He Got Game (1998) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's notes


A man is serving jail time for the murder of his wife when the warden summons him for some surprising news. Despite the serious nature of his crime, there could be a way for him to get out of prison early, because he may be able to provide something that the governor wants. The prisoner's son is the top prep school basketball player in the country, and the governor is both a huge basketball fan and a loyal alumnus of Big State University. The prisoner is given one week of supervised release to persuade his son to attend Big State. That simple and clear premise is the setting for a film that wanders off into some complicated psychological territory because the prisoner will not have an easy time persuading his son of anything. After all, he killed the boy's mother!

The prep star has problems of his own even before the unsolicited and unwanted appearance of his father. He faces the temptations of pro contracts and easy money, as well as all the pressures placed on him by having to choose from a seemingly infinite number of colleges that want him to attend. He also has to deal with scheming friends and relatives who see him as a meal ticket. He Got Game is rich with details about the life of a star high school athlete, and enhances the realism with cameo appearances from dozens of real figures in the worlds of professional and college sports, ranging from Shaq to several famous college coaches to ESPN's Robin Roberts.

The film does not follow any of the sports movie formulas. There is no convenient ending. There is no big game to win at the end. In fact, there is no real competition shown at all, except playground games and a climactic one-on-one between the convict and his son. Although this film takes place in the context of basketball, and was directed by Spike Lee, who is the Knicks' #1 fan and pal to many pro athletes, it's not really a film about basketball at all, but rather about what sports can mean in the lives of young men and their families, centering around the story of an estranged father and son on a rocky path toward reconciliation. For both of these extraordinary men, the dramatic conflict revolves around whether they will learn to "do the right thing."

I think Spike made some mistakes here.

  • Ray Allen, a real NBA stud and one of the greatest pure shooters in history (check out his free throw and 3-point shooting percentages), plays the young basketball superstar, and is distractingly stiff in some scenes. He probably should not have been asked to carry as much of the film's dramatic baggage.
  • The ending is inappropriately symbolic and mystical after a film which has taken place in the real world. It's sloppily sentimental as well.
  • Parts of the story are just plain lacking in credibility.

Set those criticisms aside. I don't want to dwell on the weaknesses of He Got Game because it's a good film which develops both the father's and the son's story in depth and with compassion. As a heartfelt movie about reconciliation, growing up, fathers and sons, and sports, He Got Game is kind of a contemporary urban version of Field of Dreams. The story is imbued with real passion for New York, and for basketball as a cultural touchstone. It is also crafted with love for the medium of film itself. Spike Lee demonstrates great mastery of film as an art form, and blends the elements of color (see the captures below), composition, and music magnificently. In most films, musical montages are gratuitous, but Spike uses them purposefully, to evoke a specific mood and to provide additional meaning that would otherwise take hundreds of words of voice-over.

Spike shares the honors with his ol' reliable stud hoss of an actor, Denzel Washington. What a team they have been! Spike has been known to stray too far from realistic dialogue, and in the hands of lesser actors that can cause a problem with the audience's customary suspension of disbelief, but Denzel is a writer's dream. No matter how bad a line of dialogue may be, Denzel can come up with some way to deliver it so that it seems authentic. If a line seems stilted or artificial, Denzel finds a way to hide it in the character, with irony or posturing or something else that seems genuine in the moment. The man has a gift.

Denzel and Spike? They got game.

When it comes to sports films, basketball is the forgotten stepchild, perhaps because Spike seems to be the only writer/director with a passion for the game. Among the basketball films rated higher than six at IMDb (table below), He Got Game is the best fictional story about the experience of black men playing the urban game. The four highlighted in green below are documentaries, and the four in red are essentially docudramas (my decision to include Coach Carter is debatable). That leaves only two films rated higher than He Got Game: Hoosiers, which is about white Midwesterners; and Love and Basketball, which centers on women's basketball.




  • No features
  • It was released in the early days of DVD. It is a widescreen transfer, but it is letterboxed, and not anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 screens


  • Milla Jovovich - breasts, bum in a thong

  • Rosario Dawson - breasts

  • Chasey Lain and Jill Kelly - breasts

Tuna's notes

He Got Game is Spike Lee's version of a familiar story about the top High School athlete being pressured from all sides. Will he go straight to the NBA, or will he sign a letter of intent for one school or another? In this case, the story centers around Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), the top prospect in the entire nation. Spike Lee's twist on the story is that the star's father (Denzel Washington) is in prison, and the governor of the state wants Jesus to choose his Alma Mater. The executive springs Jesus' father for a few days with a promise of early release if he can influence his son's decision. The father accepts the deal, but knows that it won't be an easy task because he is in jail for killing his wife, Jesus' mother, and Jesus has never forgiven him.

In addition to his duties as a surrogate father to his little sister, Jesus must cope with a gold-digging girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) who is trying to influence his decision, a coach who stands to gain big if he chooses the right school, and an uncle with the same motivation. He refuses to discuss this "most important decision of his life" with anyone. He knows basketball is his ticket out of Coney Island, and he is not about to blow it. 

Essentially the story is really two intertwined plots, about equally weighted. One is Washington trying to win back his son, and the other is about the pressures of being a top pick.

I like the way Spike Lee presents a story, and he manages to tell this one with humanity, understanding, and a minimum of cliches. We have the required college visit with sex scene, and every other genre requirement, but Spike knows this world and presents it well, making this a little more authentic than most in the genre.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: three and a quarter stars. James Berardinelli 3/4, Roger Ebert 3.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • Budget: $25m. Domestic Gross: $21m.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C+ (or better). Scoops called it, "A terrific, emotional movie about reconciliation, growing up, fathers and sons, and ... basketball. It is kind of the black, urban version of Field of Dreams. I didn't rate it a B simply because the box office was not indicative of significant crossover appeal to mainstream audiences, but I love the film, and think most guys who like sports will enjoy the hell out of it."

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