January 3, 2017

Trash Talk to Respect: What Basketball Movies Have Taught Us

Life lessons from White Men Can't Jump, Space Jam, Hoop Dreams and more

  • Written by Bwalya Newton

Sports and the silver screen have a long-standing relationship, from the climactic victories of The Mighty Ducks to the searing sagas of real life’s peaks and troughs in The Blind Side. Sports films offer us a form of escapism, as well as the hope that we can triumph over adversity. Something we definitely need in 2017.

But there’s a special kind of magic to basketball movies; from fast breaks to slam dunks and the buzzer beater from half court, which miraculously rainbows into the net at the last millisecond. Beyond its fantastical theatrics, basketball shows us that the level of discipline and dedication you put into the game directly translates into your everyday ambitions.

Here are basketball’s cinematic all-stars, and the lessons you can learn from them.


Doin It In The Park

Sweltering with style, historical context and comedy, Doin It In The Park is the rookie of the team. Charismatically narrated by Bobbito Garcia and filmed by his friend Kevin Couliau, the documentary studies, scrutinises and celebrates the culture of streetball in NYC through interviews with New York’s asphalt gods.

Doin It In The Park

Doin It In The Park adeptly shows the profound effect that the inner city bustle and take-no-prisoners New York attitude has had in shaping many NBA legends. As Kenny Anderson states in the film: “Win by all means necessary, that’s what makes the playgrounds of New York so tough.”

With its intimate depiction of parks and concrete playgrounds as the breeding ground for talent, Doin It In The Park leaves a lasting impression.

Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams is a painful, coming-of-age documentary that is a window into the struggle of what it is to be young, gifted and black. Following the high-school careers of two exceptionally talented teenage boys, the film wrings your heart out until it can’t ache anymore.

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The racial and economic inequality that encourages young black athletes to focus more on their athletic ability than their academic ambition is felt throughout the film. This theme becomes all the more poignant when the young William Gates intimates, “When somebody said, ‘When you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me,’ and that stuff. Well, I should’ve said to them, ‘If I don’t make it, don’t you forget about me.’”

The lesson is hard hitting: 98% of young athletes just won’t make it to the professional stage, so knowledge needs to be held up as an equal measure of success.

White Men Can’t Jump 

It helps that White Men Can’t Jump’s director Ron Shelton was a regular member on the blacktops in Hollywood. His fundamental education in athletics helps his directorial eye. During the film’s basketball shootout scenes, Shelton limits the camera’s cutaways so that we see real buckets, real plays and a lot of unscripted trash talk.

The legendary Biz Markie was a consultant on the film’s brash lesson in trash talking and some of the best ‘your momma’ joke showdowns you’ll see on the silver screen: “I told your mother to act her age and the bitch dropped dead.”

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White Men Can’t Jump’s honest portrayal of the open conversations and confrontations that take place on the asphalt are a vehicle for its unflinching take on racial politics:

“Billy, you’re like every other white boy I’ve ever met.”

“And you’re like every other brother I met on the play ground… You’d rather look good and lose, than look bad and win.”

Space Jam

Michael Jordan retires, so The Looney Tunes suck him down a golf hole, because tiny alien ‘Monstars’ have challenged them to a basketball game to decide whether they’ll be forced to be servants forever or can walk away with their freedom… What’s not to love about Space Jam?

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The Monstars taught the eight-year-old me that bullies are awful, but deep down they were still human – despite being portrayed as aliens in the film. The Monstars’ defeat, followed by humbling redemption is an Oscar-worthy story arc.

I had just come to live in London from Zambia, and I was picked on quite a bit. However, The Looney Tunes insanity, paired with Michael Jordan’s easy charm, gave me Sesame Street-type therapy sessions that lived on in mine, yours and I’m sure Michael’s heart.

Coach Carter

Based on a true story, Coach Carter is about powerful leadership and an equal balance of physical and mental health. Coach Carter not only teaches his students to condition their bodies, but how to enrich their progression through education too.

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Thanks to Samuel L. Jackson’s gripping portrayal, Coach Ken Carter’s precise sermons on ethics resonate long after the movie is over: “You really need to consider the message you’re sending these boys… It’s the same message that we as a culture send to our professional athletes; and that is that they are above the law. If these boys cannot honour the simple rules of a basketball contract, how long do you think it will be before they’re out there breaking the law?”

As spectators on the bleachers, we learn that there are far more meaningful things than winning praise and glory in fleeting moments. A disciplined mentality and a dedicated attitude can overcome a multitude of boundaries that often exceed even our own expectations.


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