durant in Thunderstruck

Most of the movies on this list are loved, either by critics or by a cult following. So, as we pivot to more recent releases, let’s take a look at a critical and commercial flop: 2012’s ThunderstruckThe movie features current NBA superstar Kevin Durant, then in his fifth year in the league and playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Here’s the premise: a high school kid who fails to make his high school basketball team meets Durant at a Thunder game. He asks Durant to sign his OKC basketball. As Durant signs, his talent is transferred through the ball to the kid, who then becomes a star on the high school basketball team.

The hardest part of the movie for Durant was pretending to have no talent. “We’ve got the camera rolling and he misses the first one,” Thunderstruck director John Whitesell told ESPN, “and then he misses the second one, and then all of a sudden there’d be a swish and he would turn to me and say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ll miss next time.'” Hilarious.

LeBron James in Trainwreck

Finally, let’s end where we began: Lebron James. In 2015, the NBA legend made his movie debut playing “himself” alongside Amy Schumer and Bill Hader in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck. James plays a fictionalized version of himself who is friends with Hader’s character, a sports doctor. In his most well-known scene in the comedy, James hypes up his buddy after he meets Schumer’s journalist.

With a slew of self-deprecating jokes about Cleveland and being cheap, James delivers a solid and funny performance in the Trainwreck. Critics lauded his performance. And The Atlantic‘s Christopher Orr even said James’ performance “may be the cleverest counter-self-portrait since Michael Cera’s coke-addled sex fiend in This is the End.” High praise indeed.

With the release of Space Jam: A New Legacy, and James’ somewhat recent move to the Los Angeles Lakers, I suspect we will be seeing a whole lot more of him on the big screen, more than most other NBA players in the movies. But personally, I’m just eagerly waiting to see what Kevin Garnett does next.

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Will DiGravio began writing for Film School Rejects in 2018. He also hosts The Video Essay Podcast and owns a TV.