When Hoop Dreams was released in 1994 it set a new benchmark for sports documentaries. Following the trials and tribulations of two basketball proteges, director Steve James entered his own personal filmmaking odyssey, a journey that would last five years and produce a legacy that would last a lifetime.
As acclaimed critic Roger Ebert once said, Hoop Dreams is not just a great film about sporting achievement but “one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen”. Boasting an Academy Award nomination and topping countless “best of” lists, the story of African-American high school students Arthur Agee and William Gates is understandably a favourite of sports and non-sports fans alike.
Here we check out some of the best basketball documentaries released since Hoop Dreams.
The Last Dance
This richly detailed and compelling account of Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1998 features exclusive behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with NBA luminaries such as Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen. For fans, the archive footage provides a brilliantly exposé of the inner workings of a major basketball franchise during a fractious season for the Bulls. It is arguably the best basketball documentary since Steve James’ groundbreaking film.
The History of the FIBA Basketball World Cup
Released in 2019 prior to the FIBA World Cup, this four-part documentary celebrates the rich history of basketball outside North America. Showcasing the game’s huge popularity away from the glitz and glamour of the NBA, episodes include a look at the huge USSR-Yugoslavia rivalry that erupted in the 1970s and the growth of the game in Asia where it is now one of the top sports to bet on alongside cricket, football and horse racing. Indeed, basketball continues to contribute to the growing popularity of sports gambling in Asia and history was recently made when the Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers became the first team from any of the United States’ top professional sports leagues to play a game in India. $150 billion is spent every year on sports betting in India alone.
The Carter Effect
Unveiled in 2017, director Sean Menard’s film traces the impact of Vince Carter on Toronto after arriving in 1998. His exciting brand of basketball had a major impact on the city and the wider population as Canada embraced the NBA, his legacy underlined by a showstopping appearance in 2000 at the NBA Slam Dunk contest. Not just an eye-catching player within the new Raptors franchise, Carter helped set attendance records as spectators flocked to see him at the Skydome, his growing celebrity energising the city’s economy. He also helped build basketball courts to help the grassroots game in Canada flourish too.
The Fab Five
Remember the “Fab Five”? For those who don’t, they were the five recruits at Michigan University in 1991 who went on to be truly legendary. Registering record-breaking viewing figures when ESPN first aired the film in 2011 – it became the leading documentary – Jason Hehir takes an in-depth look at the rise of college basketball legends Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. From recruitment to making it to the NCAA National Championship game, the first starting Freshmen to do so, and the scandals that followed, this is a fascinating look at young players becoming stars.
More Than a Game – LeBron James
As the title of the film suggests, 2008 documentary More Than A Game traces the story of the NBA superstar. Featuring fellow players such as Sian Cotton, Willie McGee, Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce III, the group gain a growing following with the promise of their future potential as major NBA stars. It’s even said to have inspired Eminem, Drake, Kanye West and Lil Wayne’s rap song “Forever”, which has a strong message about coming from nothing to achieve big things – reflecting James’ past. It’s a feelgood film that keeps the message positive.
From the inspiring to the cautionary, from the triumphant to the scandalous, from the United States to the Far East, our selection of documentaries offers a compelling look at basketball life on and off the court. For anyone who admires Hoop Dreams, each of our choices is a must-see.