10 basketball series and documentaries to add to your watchlist
The Americans are basketball crazy. It’s a dense topic with tales of players who begin in high school and go on to college, where they’re not supposed to be paid, and scholarships are won on ability on court rather than good academic grades. It’s played in public parks for fun, and in prison for recreation. It’s always highly competitive.
But a lot of our favourite basketball shows, movies and documentaries cover plenty of action off the court, and are about so much more than the sport.
Last Chance U: Basketball
From Greg Whiteley (Cheer) and the team behind Emmy-winning Last Chance U comes an honest, gritty look inside the world of community college basketball. Led by passionate head coach John Mosley, the East Los Angeles College Huskies (ELAC) team is made up of former D1 recruits and powerhouse athletes hustling to prove themselves for a last chance to fulfil their dreams of playing at the next level. The team is tested as the players battle adversity, inner demons, and emotions on and off the court.
The Spool says, “No matter how intense the on-court action gets, directors Greg Whitely, Adam Leibowitz, and Daniel George McDonald never forget the humanity of the players they’re chronicling.”
17 Again (Netflix)
Take a trip down memory lane with this ancient movie (2009) with body and age swopping as its theme. The basketball connection is in the shape of 17-year-old star athlete Mike O’Donnell (Zac Effron) whose girlfriend drops some shocking news on him just as he’s about to play a likely scholarship-clinching high school championship basketball game. He makes a life-changing decision, which 20 years later, (now played by Matthew Perry) he is questioning. A chance accident (don’t question these things too closely) puts him back in his teenage body.
“17 Again is pleasant, harmless PG-13 entertainment, with a plot a little more surprising and acting a little better than I expected,” wrote Roger Ebert.
Promising young athletes are often lured by the NCAA with the offer of scholarships to prestigious schools and the opportunity to potentially live out their dreams of joining the NBA, Bustle informs us. “Some basketball players do make it to the NBA and make millions, but of course, this is not the reality for all. And to make matters worse, high school and college players do not get paid, but in some cases, are exploited for their talents.”
Amateur tells the story of an eighth-grade basketball prodigy, Terron Forte (Michael Rainey Jr), who learns about the dark side of the sports industry. While not based on a true story, the film accurately portrays reality as experienced by many young athletes.
As a companion show, watch The Scheme on Showmax (number 2 in our list).
Basketball or Nothing (Netflix)
Many basketball players are prized for their stature, often being well over two metres tall. While the Chinle High basketball team in Arizona’s Navajo Nation don’t have the tallest players, they do not falter on their quest to win a state championship and bring pride to their isolated community.
A non-scripted reality series, this is “the perfect chaser for today’s sports soap operas” says Esquire.
“For the most part, Basketball or Nothing lets the cameras roll on Chinle’s practices and games – spaced out by an interview here and there – which all feels a little slow at first, but eventually, if you let it happen, it lulls you into a Great British Baking Show-like trance. It’s overwhelmingly pleasant, almost unbearably so: The kids are all best buds and have been playing basketball with each other since they were little. Their moms make a pot of spaghetti for the whole team to eat before games. Before they hit the floor, the coach tells them to make sure they have fun. Then you hear the cheerleaders, whose go-to chant is: ‘We’re proud of you!’.”
Fun fact: Rezball, short for “reservation ball”, is the Native American style of basketball, which features a slightly different style of play.
Coach Carter (Netflix)
Even more ancient than 17 Again, I’ve put this 2005 movie in here because I love Samuel L Jackson. Sure, the man makes some mistakes now and then but even when it’s bad, it’s good (case in point: Snakes On A Plane). Coach Carter is based on the true story of Richmond High School basketball coach Ken Carter (Jackson), who made headlines in 1999 for suspending his undefeated high school basketball team due to poor academic results. Which, of course, is highly unusual in the sports-mad country where jocks get free passes.
“It’s a feel-good story of life lessons, doing the right thing, and the importance of principle over peer pressure,” says Movieweb.
