Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee

Best sports films, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

“The best sports films, like the best of any kind of art, lift us ‘sad-assed human beings’ up to a ‘goddamned glorious’ place by showing us what we are capable of,” wrote Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in an article for Esquire. “The best sports films also use sports as a metaphor for some larger theme. The reason sports is such a rich source is that it mirrors our attempts to impose order, morality, and fair play on an otherwise chaotic and selfish world. We use sports as a training ground to teach our young moral lessons: try hard, be disciplined, play fair.”

Kareem explains how he chose his best sports movies – and why some well-regarded titles were left off the list. “We see sports films constantly preaching that winning isn’t the achievement, that perseverance, being a team player, and fair play, are the achievement. But where sports films go wrong is in usually finding a way to contradict themselves by telling us that once you’ve learned those lessons, you will go on to win. In that way, even many of the best sports films cheat. They aren’t so much sports films as feel-good-about-how-far-we’ve-come sociological fantasies that are built around sports. Remember the Titans, The Blind Side, Glory Road, and others ‘based on a true story’ are mostly about racial issues and less about the sport. Some highly praised sports films – Raging Bull, The Natural, The Color of Money – are bloated and self-conscious. Some fan favorites – Rudy, Field of Dreams – overly sentimentalize sports. These films are all good; they just aren’t among the best sports films.”

These are the five best American sports films according to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He also included ten honourable mentions.

Five best

The Hustler Robert Rossen


The Hustler


Director: Robert Rossen
Stars: Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie
“This is the best sports film ever made because it conveys the athlete’s passion for his sport better than any other film.”

Hoosiers David Anspaugh




Director: David Anspaugh
Stars: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper
“This film is rightfully beloved by many because it’s not about basketball as much as it is about, like The Hustler, personal redemption.”

Vision Quest Harold Becker


Vision Quest


Director: Harold Becker
Stars: Matthew Modine, Linda Fiorentino, Michael Schoeffling
“What they got right: the social significance of sports.”

Bull Durham Ron Shelton


Bull Durham


Director: Ron Shelton
Stars: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins
“This movie is revolutionary in many ways.”

Breaking Away Peter Yates


Breaking Away


Director: Peter Yates
Stars: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern
“The opening scene introducing the four friends is one of the best in sports films, revealing their cynical, disillusioned, or falsely romantic take on the world.”

Back to top

Honourable mentions

In no particular order.

Bang the Drum Slowly John D. Hancock

Director: John D. Hancock
Stars: Michael Moriarty, Robert De Niro, Vincent Gardenia
“One of the most touching sports films ever.”

The Boys in Company C Sidney J. Furie

Director: Sidney J. Furie
Stars: Stan Shaw, Andrew Stevens, James Canning
“This story of American soldiers in Vietnam in 1968 uses soccer to reveal the battle between honor and corruption.”

A League of Their Own Penny Marshall

Director: Penny Marshall
Stars: Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty
“In this tale of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943, the disparity of women’s roles in American society is just as poignant today as it was when this was made.”

Downhill Racer Michael Ritchie

Director: Michael Ritchie
Stars: Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv
“Robert Redford stars at an arrogant, self-centered skier whose desire for personal success leads him on a downhill course in which sports victory equals personal loss.”

Personal Best Robert Towne

Personal Best


Director: Robert Towne
Stars: Mariel Hemingway, Scott Glenn, Patrice Donnelly
“[Mariel Hemingway’s] conflicts with coaches, lovers, and teammates provide a realistic portrayal of the sport.”

White Men Can’t Jump Ron Shelton

Director: Ron Shelton
Stars: Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, Rosie Perez
“It’s about how basketball is a kind of language in male relationships, and how that can get in the way of more mature relationships.”

Tin Cup Ron Shelton

Tin Cup


Director: Ron Shelton
Stars: Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Don Johnson
“This film gets to the heart of an important aspect of sports: the personal challenge of doing what’s never been done, even if it’s not the smart play.”

Rocky John G. Avildsen



Director: John G. Avildsen
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young
“The fact that he [Rocky] doesn’t win is proof of filmmakers’ convictions.”

Champion Mark Robson



Director: Mark Robson
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Arthur Kennedy, Marilyn Maxwell
“Kirk Douglas as a fighter who starts out a decent guy but is destroyed by his own ambition captures the demons pros are still fighting today.”

The Great White Hope Martin Ritt

Director: Martin Ritt
Stars: James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Lou Gilbert
“On one level, this fictionalized account of early-20th-century boxing champion Jack Johnson explores racism of the time. On another level, it reveals what a sports icon is to people – what they want, what they will accept, and what they won’t.”

Back to top

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr.; April 16, 1947) is an American retired professional basketball player who played 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. During his career as a centre, Abdul-Jabbar was a record six-time NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP), a record 19-time NBA All-Star, a 15-time All-NBA selection, and an 11-time NBA All-Defensive Team member. A member of six NBA championship teams as a player and two as an assistant coach, Abdul-Jabbar twice was voted NBA Finals MVP. In 1996, he was honoured as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. NBA coach Pat Riley and players Isiah Thomas and Julius Erving have called him the greatest basketball player of all time.

Abdul-Jabbar has also been an actor, a basketball coach, and a best-selling author. In 2012, he was selected by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be a U.S. global cultural ambassador. In 2016, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. (Wikipedia.)

Source: Esquire
Last checked on: 8 July 2017