“‘I got you $7 million.’ [I was like], ‘When do you want me to start shooting?’”
That’s how Shaquille O’Neal describes being lured into making Kazaam by director Paul Michael Glaser, a hilarious, honest admission that dollar signs outweighed any and all other considerations. Kazaam, as I’m sure you already know, turned out to be an awful movie. But Shaq once owned a custom-made, 30-foot-wide bed with the Superman logo on it, so who cares?
Shaquille O’Neal’s foray into film is just one drop of water in a rich history of NBA players acting in movies. Not to be confused with basketball movies in which professionally trained actors take the role of a basketball player or two (Love & Basketball), I’m talking about movies featuring a familiar face from the NBA. It is a tradition that dates back decades — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appeared in Bruce Lee’s final film, The Game of Death, in 1978 — and continues today with Blake Griffin’s supporting role in Whitney Cummings’s new rom-com, The Female Brain, which can be watched in select U.S. theaters and VOD right now at your own risk. In that span, many have taken the leap from hardwood to Hollywood: Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, John Salley, Ray Allen, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, and, of course, Gheorghe Muresan. (My Giant is an objective treasure.)
In honor of this rich history, we’re staging a Basketball-Player-Actors Oscars of sorts. We’ll hand out individual awards to players for their specific achievements, all in the lead-up to officially naming the best basketball-player actor ever. The winner will definitely not be Shaq for Kazaam, but let’s get to the proceedings before I spoil anything else.
Most Outstanding Performance in a Cameo: Dirk Nowitzki, Like Mike
There are a ton of NBA players who make cameos in Like Mike — shout-out to Jason Kidd getting torched by a small child on an inbound play — but the single best cameo has to go to Dirk. After a game our guy’s just trying to get an autograph from Calvin “I’m Basically Isaiah Thomas” Cambridge, playing it off as something he’s doing for his cousin.
Dirk’s not quick-witted enough to come up with anything when Calvin asks what his cousin’s name is, so he just says, “Dirk.” What makes it so damn funny is how insecure he sounds confessing that he wants an autograph from a 14-year-old. The response gets this incredible reaction from acclaimed thespian Lil’ Bow Wow (which is to say: Dirk might also be a better actor than Bow Wow).
Most Outstanding Incorporation of Actual Basketball Skills in a Movie: Ray Allen, He Got Game
The story has been told enough times that it’s immortalized in Spike Lee lore. For the scene in He Got Game when Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) plays his estranged father, Jake (Denzel Washington), one-on-one, the director let the NBA player and Oscar winner go at it. Denzel played some JV ball in college, so he drops a few buckets on Allen despite the script not calling for it. That leads to a moment on the court when Allen definitely must’ve been like, “Wow, I really have to beat Denzel in basketball,” and busted out his skills.
The matchup itself has a ton of emotional weight; Jesus is taking the court against the man who killed his mother, trying to get him to sign a letter of intent at a university to gain his own freedom. There are feelings behind this, and Allen delivers the pathos just as powerfully as Denzel. The actual basketball being played also looks very real, and very good. A quick note: You can rewatch this awesome scene above, but the longest clip on YouTube is in Hungarian. Spike Lee fans, please fix this. And Spike Lee lawyers, please ignore this.
Most Well-Rounded Acting Career: Rick Fox
Rick Fox carved out a fine NBA career playing with the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics; he was never the star, but he was the consummate, dependable role player. Turns out, that’s also a good way to describe his acting career.
He’s had minor roles in movies like Lee’s He Got Game, Resurrection, and Eddie, as well as appearances on 35 different TV shows. Perhaps Fox’s best performance was a recurring role in HBO’s prison drama Oz, where he played an ex-athlete who was convicted of rape. He appeared in 11 episodes across four seasons, delivering a performance that’s memorably dark and gritty for a guy who’s typically charismatic. If a show or movie ever needs a “glue guy” to round out its cast, and it doesn’t matter if that character is 6-foot-7, Fox is the guy to call.
Worst Motion Picture: A Two-Way Tie Between Shaquille O’Neal’s Kazaam and Shaquille O’Neal’s Steel
[Deep breath] Let’s get to Kazaam first, which O’Neal still gets roasted about to this day. It’s bad — like, the cinematic equivalent of one of O’Neal’s half-assed endorsements for Icy Hot bad. O’Neal said the reason Paul Michael Glaser even approached him about the movie was because Glaser’s son had a dream about Shaq being a genie. That makes sense, because the whole thing has a “my kid just made this up in his head and we rolled with it” feel. Originally, Glaser considered doing a “rap musical,” because he knew O’Neal liked to rap. It’s hard to say if that idea would’ve turned out worse.