It was directed by Thomas Carter (no relation), and the internet won’t say one way or the other if he’s related to Vince Carter (see pick number 4).
Q Ball (Netflix)
This documentary explores the San Quentin Prison basketball squad – teammates and inmates at “the Q” – along their journey of rehabilitation and possible redemption; in particular the hopes of one prisoner, Harry Smith, to become a basketball player in the real world. It’s not impossible: San Quentin Warriors compete against sports teams outside of the prison.
This doccie is perhaps the sincerest representation of what playing sport should be: a bonding experience, and a way to find a purpose in life.
The Carter Effect (Netflix)
So about that height … Vince Carter is famously six foot six (a little over two metres). He was an eight-time NBA All-Star from Daytona Beach who made waves in the Canadian basketball scene when he joined the Raptors in 1998, and this documentary, directed by Sean Menard (and produced by LeBron James’s digital video company, Uninterrupted), covers Carter’s impact during this time. Interviews with fellow NBA stars, former teammates, family members, and people associated with the Toronto Raptors, combined with archival footage of Carter, are used throughout the movie.
“A celebration of Carter’s time as a Raptor and the excitement he brought not only to Toronto, but the entire nation is exactly what this doc was all about,” says Shifter.
Women of Troy (Showmax)
This HBO Sports documentary explores the transcendent career of the Cheryl Miller-led USC (University of Southern California) Trojans and their impact on women’s basketball.
Miller was poised to be among the greatest players in history, but a terrible, career-ending injury meant her potential would be unfulfilled, says Decider. “By the mid-’70s, women’s sports had made strides with the first-ever Olympic basketball team in 1976, but women were still frequently relegated to publicity stunts — eg the Battle of the Sexes tennis spectacle, and Ann Meyers’ (later Drysdale) 1979 tryout with the Indiana Pacers.
“Women of Troy is a warm and astute rendering of this team’s story, and director Alison Ellwood makes a convincing argument as to why the USC women are vital figures not just among female basketball players, but among all basketball players.”
That thing about the NCAA and not paying college players? Behold! The revealing, no-holds-barred tale of Christian Dawkins, the young man at the centre of one of the biggest criminal cases in collegiate sports history, a basketball scandal that rocked America.
It’s a jaw-dropping documentary which dives into an absurd tale of how the FBI tried to bring down a 26-year-old basketball star scout who became a convicted federal felon, twice over, says The Guardian’s review.
“Technically, it’s for bribery and conspiracy in a pay-for-play scheme with college basketball coaches. Practically, it’s for being what the New York Times called ‘the most honest man in college basketball’, and the fall guy for a lopsided federal prosecution into one of sports’ worst-kept secrets: paying players in college basketball.”
Dawkins tells his side of the story for the first time with a refreshingly candid, unbelievable and at times ludicrously funny account of an FBI sting, an overzealous prosecution and the cartoonish state of the NCAA’s charade of big-time college sports as “amateur” athletics.
Dawkins’s tale is, in short, “one of the craziest stories I’ve ever come across”, says director Pat Kondelis.
The Last Dance (Netflix)
Co-produced by ESPN Films and Netflix, and directed by Jason Hehir, the series revolves around the career of Michael Jordan (and even if you’ve never watched a minute of basketball in your entire life, you have no doubt heard of him), with particular focus on his last season with the Chicago Bulls.
The series features exclusive footage from a film crew that had an all-access pass to the Bulls, as well as interviews with many NBA personalities including Jordan (obviously), Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson.
“In truth, The Last Dance feels more like an exposé, an enthralling piece of television that is educational for the uninitiated but also revealing for diehard fans of basketball,” according to Independent.
- The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, also known and branded as NCAA March Madness, is a single-elimination tournament played each spring in the United States.
- The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a nonprofit organisation that regulates student athletes from 1 268 North American institutions and conferences.
- The National Basketball Association is a men’s professional basketball league in North America, composed of 30 teams.