The 5 Best NBA Player/Actors

michael-jordan-in-space-jam-1996BY BRIAN GODAR

In honor of Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday and Space Jam’s 12-year theatrical release anniversary last week, I look back at some of the NBA’s most transcendent stars; players going beyond athletics and taking on the mantle of actors. Most of the time, the movies are bad or gimmicky, or the players discover that their acting talents don’t run nearly as deep as their athletic prowess. Luckily, this almost never has any effect on how entertaining the movie itself is, and it can actually make a movie better when an athlete-actor is bad. Sometimes the role in question requires someone to ham up the acting, and rather than embarrass a real actor, you can hire an athlete who is doing this for fun and will actually make the role better.

It works the other way around, too. It’s hilarious to see how bad regular people are at shooting a basketball, throwing a baseball, or handling a puck, which is why halftime half court shots, first pitches, and intermission “Fan Challenge” puck shooting exist. It’s sad when a professional performs poorly in their own field, but it’s hilarious to watch someone from a different field tries and fails. With that in mind, here are some of the better acting moment from NBA stars as well as some of the best anti-acting moments, where an athlete’s lack of acting talent actually increases the value of their performance.

5. Rick Fox – Eddie

I’m not going to lie; this is not a good movie. It’s a mid-90’s Whoopi Goldberg movie, and that should tell you everything you need to know. However, it is entertaining, which is the only criteria I have for watching a movie. In Eddie, Goldberg plays an obsessive Knicks fan (Obviously a huge stretch. As we all know, Knicks fans are never obsessive) who wins a chance to coach the team during the second half of a game. Being a movie, she ends up the head coach of the team through the remainder of the season (did I mention that the Knicks really suck in this movie? That’s pretty key to the whole thing). Hijinks ensue. Rick Fox plays one of the stars on the struggling Knicks who is inspired by Goldberg’s unconventional coaching and finds that he is more talented than he thought. I know, typing out that last sentence was like vomiting clichés directly into my keyboard. If you haven’t seen the movie, insert the appropriate memories of similar movies such as Angels in the Outfield, The Replacements, or, keeping it in the same sport, Air Bud.

The reality is that I could include Rick Fox in most of the movies on this list. The man was a prolific actor even before he retired from the NBA, racking up roles in Blue Chips, He Got Game, and Eddie. Seeing as how he is now most well-known for his roles in Tyler Perry productions, I thought that this homage to one of his first bad roles was most appropriate.

4. Wilt Chamberlain – Conan the Destroyer

wilt-conan-the-destroyer

The only thing more exciting than Arnold making his second appearance as Conan is the promise of a fight-to-the-death between Arnold and Wilt “The Big Dipper” Chamberlain. Wilt plays the head of the Queen’s guard who is tasked with spying on then killing Conan before he can complete his mission. Being a big man in the NBA and playing a barbarian, Wilt’s role includes all the requisite grunts, two-word sentences, and lumbering movements that any fan of 80’s movie villains knows far too well, a la Ivan Drago.

3. Shaquille O’Neal – Blue Chips

Remember when I said some athletes realize their acting talent isn’t as deep as their athletic prowess? Shaquille O’Neal personifies that.  Blue Chips is a great movie with solid acting from Nick Nolte and the rest of the cast, but the role of Neon Boudeaux, played by Shaq, is just as one-dimensional and emotionless as the real big man. There’s something about Shaq’s ultra-deep voice and lumbering proportions that doesn’t lend itself well to displaying the emotions we have come to expect from actors, and as such the role seems to be Shaq acting as himself in the movie. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Shaq is a very entertaining person. In fact, Shaq acting like Shaq is what got him his second big movie, Kazaam. Blue Chips is a great movie, but the reason it is on this list is because it introduced Shaq to acting, opening the gates for Kazaam. Also, this list is all about basketball movies. I just really wanted to remind everyone about how awesome Kazaam was.

2. Ray “Jesus Shuttlesworth” Allen – He Got Game

he-got-game

This is the best movie on the list in terms of acting, script, directing, and almost every aspect on which you judge a movie. Any list focusing on what makes a sports movie great would feature He Got Game at number one, hands-down. Ray Allen plays Jesus Shuttlesworth, the top-ranked basketball prospect in the country. His father, a convicted criminal played by Denzel Washington, is let out of prison by the governor of New York for one week to convince his son to go to the governor’s alma mater in exchange for having his sentence drastically shortened. That’s the entire plot. You know when a plot is that short and nuanced, and it doesn’t involve some fantastical adventure, that the movie is probably pretty good, or at least trying to be.  The film explores the relationship between father and son as Washington goes from only wanting his sentence commuted to really caring about what happens to his son and wanting what is best for him. Ray Allen delivers a great performance as Jesus Shuttlesworth, and Denzel Washington is phenomenal as Jake Shuttlesworth.

1. Michael Jordan (along with Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, and Shawn Bradley) – Space Jam

Where does one start with this movie? As a precursor, it should be mentioned that Space Jam is one of my favorite movies of all time. When this movie came out on VHS in 1997, I watched it every single day for over a month. It was one of the greatest combinations my 9-year-old mind could imagine: Looney Tunes and Michael Jordan. Sure, Jordan’s acting wasn’t the greatest and it had a decidedly childish feel, but this movie was groundbreaking. This was one of the first movies to ever feature a real person being filmed in a 100% CGI environment, with Jordan needing to pretend that there were people around who could actually guard him. Considering the people wearing the green ping-pong ball suits were most likely not NBA All-Stars, any time Jordan makes a move that looks even somewhat legitimate is a great acting feat.

I love the message this movie is sending, too. This movie was made when Michael Jordan came back to the NBA after his first retirement and failed baseball experience. At that point in time, critics and fans alike were wondering how good Jordan would be when he came back. To silence the critics while getting more people to watch the movie, the message was simple, ridiculous and 100% Michael Jordan: even with a team full of cartoon characters that are around 4 feet tall, Michael Jeffrey Jordan can still beat a team comprised of some of the best talent in the NBA (plus Shawn Bradley and Muggsy Bogues). The real reason Space Jam is number one on this list is because the entire production boils down to Michael Jordan giving the middle finger to the entire NBA for doubting him, and that is a message that I can get behind.

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2 thoughts on “The 5 Best NBA Player/Actors

  1. Danny Hazan says:

    I loved He Got Game when I saw it in the theaters twice when I was 14. I watched it on HBO a couple years ago and was blown away by how awful it was. I give Ray Allen a pass for being a crappy actor because that isn’t his profession – but if I was going over corniest scripts in the history of Hollywood, I’d definitely throw He Got Game into the mix. Maybe it was just a reflection of how awful a generation the late 90’s will go down based on language and dress, but because of this I think Kareem Abdul Jabbar should be on this list instead of Ray Allen.

    Jabbar’s performance in Airplane is classic and has withstood the test of time. Even though it’s just a cameo, his scenes in the cockpit are still quotable to this day.

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