2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.
The story below was originally published in 2017. We’re resurfacing to celebrate Air Bud’s 23-year anniversary on August 1.
Air Bud was released in theaters 20 years ago Tuesday. In commemoration of this momentous cinematic event, we set out to interview some of the stars who made the movie a beloved family classic — but then we realized that nobody cared about the human actors involved. We liked Air Bud because of the dog who played basketball. So we set out to interview Air Bud — real name Buddy the Wonder Dog, an actual basket-scoring golden retriever. (Buddy’s other acting credit came in an episode of Full House in which Comet was portrayed as having basketball abilities.)
Unfortunately, Buddy is dead. He died shortly after Air Bud came out. Dogs usually do not live for 20 years, so the 20th anniversary of any dog-related movie tends to be somewhat depressing. (For some reason, no website was willing to publish my 2016 listicle “All 101 Dalmatians are probably dead now.”) Yet an anniversary is an anniversary, and rules are rules: The time has come to assess Buddy’s legacy — not just as a dog actor, but as one of the greatest athletes of all time.
In Air Bud, our titular canine helps his owner, Josh, win a middle school basketball championship. It’s surprising, but kids suck at sports. (Kids suck at everything. Dogs are better than kids. Don’t have a child. Adopt a dog.) What’s more surprising, though, is what happens over the course of Air Bud’s theatrically released sequel, Air Bud: Golden Receiver, and three subsequent direct-to-video installments: Air Bud plays four other sports and is much, much better at them than he was at basketball. This is an actual image from the fourth film, 2002’s Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch:
That’s right: Buddy was named World Series MVP.
This transformation from small-town novelty act to multisport legend is remarkable. It also begs some questions. So to celebrate one of the most accomplished pups ever to grace the big screen, we watched all five* Air Bud movies and ranked them in order of plausibility, from most to least.
*I do not consider the Air Bud spinoff series, Air Buddies — a group of seven films in which Bud’s talking puppies solve various mysteries — to be part of the Air Bud canon. Those dogs don’t even play sports.
1. ‘Air Bud’ (1997)
Buddy’s journey has humble beginnings. He plays a few minutes of one game against middle schoolers. All told, the dog-basketball in Air Bud is roughly within the realm of dog-basketball possibility. It’s acknowledged that Buddy can’t dribble — “but he drools,” says the team’s coach — or hold onto the ball. His method of scoring is having his owner lightly toss the ball in his direction so he can boop it hoopward:
Air Bud is effective on defense because he sees a bouncing ball and runs after it, sometimes reaching it:
His method of winning a jump ball is by barking:
The two main basketball strategies Air Bud employs are (1) chasing after a ball and (2) standing near his owner until his owner throws him the ball. To be honest, that’s an accurate depiction of how a dog would react if placed on a court during a game. There is no enhancement of Buddy’s dog talents, nor any false presumption that he understands basketball’s rules. Air Bud doesn’t pretend Buddy is the greatest basketball player of his era. He just helps some kids win one basketball game. (I must debunk the many viral tweets about the kid who got benched for Air Bud: Buddy does not check into the game until injuries leave Josh’s team with just four players.)
I believe an athletic dog could steal the ball from an uncoordinated child or chase down a loose ball. Is Buddy’s 100 percent shooting percentage a bit outlandish? Yes, but things are about to get significantly more so.
2. ‘Air Bud Spikes Back’ (2003)
Volleyball is an ideal sport for a dog. Dogs run fast, are great at switching directions, and love hitting balls in the air. I could see a dog being excellent at sprinting across a court to dig shots before they touch the ground. Every part of Air Bud playing volleyball is plausible.
Well, not every part:
Across the five Air Bud movies, I think this is the only shot that is clearly not executed by an actual dog.
Meanwhile, the B-plot of this movie features Buddy passing through a field of lasers at the behest of jewel thieves:
The sports parts of these movies are ridiculous, and yet they’re somehow less ridiculous than the B-plots: In Seventh Inning Fetch, Air Bud’s puppies get kidnapped by a raccoon trying to find out whether Air Bud’s DNA has a hereditary sports gene.
3. ‘Air Bud: Golden Receiver’ (1998)
Can we talk about how good the “golden receiver” pun is? I mean, if Buddy had been any other breed of dog, this series probably wouldn’t have made a football movie. My best dog breed–football position crossover attempts are “Rhodesian running back” and “corgiback.” Golden receiver is far superior.