However, Steel might be the bigger sin to cinema. This was a comic book movie that came out the same year as Batman & Robin. Batman & Robin takes all the blame for being the reason Hollywood became apprehensive about making superhero movies for a while because it had George Clooney with Bat Nipples, but Steel had to be a contributing factor as well. It had predictable plotting, cringeworthy dialogue, wonky effects, a washed Judd Nelson, and worst of all, O’Neal’s bad acting.
Most Outstanding Performance by an NBA Star Playing Himself: A Two-Way Tie Between LeBron James in Trainwreck and Michael Jordan in Space Jam
Fact: When you can get the best players of their respective generations for a movie, you let them play themselves. Michael Jordan was very much a Brand when he starred in Space Jam, a delightful film and a great example of why you shouldn’t always trust Rotten Tomatoes. No film critic alive can contend that Space Jam is bad. Michael Jordan leads a team of literal cartoons to victory over a group of alien monsters who stole the basketball mojo of Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, and Muggsy Bogues. He has a convincing friendship with Bill Murray. His arm stretches half the length of the basketball court to score a game-winning bucket. Space Jam is great; that’s final.
Meanwhile, if you had told me in 2003 that LeBron James would have a breakout movie role in a film by the Freaks and Geeks guy, well, I wouldn’t have believed you. (Also, I was 11 years old in 2003, so I probably would’ve told you that my parents don’t let me talk to strangers.) But James is excellent in Trainwreck, like when he’s deadpan while low-key threatening Amy Schumer not to break Bill Hader’s heart while they’re dating. It’s just that much funnier because, in the movie, that is LeBron James threatening someone not to hurt his adult friend’s feelings.
Most Outstanding Comedic Performance: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane!
This is another instance of an NBA player playing himself, but this film also exists in a surreal world where Kareem moonlights as airline copilot Roger Murdock. Airplane! is one of the best comedies ever made, and, while Kareem is just a small part of it, he has one of its best bits, when a little kid recognizes him in the cockpit and eventually spurs the Lakers star to reveal his identity. “Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes!” Kareem shouts, after the kid says his dad thinks he doesn’t hustle enough.
For a few reasons, I’m relieved that Kareem nabbed this role over Airplane!’s original choice: Pete Rose.
Most Egregious Misuse of Talent: Blake Griffin, The Female Brain
When he’s not punching equipment managers or getting injured, Blake Griffin is a funny guy. His stand-up comedy is surprisingly good! It’s funny when he mimes making a cool pass in the club in Broad City! Being in L.A. for nearly a decade — and doing that many Kia commercials — it was inevitable that Griffin would appear in a comedy. It’s just a shame that comedy had to be The Female Brain. Griffin isn’t given anything to work with; in a movie full of clichés, he’s forced to bounce off jokes about himself being a professional athlete.
The saddest part of all of this is that Griffin was just traded to Detroit; he might not get another chance to flex his comedic chops for a while. But hey, at least in the press release for The Female Brain, Whitney Cummings said that Griffin’s improv skills had everyone “literally in tears laughing.” Clearly, Griffin was the bright spot of an otherwise lackluster team effort — kind of like his entire career with the Clippers!
Most Awkward Performance With the Benefit of Hindsight: Kevin Durant, Thunderstruck
There are a couple of things here. Most importantly, how do OKC Thunder fans feel about this very bad VOD movie now that its star has bolted from the team to the one that beat them in the conference finals?
Secondly, Thunderstruck’s plot — a Like Mike–Space Jam mash-up in which a Thunder fan wishes he could be a great basketball player and accidentally steals Durant’s skills when they meet in person — might explain whatever’s going on with Markelle Fultz. The Sixers need to scour every Chick-fil-A within a 200-mile radius for unexpectedly great basketball prodigies.
Most On-Brand: Dennis Rodman, Double Team
Two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner Dennis Rodman actually says the words, “Defense wins the game” in this movie.
And now for the award you’ve been waiting for. Who is the best basketball-player actor? We’ve been blessed with a few great performances over the years, and also Shaquille O’Neal, but the winner here is—shield your eyes, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo — Ray Allen!
Allen doesn’t have as many credits under his belt as Rick Fox does, and he wasn’t playing himself like LeBron, Jordan, and Kareem were, but let’s consider a few things. For starters, most of these basketball-player actors aren’t anchoring a movie in the same way that Allen was in He Got Game. Jordan was sharing the screen with the Looney Tunes; Allen held his own opposite Denzel Washington.
His starring turn as Jesus Shuttlesworth isn’t anywhere close to being Oscar-worthy, but Allen was nominated for Best Breakthrough Performance at the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, which is still cool. And I can’t emphasize this enough: Ray Allen held his own on the screen with two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington.
Is Ray Allen the best basketball player to ever act? Yes. He got game.