He Got Game first hit movie theaters this week 19 years ago, and the Spike Lee-directed, Ray Allen-starred film remains a wholly unique offering in the sports genre.
Yes, plenty of R-rated sports movie came before and since. The ’90s alone produced The Program, Any Given Sunday, Varsity Blues and Above The Rim. He Got Game occupies its own club. Hollywood elevator pitches often invoke two well-known titles, under the concept of “X meets Y.”
Using this concept, He Got Game is Blue Chips meets Bad Lieutenant.
The film’s more remembered in 2017 for its use of ridiculous names than the story or performances. To wit, the schools vying for Ray Allen’s letter of intent are Big State and Tech U., and Allen’s character is named Jesus Shuttlesworth. The moniker plays a central part in the movie’s themes, while also serving as a nod to basketball’s past. Nevertheless, the name stands out more than the themes it’s meant to convey.
That’s unfortunate, too, because He Got Game is a damn fine movie. It has its flaws, sure, but Spike Lee’s passion for the game resonates throughout. Ray Allen gives a surprisingly great performance — so good, in fact, I’m surprised he hasn’t gone into acting since his NBA career ended. In He Got Game, he shows the chops to be the next Jim Brown.
And Denzel…well, he’s Denzel. He’s one of the greatest actors of this or any time.
The one-on-one scene between Allen’s Jesus and Denzel’s Jake exudes raw emotion. It has elements reminiscent of the playground game between Arthur Agee and his father in Hoop Dreams, which was released less than four years before He Got Game.
He Got Game is a well-done film that deserves more credit. If you have not seen it in a while (or ever), I recommend giving it a watch soon. I cannot be too critical of those who remember the film for its names — or, uh, one scene above all others.
My memories of He Got Game are as much about its marketing, and HOW I first viewed the film, as they are about the film itself.
TV commercials hyping its release aired during NBA broadcasts — talk about hitting the target demo. SLAM Magazine ran full-page ads for months, as well as a full-throated endorsement with its review prior to the film’s release.
Consider the marketing effective: I had to see He Got Game. The problem? I was a 15-year-old high-school freshman. I wouldn’t be old enough to buy my way into a R-rated film for another two years (though, admittedly, that didn’t stop me from seeing Varsity Blues a year later).
I was not prepared to test my fate at the ticket window in 1998, however. At the same time, I sure as hell wasn’t waiting for the VHS release. Yes, VHS. For those of you too young to remember, Blockbusters and the mom-and-pop shops they ran out of business were stocked almost exclusively with video cassettes until about 2001.
VHS were more difficult to produce than DVD, which meant missing a film in the theater led to a wait of six-to-12 months before the movie surfaced at the video store. I wasn’t about to let that happen with He Got Game.
However, I needed an adult to get me in. Fortunately, my dad coached basketball and my mom’s always been an ardent fan of the game. The pitch to them wasn’t especially difficult. They questioned me on the R-rating, to which I noted Hoop Dreams garnered an R-rating. That was a movie I saw in the theater with my dad at age 12 and owned on VHS.
My pitch proved successful, and we were off to see He Got Game on its opening weekend. It was a traumatic experience.
Don’t misconstrue that as me not enjoying the film; I did. At least, I did as much as is possible sitting next to your mother while Ray Allen has sex on a Coney Island roller coaster with his girlfriend LaLa, played by Rosario Dawson. (Side note: Dawson co-starred in another Spike Lee joint three years later, The 25th Hour, in which she’s introduced to Ed Norton’s character explaining she plays 2-guard for her high school basketball team. I wonder if Ray taught her to shoot the spot-up 3?)
Worse yet was the notorious scene to which I allude earlier in this piece. For those unfamiliar, or who need a refresher, Jesus takes a recruiting trip where two coeds give him an especially persuasive pitch.
Jill Kelly and Chasey Lain portray the coeds. I did not become familiar with their work outside of He Got Game until my freshman year of college, when I gained access to a T1 internet connection and Kazaa. In this setting — seated between my parents in a small-town movie theater — made for arguably the worst viewing experience of my life.