This is our new series #ifthissitecouldtalk on things that are so this site it hurts. Or for the LOTR fans, things that literally feel like they were bred from the caverns of an MMH Isengard. We tip this off with Spike Lee’s 1998 He Got Game. Here’s Sasha and Cody’s written back-and-forth on this movie meets hoops masterpiece.
Cody and I both rewatched it last night and sent emails back and forth about the movie. Here’s what we got.
Sasha: Sweet Jesus, there’s a million directions to go in. Let’s start big picture. Better? As expected? Or worse than you remembered?
Cody: So I had definitely seen it before. I think when I was in college back around 2005. The cop out answer was that some parts of it were better than I remembered and others were worse. I don’t think that we needed the plot line with Milla Jovovich at all. I get that it is there to round out Jake’s story and all of that, but every time we were in one of those scenes, I could feel myself losing interest.
That said, Denzel was even better than I remembered. His performance is so nuanced. He has such anger in him and yet he clearly loves his children. He’s so good. I know, hot take. The other thing that I had no recollection of was how stylized the whole thing was with the cut aways and the Aaron Copland score. That pairing was sometimes jarring, but overall I enjoyed the juxtaposition. How about you?
Sasha: Oh man, yeah you hit on a lot here. I took notes last night and one of them was literally “did we need the Milla Jovovich plot?” Didn’t get it. At one point there’s like a 3 minute sex scene with her and Denzel… felt so excessive. I will say, this was her first role following The Fifth Element. I do kinda love the idea of Spike watching Fifth and being like, “get her.” And the producer’s like Mr. Lee, “there’s no role for her in this.” Spike, “just make it work.”
Yeah Denzel is tremendous. Despite killing his wife—and let me pause to say that scene is BRUTAL, skin crawling—I never felt like he was a bad guy. The way Denzel shaped the character, it felt like he was more a victim of poverty and institutionalized racism than an evil, abusive father and husband. One passing moment that struck me was when Jake confronts LaLa (one of my favorite scenes in the rewatch that I want to return to), he meets LaLa’s other guy D’Andre and asks him “you got a Range Rover?” He says it with such vicious disdain. Just like this deeply sown bitterness and anger that someone—even another black person—has access to a lifestyle and luxury that he’s never known.
Honestly man, it was so much better than I remembered. Maybe I was just excited to drink the movie meets hoops Kool-aid, but I loved it. There are famous scenes that have been etched into my mind for the last 15 years—the father-son 1v1 game, Jesus’s visit to Tech U—and of course those were still great. But in this rewatch it was everything around them that stood out. The opening montage, everything Rosario Dawson does (also I’m sorry, but it is impossible to be more beautiful than Rosario Dawson), the scene with the super agent, the scene where Jake tells Jesus he was named after Earl the Pearl! Just sublime. What’s a part that was better than you remembered?
Cody: Biiiiig Rosario Dawson fan over here. She makes fun choices too. Seems like a good hang.
I was ready to shred Ray Allen before the rewatch. But you know what, he was better than I remembered. I think having a really good player was more important than having a really good actor. If we didn’t believe the basketball part, none of the drama would have landed anyway. I heard that Spike was initially looking at Kobe for the role. What a fascinating turn that would have been. Kobe was this player anyway, right? Not the upbringing part, but the choice? Still, Ray was good. I totally bought the “it’s illegal” line he throws around the whole movie. Ray has that innocent image where Kobe did not. Well, maybe at the time.
Who would you recast it with now? Has to be a young rookie to pull off the high school part.
Sasha: Yeah I agree that Ray held it down. His performance is a little reminiscent of Mitch Kramer in Dazed and Confused. It wasn’t amazing, but it was enough to carry us through such a captivating journey surrounded by such a strong cast. Two Ray moments that stood out:
1.) I think his strongest scene is when he and Rosario break up on the park bench. Pretty deep, pretty powerful. I really believed he loved her, but he’s leaving for college and conflicted in the way we all were at that time with our high school loves.
2.) His facial expressions when Rick Fox brings him to the threesome: priceless.
Yes, Kobe was Spike’s first choice. I’m also glad it was Ray. I did read that Allen Iverson was in consideration. Now that intrigues me.
Right, recasting… So keeping it in the family, John David Washington as Jake, but who plays Jesus…? You know I’m not sure any of the current rookies have it. I think I’d rather watch Gigli than see this movie with LeMelo Ball. So I’m going to just go with a young player. I think this movie with Trae Young would be hilarious, but probably not great. Does Ja Morant have enough chutzpah for this role? Maybe! You know who I was kinda thinking? Jayson Tatum. Feels like Jayson’s been around forever, but he’s actually the same age that Ray was during filming (both 22). But you know what man, it would seem the decision may have already been made!
Cody: Zion was my first choice! He’s got the charisma to pull it off. I do think Ja has it. He’s magnetic on the court and I think that could translate. I saw A.I. was considered originally. That would have been dope. He would have broken Denzels ankle so badly by accident.
Sasha: think we got to return to the score, which you mentioned in your open. The true MMH holy grail: discussing the music in a movie about hoops. I can hear a choir of angels singing as I write this.
Using Copland was obviously a cool, bold choice. I’m a huge fan. It certainly adds a grandeur to the movie that is powerful. I do wonder if it is distracting at times? Sometimes it pulled me out of the film instead of living inside it. Which I guess happens when you repurpose previously written music instead of writing an original score. I would have loved to see John Williams, Danny Elfman, Trent Renzor and Atticus Ross or even like Dr. Dre take a swing.
What’d you think??
Cody: I thought the juxtaposition was a cool choice 85% of the time. I feel like basketball is a beautiful game and the score gave the ball soaring through the air such a balletic quality. But I completely agree that for 15% I wanted more Public Enemy.