In the film, Josh realizes that Buddy might want to play football and begins to explain why a dog shouldn’t do that. “Football’s not like basketball,” he says. “You might get hurt. And you have to wear all sorts of equipment.” At this point, Josh spots a bucket of dog-sized equipment and quickly allows Buddy to play football. Yeah, the padding was the real barrier.
Having a dog wide receiver is good because dogs are fast. My lazy-ass beagle is faster than Usain Bolt when running at top speed. The junior high competition Buddy faces is toast.
Beyond running, though, dogs are not built for this. For one, their tiny dog mouths are better suited to catching frisbees than footballs. Look at Buddy struggle to snag a pass:
Not to mention that because Buddy has to catch with his mouth, he’s a terrible target. His catch radius is, quite frankly, pathetic.
But the biggest issue here might be mental. Football is way too complex for dogs. Hell, football is way too complex for humans. Referees need to fill out 37-item notarized checklists to determine what is a catch and what is an incomplete pass. You know what a dog considers a catch? Anything. The dog is just happy the ball exists. It doesn’t care whether it hits the ground.
Dogs play fetch by staring at a ball until you throw it — not by properly aligning themselves at the line of scrimmage, like Buddy does:
My dog will sit, but she won’t stay. How did Josh teach his dog about illegal formation penalties? Why don’t opponents prompt Buddy to false start by pretending to throw a ball they aren’t even holding? How does Buddy know which end zone to defend and which to score in? On this play, Buddy strips a ballcarrier and then promptly reverses course to score a touchdown:
Oh, and here is Buddy participating in a double reverse:
The implication is that this team has a playbook, and Buddy has studied that playbook.
But Golden Receiver isn’t the least realistic Air Bud film. In fact, it contains a sense of gritty realism. It acknowledges the uncomfortable fact that if a teenager in full pads tackled a dog, that dog would get seriously injured:
That’s blatant pass interference. What game are the refs watching? (Oh, yeah — the one in a movie with a football-playing dog.)
Buddy helps Josh’s junior high team to the championship game, but Josh wins it on his own after Buddy gets taken out. Air Bud is an unnaturally smart dog in this movie, but he’s still a dog.
4. ‘Air Bud 3: World Pup’ (2000)
At first glance, soccer might seem like the easiest sport for a dog to play. Run around, hit a ball. Buddy is good at headers, because dogs like hitting balls with their head.
But whether you think Buddy would be a good soccer player comes down to your take on a timeless philosophical debate: How would a dog wear pants?
If you are a mindless dullard incapable of critical thought, you might be inclined to believe that a dog would wear a “pair” of pants with four leg holes that straddles the lower half of its body and somehow supports itself via the dog’s chest and anus. Using this interpretation, Buddy can be a soccer star. All of his limbs are legs.
If you’re a reasonable person who understands that a dog would wear pants around its hindquarters, though, you realize that a dog’s front legs are analogous to arms. And in this case, Buddy can barely play soccer without breaking the rules. Look at him run — he commits a handball violation every two steps:
The Air Bud universe’s answer to the dog-pants conundrum is obvious. Virtually every time Buddy is shown playing sports, he wears pants around his hind legs.
And yet, despite the films’ clear stance on dog pants, nobody seems to have a problem with Buddy’s repeated handballs. (Pawballs?) Nobody bats an eye when Buddy slams the ball into the net with his dog arms:
The dog-pants debate aside, most of this movie’s plot is normal: Buddy helps Josh — and Josh’s British girlfriend, Emma — win the state high school soccer championship. But things go off the rails in the last five minutes. Briana Scurry, the longtime goalie for the United States women’s national soccer team, shows up at the state championship game to tell Buddy, “We should play sometime.” Then, in a scene “four months later,” we see the United States and Norway participating in a penalty shootout to decide the Women’s World Cup final. Scurry gets injured diving to block a shot, and Buddy comes in to make the game-winning save.
I have at least 100 questions about this development, but my editor has asked me to narrow my list to 11. Here goes:
1. Why is Buddy — clearly established as a boy dog, given that he fathers puppies in this film — playing in the Women’s World Cup?
