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JUNE 7, 1999:  As the NBA playoffs heat up, we wanted to remind you of some of the more memorable b-ball movies to come down the pike. Our choices were tough -- what with He's Got Game and White Men Can't Jump. And who could forget The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh or One on One (or Robby Benson, for that matter)? But the following collection of films offers a little something for everyone -- triumphant endings and bitter disappointments, kid fare and adult themes -- but as far as depicting that all-important sport, these films are nothing but net. -- Sarah Hepola


Above the Rim

D: Jeff Pollack (1994)
with Duane Martin, Léon, Tupac Shakur, Bernie Mac, Tonya Pinkins, Marlon Wayans, David Bailey, Byron Minns.

Above the Rim is the Hoop Dreams story -- star basketball player from the inner city navigates the perils of street life to reach the NCAA -- as told by Hollywood. As such, point guard Kyle Watson's (Martin) precarious path to Georgetown is fraught with more drivel than dribble, but then again, the movie's got lots more air. Characters and plot are mostly all familiar in this film: the hotshot teen whose arrogance is both his passport and his potential undoing, his tough-minded single mom (Pinkins), the drug dealer who wants to bring him down (a cigar-chomping Shakur), and the older, tragic could-have-been (Léon) who redeems himself by shepherding the younger man down the straight and narrow. Pollack tries to deepen the narrative too much and provokes some unintentional smirks, but you b-ball fans may not care. Martin's Kyle drives the film strongly with a subtle mix of boyish temerity, bragadoccio, and vulnerability. But as father figure Tom Sheppard, a lost soul carrying the weight of a tragic past, Léon can do little but grimace at everyone with pursed lips. Shep has lost at life and now he's a quitter wrapped in a long, leaden overcoat. No need to fret over the contrived melodrama for long, however; Kyle and Shep are both terrific on the court and they pair up to down Birdie's team of thuggish cagers in the final reel. There's the obligatory gang violence thrown in throughout the film to provide street-life backdrop and demonstrate that Bride, Shep's brother, has truly gone over to the dark side, but the drama itself is as simplistic, yet as timelessly compelling, as a good game of hoop. --Kevin Fullerton


Air Bud

D: Charles Martin Smith (1997)
with Buddy.

When the scrawny, homeless, year-old golden retriever staggered out of the woods near Yosemite into trainer Kevin DiCicco's yard, few could have predicted that he would become the most prolific scorer in basketball history, let alone Buddy, the Wonder Dog, star of his own eponymous motion picture series.

You know the plot here -- boy meets dog, boy loses dog, boy finds dog, dog wins big game -- but it's handled with considerable depth and emotion by the very great Charles Martin Smith, who established his canine credentials with the brilliant Never Cry Wolf.

And, of course, Buddy insisted on doing all the basketball scenes himself, with no stand-ins or trick photography.

In the history of the game, Buddy was the only dog ever to score a basket using regulation ball and hoop. He scored almost 23,000 baskets in his career, thus leading his nearest rival by over 45,000 points. By comparison, NBA all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- with whom Buddy once played in an episode of TV's Full House -- scored only 38,387, and it took him a whopping 140 dog years to get that far.

Sadly, Air Bud was Buddy's only feature film; he died of cancer shortly after filming.

And when it came time to make Air Bud: Golden Receiver, it took six dogs to take his place.We may never see another like him. -- Nick Barbaro



Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams

D: Steve James (1994)

The basketball documentary, the kind that can make even the biggest sports-phobe understand the anguish and the sheer joy of the drama pounded out on the courts. Director Steve James follows two promising inner city black teens -- William Gates and Arthur Agee -- through their high school years as they try to transcend the gray skies of Chicago's projects. James depicts the paramount importance of these kids' hoop dreams, not only to capture the glory of that ever-elusive NBA spot but also to break out of each family's fragile economy. Throughout the long struggle come small, brilliant triumphs, but James hammers home the way the boys' starry-eyed hunger slowly tarnishes amid the gaggle of recruiters, glad-handers, vein-popping coaches, and bitter disappointments each must swallow. Not to mention the biggest heartbreak of all: the possibility of failure. As William explains, people always said, "'When you get to the NBA don't forget me.' I should say, 'If I don't make it, don't forget me.'" --Sarah Hepola


Hoosiers

D: David Anspaugh (1986)
with Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper, Barbara Hershey.

Hickory, Indiana, is a shoebox of a town, where a basketball hoop is affixed to the side of barn and flagpole. It's a town with a shared obsession, where man-on-man vs. zone defense is more hotly debated than religion or politics, and where teenage boys become gods for their ability to sink a leather ball through an iron hoop. It's a town where, in 1951, a weathered Norman Dale, cast out of college basketball more than a decade earlier, now finds himself trying to make a comeback leading undersized Hickory High School to glory. Of course, it's a wrenching journey: His one ally takes ill, the school's best player has quit the game, he barely has enough players to field a team, and the townsfolk are none too pleased with Dale's "new-fangled" ideas and headstrong attitude. Welcome to Indiana basketball. Based on the true story of a small-town school's unlikely road to the state championship, Hoosiers is a near-perfect sports drama, populated with compelling characters that breathe life into the predictible David-meets-Goliath clichés. Scrappy underdogs demonstrate unimaginable heroics, troubled souls gain redemption, and beautifully directed basketball scenes are executed by talented young unknowns who (gasp) turn in startlingly moving acting performances as well as solid court action. What? Basketball players who can act? Eat your heart out, Shaq. --Lisa Tozzi


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