You mentioned the Lala breakup. How did you feel about that plot line? It bugged me that she was saying this agent was a friend of the family as cover. You’ve been together how long and you’re just bringing this good friend up now? Suspicious. But I totally bought her motivation to get something out of it too.
Sasha: Yeah great question. She has a great line like, “what’s in it for LaLa?” Very humanizing. We think about these NBA stars who go on to get everything and secure their families financial futures for generations to come. But what about the people they leave behind? I totally get her wanting to leverage her situation into something while she can.
One piece that stood out to me was how you see her with another guy before the absolutely salacious ferris wheel scene. To me that was such compelling sequencing. You can’t really enjoy the passion of that moment because you know about these darker layers.
Hey, I wanted to ask you about the beginning and the end. I thought both really held up. The opening with the slow motion basketball montage is so good and desperately made me want to go to the park and get shots up. Also the credit font was perfectly 90s. And of course the iconic ending with the ball coming through the rafters and the lights flickering because the frame rate is so slow. Which did you like more?
Cody: Great call on the sequencing. We see Lala with another dude and then we get the ferris wheel scene. Then we get Jesus cheating (a sentence I never thought I’d write) and then we find out he asked her to get an abortion. So the layers that Spike drops one on top of another, right when we think we’re getting a handle on things is so good.
As for your question, the beginning is so much better than the end. I say that because I love the “basketball is universal” message of the beginning. I also say it because I hate the end!! All of a sudden we’re in a world where magic exists??? Is Big State’s starting power forward an Elf? I would have appreciated some symbolic imagery, but the fact that Jesus picks up the ball. I mean…I get it. It wasn’t for me.
Speaking of Big State, what did you think about the school names? Obviously they got real coaches of real teams and real NBA players to be in it. But, they went with generic “Tech U” and “Big State” for the schools. It took me a minute, but then I enjoyed the capitalistic, they’re all the same nature of it. It was about the symbol of the school, not which school it was. Much better than that basketball throwing garbage.
Sasha: I agree, I think Big State and Tech U worked. I think it was a quasi-referendum on big time college athletics. Yeah the coaching montage was great! A classic. Who was your favorite cameo? I liked George Karl! Looked great with a beard.
Cody: I don’t know if it counts as a cameo, but Walter McCarty as Mance. He looked 45 already. He was only like 24. But he certainly wasn’t 18. I thought Barkley really delivered in his two seconds.
Sasha: HA! Alright my man, I’ve loved revisiting this classic with you. Any final thoughts before we turn our attention to turkey?
Cody: My final point is about where Jesus Shuttlesworth stood in the real sports world landscape. Like what was his comp, what was his career like? I did a little digging. In the background of one scene, there’s a giant Sports Illustrated cover blown up on his wall. Now initially, I was thinking he was supposed to be young Kobe, as we mentioned. I went back and checked however, and Kobe didn’t have a Sports Illustrated cover. And this is 1998, so Kobe was already an established talent and there weren’t the same reservations around taking a guard out of high school. I don’t believe that Jesus has Kobe’s true killer instinct. I think having the upbringing he had actually softened him a little bit, rather than making him harder. Still a competitor, for sure. Just maybe not maniacal.
He goes to Big State, puts up great numbers. His soul is more at peace thanks to whatever magic bullshit happened at the end of the movie. So he plays really well. He’s one and done. Is he better than Steve Francis or Baron Davis, the first two guards off the board in the 1999 draft? I think so, but he’s not a point guard. No way he drops past 5. He ends up on Toronto with Vince Carter and T-Mac. We can see from his relationship with Booger that he’s a team player and thrives sharing the limelight with Vince. If they can somehow still swing Bosh in ‘03, that’s championship team. Otherwise, he’s moved out when Vince and T-Mac are. He is the most coachable player ever according to several people in the movie so organizations want to bring him in. At worst, he’s the second star on one of those mishmash title teams like the 2011 Mavericks. Best case he’s a Hall of Famer. Okay, this is supposed to be an email and not an article so I’m going to stop there. It’s a fascinating movie. Thanks for talking it out with me. Happy Thanksgiving!
Sasha: Wow you really went there. Here’s a hot take: his career was similar to that of Ray Allen. 😉 Sorry that’s dumb. Alright, to close out, here are some bullet points from my notes that we didn’t cover:
Favorite line from the movie comes when Denzel goes to buy the new Jordan’s and the sneaker employee sees his ankle monitor and Denzel says, “I have arthritis” and the guy responds “my cousin has the same arthritic condition, it’s been going around here in Cooney Island.”
It was on this viewing that I realized the daughter is named Mary! Keeping the biblical theme going.
Great moment: when the team is playing pick up and they get in an argument and one of the guys turns and launches a full court shot and it goes in. So good. I wonder if that was scripted?
John Turturro in the one scene as the Tech U coach is way too good. When Ray almost steals the ball from Turturro while he’s dribbling and giving his big hype speech… smh.
I caught that after Denzel banks in a three in the 1v1 with Ray, he says “call me The Leprechaun.” All time stuff right there.
When Ray and Booger are in the car with Big Time and he’s talking about life in the NBA, there is like a two minute sequence that you could lift right out and would be a pretty amazing anti-drug and alcohol commercial.
I think my favorite sequence in the film is Jake confronting LaLa—his chemistry with Rosario is absolute fire—he punches D’Andre, he starts walking the streets, has a lollipop, runs into Booger, finds the parole officers having Nathan’s hotdogs who give him money to get a hooker (????) and then he picks up Milla. It’s just a flawless 8 minutes.
I am so glad this movie exists in the world. In the words of Mary, “praise the lord and thank you Jesus.”