Screened out

Special to The Times

When it comes to professional basketball, why has Hollywood shot an air ball?

Showtime in the NBA has brought the league tremendous prosperity and global popularity but the two together have combined for no cinematic all-stars. It has been like pairing up Tony Parker with Tony Soprano or King (LeBron) James with Queen Latifah for a fastbreak. However you cut it, the royalty of the sport, the National Basketball Assn., is lacking a crowning achievement on the silver screen.

"It is a good question," says writer-director Ron Shelton ("White Men Can't Jump," "Blue Chips"). " 'Heaven Can Wait' had the NFL branding, there are successful movies about [major league baseball] but none about the NBA."

Without a doubt Tinseltown has produced some terrific basketball films, but the best don't include a key roster spot for even one involving the professional ranks. A look at the starting five matchups is revealing:

* Pros: "Eddie," "Like Mike," "Forget Paris," "Celtic Pride" and "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh."

* Amateurs: "Hoosiers," "He Got Game," "White Men Can't Jump," "Glory Road" and "Hoop Dreams."

Even if you brought in fresh off the bench the most engaging elements of "Maurice," "Inside Moves" and threw in the Harlem Globetrotters' "Go, Man, Go" and "Pistol: The Birth of a Legend" with a little "Love & Basketball," they still couldn't beat those blue-chip amateurs.

Why is that?

Physical grace, colorful personalities, abundant individual and team metaphors, passion/emotion, players from diverse cultures, drama on and off the court -- there's a lot to like about the NBA as a movie backdrop.

Add to those compelling elements the fact there are few more popular sports leagues worldwide than the NBA, demonstrating that basketball translates very well beyond borders. That alone should pique the interest of studio marketers in leaning toward a green light.

Mark Ciardi, who has produced successful movies from each of the major team sports except basketball, looks to the "Rocky" formula to explain the dearth.

"It is getting tougher to find a real underdog story in the NBA, or any other pro sport for that matter," he says.

Certainly the underdog theme has a deep and powerful connection to the moviegoing crowd, but because of the size of the players and their wallets, the NBA is not naturally well-suited toward being relatable. These are highly skilled performers who have already reached the top of their profession.

"I do think there is a knee-jerk feeling in Hollywood that people aren't as interested in the pro game in terms of drama because they can't relate to them," says filmmaker Steve James, who garnered a 1995 Academy Award nomination for "Hoop Dreams."

Mark Ellis, a sports coordinator-second unit director responsible for the action sequences on more than two dozen sports movies, concurs on the subject of connectivity.

"I think this country believes that on the amateur level there is a purer, more romantic drive for the love of the game itself. That they are not playing for money or to entertain us. That lends itself for far better dramatic storytelling."

When it comes to storytelling, sports have been a terrific conduit for motion pictures. They have grown up together since Thomas Edison filmed a boxing exhibition in the 1890s.

But even history seems to be against basketball. Outside of a pair of silent films ("The Fair Co-Ed" and "High School Hero") and a couple of Harlem Globetrotters pictures in the 1950s, it wasn't until the 1970s that hoop titles were produced in any number. Meanwhile the sports of boxing, baseball and horse racing have combined for dozens of Hollywood releases and account for some of the genre's very best movies.

As basketball has exploded in popularity and is now at the core of our sports-crazed 24/7 society, the rise of hoop films faces yet another challenge for cinematic success: authenticity.

"If you don't believe the alley-oop pass, you won't fall for the tears in the locker room," says Ellis, who is confident, after shaping the games of Will Ferrell and Woody Harrelson for "Semi-Pro," that the new ABA-NBA comedy will break through when it premieres Friday.

"Luckily we were working with a lot of gifted basketball players who surrounded us, players talented enough to make us look good," says Ferrell, talking about former college and current pro players filling out the action scenes in "Semi-Pro."

Comedy is a challenge in its own right. It is one thing to teach a golf swing or pick-up basketball for a street-ball film among actors who already play the game, but to be convincing at the NBA-caliber level is daunting.

The NBA "is a ballet with the world's greatest athletes magically playing a game in the air, above the rim," Shelton says. "Let's say I am able to stage a really believable game filled with former Division I and pro players, who the heck is my actor who can keep up with them?"

David Anspaugh, the director of "Hoosiers," perhaps Hollywood's most acclaimed basketball feature, believes he has the answer.

"I am set to direct a movie in the spring about the NBA," he said.

The film, "Phenom," stars Chris Brown, a hip-hop artist, actor and, reportedly, a fine basketball player.

Even if Mr. Brown proves he's got game in the upcoming drama about a player going directly from high school to the pros, filmmakers face yet another challenge: NBA script approval.

It must be remembered that the NBA is a successful corporate institution highly protective of its image. So even if you get the action right, it still comes down to exploring the human side of these athletes, which means a peek into areas off the court that could be controversial.

"I have always said what a feature film about sports can do is take the audience to places television can't, because what television can't do is what I can do -- go into the locker rooms, on the bus trips, in the hotel lobbies," Shelton says.

It is precisely those areas the NBA is concerned about.

NBA Commissioner David Stern is a clever fellow. He's gone over the wall and succeeded in China and has the best players in the world clamoring to prove themselves in his league.

Although the NBA to date has scored a big zero in Hollywood, don't be surprised to see the Commish one day score an Oscar for best picture by taking Showtime to another level with a little help from his courtside friends, such as Denzel Washington, Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee.

Ultimately, however, even if you have the best filmmakers who get the action sequences right and the NBA's blessing, it still comes down to what makes a movie in any genre successful: story.

"If you have a great story, then that is going to sell. It isn't because somebody all of a sudden figured out how to shoot NBA-level basketball, it is because characters are compelling," Anspaugh says.

NBA cinema, will it ever be fan-tastic? Don't bet against the formidable team of Hollywood and the NBA. They're just warming up.

Randy Williams is the author of "Sports Cinema 100 Movies: The Best of Hollywood's Athletic Heroes, Losers, Myths, & Misfits."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World