He Got Game, 25 Years Later
Spike Lee has long been associated with basketball. He made iconic Nike commercials with Michael Jordan, and he’s been a courtside fixture at New York Knicks games for decades. And 25 years ago, Lee made a movie about basketball, He Got Game.
It’s very Lee, especially from that era: It shows an abiding love of the game, fine characterizations, and a great deal of messiness. Despite some virtues, He Got Game probably lands in the bottom half of Lee’s filmography.
He Got Game arrived in May of 1998, 25 years ago this week, and it sought to make a grand statement about the game of basketball, as well as the various temptations and corruptions around it. It told the story of a young, gifted athlete with sympathy, at a time when that was far from the default cultural position, especially when it came to basketball players.
The year 1998 was far from the “player empowerment” ethos of today; those were the days when mainstream sportswriters would regularly refer to basketball players as “thugs,” and rarely think about sympathizing with them.
He Got Game starred NBA star and future basketball Hall of Famer Ray Allen in the lead role of Jesus Shuttlesworth, a basketball phenom from Brooklyn who is heading towards making a decision about where to play his college ball. The movie arrived after Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant went right from high school to the NBA, and about five years before LeBron James did the same.
His father Jake (Denzel Washington) is in prison for having killed Jesus’ mother, and with Jesus’ decision nearing, the governor of New York pushes a corrupt prison warden (Ned Beatty) to put Jake on work release, if he can persuade Jesus to go play at the governor’s alma mater, Big State University. (In a very Lee-like fashion, the colleges have goofy names like “Big State” and “Tech U.”)
He Got Game is at its best when he shows the difficulties and temptations of being a superstar athlete who’s just 19 years old and about to make a ton of money. Of course, everyone who knows him knows this, and when they’re not asking him to announce his college choice, they’re hitting him up for money. Meanwhile, unscrupulous agents are offering him money to sign and go straight to the pros, and women are throwing themselves at him, including ’90s porn stars Jill Kelly and Chasey Lain in one scene.
This sports movie’s “big game at the end” is a one-on-one matchup between father and son, in which Jesus’ college decision is on the line.
The film benefits from a counterintuitive but very good score by classical composer Aaron Copland, along with music by Public Enemy, whose “Fight the Power” famously opened Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
Ray Allen, who was cast just a couple of years into his NBA career, isn’t really a natural actor, and he did very little acting after He Got Game. He’s believable as a young basketball phenom — he was one, after all — but isn’t quite up to the big dramatic scenes. The rest of the cast is a mixture of real basketball luminaries, and actors familiar from Lee’s movies (John Turturro, Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith.)
Meanwhile, a subplot, starring Milla Jovovich as a sex worker who Washington helps and later starts dating, probably could have been dropped entirely without the movie losing anything.
He Got Game arrived during a middling part of Lee’s career (he made the very good Summer of Sam a year later, Bamboozled in 2000, the great 25th Hour in 2002, and his worst film, She Hate Me, in 2002.) I would love to see him give a basketball movie another shot.