2. Could a girl dog play for the men’s national team? Does FIFA legislation indicate that all dogs are eligible to play for national teams of all genders?
3. Did the makers of Air Bud intend to imply that women, but not men, are worse than dogs at soccer?
4. Wait, come to think of it, how is Buddy eligible to play in any of the games in these movies? He isn’t enrolled in human school, is he?
5. Why did the U.S. national team turn to Buddy as a goalkeeper after the rest of the movie clearly established that his primary skill was goalscoring?
6. Why wasn’t the whole movie about Buddy as a goalie? Here, look at this extremely good Japanese goalie dog! Wouldn’t a film of this be great?
7. I hate to question an injured athlete, let alone two-time Olympic gold medalist Briana Scurry, one of the greatest players in the history of her position. But she doesn’t look that injured. Wouldn’t it take a horrific injury to cause her to sub out of the penalty shootout in a World Cup final?
8. How was Scurry even eligible to be subbed? Did the U.S. coach go 120 minutes of game time without using all of his subs in a World Cup final? He should be fired.
9. Most soccer teams carry three goalkeepers. Can Hollywood make a sequel about the professional goalie whom this coach decided was third-string behind Air Bud?
10. As Buddy steps into net, Brandi Chastain nervously tells a teammate, “They say he’s pretty good.” First of all, of course he’s good; he’s a dog. Dogs are good. Second of all, has nobody on the team seen Buddy play before? Has he not been training with the U.S. roster throughout the entire monthlong World Cup?
11. WHY DIDN’T THE NORWEGIAN PLAYER JUST KICK THE BALL MORE THAN 4 FEET IN THE AIR? SHE DIDN’T EVEN HAVE TO KICK IT HARD! JUST PUT THE BALL HIGH! BUDDY IS VERTICALLY LIMITED! I CANNOT STRESS ENOUGH HOW EASY IT SHOULD BE FOR A WORLD-CLASS PLAYER TO SUCCESSFULLY SCORE AGAINST A DOG.
5. ‘Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch’ (2002)
Thus far, I have tried to explain why a dog wouldn’t be able to understand the minutiae associated with playing various sports. No more. I do not feel the need to spell out why a dog would not be able to understand the concept of hitting a ball and running counterclockwise around the bases. If a dog hit a baseball, it would chase the baseball it just hit.
Even if we presuppose that Buddy understands the intricacies of baseball, though, Seventh Inning Fetch would still be the least plausible Air Bud film by several miles. Baseball would be one of the hardest sports for a dog to play, and yet it is the sport in which Buddy achieves his greatest success.
This is Air Bud hitting the ball:
You know that adage about keeping your eye on the ball? Buddy swings a bat by holding it in his mouth, meaning he looks in the opposite direction of the pitch when it’s thrown. And how would Buddy play the field? Would he hold the glove in his mouth? Or would he … oh, Jesus, no:
I would play Buddy in the outfield. He’s fast and loves chasing balls. For some reason, though, Buddy has been placed at first base in this movie. There is a big strategic problem with this: First basemen are supposed to use their long limbs to snag all sorts of balls without taking their foot off the bag, whereas Buddy doesn’t understand how to keep his foot on the base, and could catch only balls thrown near his head.
But there is also a bigger problem: Buddy would die if he tried to catch a hard-thrown baseball with his mouth. His snout and skull would shatter. There is a reason we lightly toss tennis balls to our dogs instead of gunning fastballs at their faces.
And yet, after helping Josh’s middle-school-aged sister, Andrea, play with the boys in high school — the actor who played Josh was apparently too old to be the star of a kid’s movie by 2002, or maybe just tired of working on movies where he played second fiddle to a dog — Buddy gets a call from the Anaheim Angels and wins World Series MVP.
The movie doesn’t show us much of Air Bud’s World Series performance; we just see him recording the final out of the decisive game, putting the finishing touch on a 6–4–3 double play. So we’re left to imagine what happened that made this dog — who, again, can’t look at a pitch and swing at the same time — into the greatest player in baseball. Maybe Buddy walked during every one of his plate appearances because nobody was capable of throwing pitches inside his 5-inch strike zone?
Or maybe Buddy was just juicing. Honestly, that’s the best explanation for how Buddy went from a contributing player on a middle school basketball team in rural Washington to the best player on the best baseball team in the world. Air Bud probably did steroids.