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He Got Game is basketball poetry

As the film approaches its 25th anniversary, we explore what makes He Got Game the most thoughtful basketball film of all time.

From the beginning of He Got Game, director Spike Lee displays what makes basketball such a beloved art form: its universality. The opening credits flow over a montage of players from all over the world–some New York streetball legends, others farmers from the midwest shooting hoops at baskets made from all manner of sacred junk. Then, over composer Aaron Copeland’s “John Henry,” the montage gathers these various places, faces, and skin tones together, all galvanized by basketball. 

He Got Game (1998)

We watch American men and women tighten their handles, perfect their form, and hoist up shots at daybreak, dusk, and night. Lee shows us what makes basketball beloved, as in the end, all you need is a ball and a basket. He Got Game begins with this simple premise, then weaves a tapestry about the scope, politics, and outright corruption within what scholar William C. Rhoden called the “conveyor belt,” of the prep-school-to-NBA pipeline. It’s a heavy movie. 

The story of He Got Game centers around the fictional Jesus Shuttlesworth, played by Hall-of-Famer Ray Allen. Co-star Denzel Washington plays Jesus’s father Jake Shuttlesworth, a felon on temporary bail thanks to shadowy figures at the highest levels of New York politics. Jake is released on the condition that he convinces his son to attend the Governor’s alma mater, despite Jake and Jesus having no meaningful relationship and Jesus having better offers elsewhere. If he fails, he heads back to prison, though as Lee likes to point out, it’s not as black-and-white as it might seem. 

He Got Game is about more than a game

Allen may play the lead, but basketball is the main character. By naming the protagonist Jesus, Lee comments on our culture’s need for saviors and how we look to entertainers, actors, and ball players to fill this role. While Lee enlists a who’s who of basketball minds to expound on Jesus as basketball’s messiah, he is only here to save himself. And in another rebellion against cinematic history, for once, that’s a good thing. 

Through his lifelong obsession with basketball, most notably as the most public New York Knicks fan, Lee has positioned himself as the ideal conduit for a thoughtful basketball film. Lee keeps the sport sacred while admitting the players as pawns to morality wars, siding with the defenseless in their struggle to survive. There’s a real “love the player, hate the game” energy flowing throughout, but the player, in this case, is the game of basketball itself. But what is the game, then?

Throughout the film, many real and fictional people comment on what Jesus can do for basketball. But what Jesus is trying to find is his authentic self outside of the basketball court. Lee pits Jesus against basketball to explore how the game, when stripped down to its simplest form, putting a ball through a basket, can be a metaphor for life. With his father out of prison on a mission for his freedom, Jesus has no allies but himself. This isolation pushes him internally, where he must find the resolve to resist temptation (which the movie portrays as venomous women, cash, and fame) to achieve inner nirvana. It’s all tempting, and even though he’s a fundamentally good kid, sometimes even his incredible self-control can’t protect Jesus from hurt. 

A basketball masterpiece

The film reveals the prep to pro-pipeline as an onion, and peeling back each layer reveals a deeper level of corruption. For Jesus, everyone, including his girlfriend, father, teammates, coach, and uncle, has ulterior motives for which school he should choose. Lee’s critique extends beyond just the basketball scene, but through all of New York, ensnaring political figures on every level who abuse young athletes to feed their narratives. And though there’s a lot of politics, He Got Game is always about basketball–in the way that basketball is never just about basketball. 

Lee mines the willful and lusty energies of his central characters as they try to escape literal and metaphorical prisons. Through his camera work, blocking, and sharp dialogue, Lee establishes himself as a genius of irony. The legacy of Jesus Shuttlesworth is set against the trappings of man, nature, and the conveyor belt that brings poor high school athletes to elite college campuses. As we learn to trust in Jesus to do the right thing, we witness a man exit the prisons of society and come out on the other side a freer man. Pretty good for just a basketball movie, I’d say.