After setting himself apart as Hollywood's most prominent black director with a succession of classic films that includes She's Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X and Get On The Bus, Spike Lee capped off his decade of dominance with He Got Game, a sports drama that revolves around the high-stakes recruitment of a high school basketball player and his strained relationship with his incarcerated father.
Starring Denzel Washington in the role of Jake Shuttlesworth, who was incarcerated after accidentally murdering his wife, He Got Game paired the veteran actor with professional basketball player Ray Allen, who made his acting debut as Jesus Shuttlesworth, a highly-touted guard out of Brooklyn's Lincoln High School. Released from prison and tasked with convincing his son to sign a letter-of-intent to attend and play basketball at the fictional Big State University in exchange for an early prison release, the elder Shuttlesworth has a week to get the job done but runs into a myriad of obstacles, particularly Jesus himself.
With a supporting cast that includes Milla Jovovich, John Turturro, Rosario Dawson, Hill Harper, Zelda Harris and Lonette McKee, He Got Game would be another success for Spike Lee, grossing $7,610,663 at the U.S. box offices and debuting at No. 1 during its opening weekend. The film would also be critically acclaimed, earning nominations at the 1999 NAACP Image Awards, as well as the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, where Ray Allen was included in the category of Best Breakthrough Male Performance, and has become one of Spike Lee's signature films and is largely considered to be a classic.
In celebration of its 20 year anniversary, The Boombox compiled a list of 10 reasons why He Got Game remains one of the most beloved films of its time.
Filmed between July and September 1997, the scenic aspects of He Got Game, which takes place in Coney Island, Brooklyn, would captivate viewers and give them a glimpse of life in the concrete jungle. Shot in an array of locations, including Coney Island's O'Dwyer Houses and the Cabrini–Green housing projects in Chicago, Illinois, He Got Game's gritty backdrop adds to the allure of the film.
The Authentic Basketball Scenes
Spike Lee has spoken about his disdain for sports movies, and how they feel inauthentic on numerous occasions. So when the time came to cast the basketball players that would appear in He Got Game, he made sure to make the scenes as realistic as possible. In addition to casting Ray Allen as Jesus, Spike Lee would tap additional NBA talent like Travis Best, Walter McCarty, Rick Fox and John Wallace to appear in the scenes from the movie that take place on-court.
When scouting potential actors for the role of Jesus Shuttlesworth, Spike Lee scoured the NBA for his leading man, with superstars like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, and Tracy McGrady on his shortlist of recruits. However, when all was said and done, Lee would cast NBA shooting guard Ray Allen as Jesus, a decision that would prove to be genius, as Allen would put forth a respectable performance in spite of having no acting experience prior to be tapped for the film.
Being the basketball junkie that he is, Spike Lee dialed up a few of his buddies and asked them to appear in He Got Game, resulting in a slew of cameos that any basketball fan would marvel at.
From NBA legends like Micheal Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller, Bill Walton, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley, to college and NBA coaches Syracuse University coach Jim Boeheim, NBA coaches Rick Pitino and George Karl, He'Got Game was not only a great film, but a true gathering of some of the greatest basketball mind.
One scene from He Got Game that stands out as many viewers' favorite is the one in which Jesus and his girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson), get intimate during a trip to Coney Island's boardwalk. From making out while riding the Cyclone, to doing the nasty on the world-famous Wonder Wheel, Jesus and Lala represented for Brooklyn couples in a big way, and gave The Mile High Club a whole new meaning.
One familiar face that appears in He Got Game is Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, who transitioned into an acting career following his days on the gridiron. Brown's role as Spivey, a parole officer who has been assigned to trail Jake Shuttlesworth during his time in Brooklyn, is among his more memorable, as his no-frills attitude and dry humor make him one of the film's more unforgettable characters.
Big State may have been at the top of Jesus Shuttlesworth's list of colleges that he would potentially attend and play basketball for, but it would be his visit to Tech U that stands out as the highlight of his recruitment. From making out with random female students while walking throughout the campus, to getting a royal welcome from Buffy and Suzy, Jesus' time at Tech U was as persuasive as it gets.
Jesus and Jake's Showdown
Of all of the scenes in He Got Game, the one that has come to define the arc of the movie is the pickup game of one-on-one between Jesus and Jake Shuttlesworth, which serves as the film's climax. Full of passion and trash talk, the game is underlined by the dialogue and chemistry between Denzel Washington and Ray Allen and is one of the signature moments from Spike Lee's pantheon of films.
It Touched On The Underbelly Of College Recruitment
In 2018, NCAA investigations and recruitment violations may be the norm, but in 1998, the underbelly of collegiate athletics had yet to be exposed. He Got Game would highlight the pressures that await a highly-ranked recruit from all angles, including sports agents, coaches and boosters, all of whom attempt to entice Jesus Shuttlesworth to take a bite of the apple and compromise his integrity and collegiate eligibility.
Nearly a decade after tapping rap group Public Enemy to contribute the theme song to Spike Lee's 1989 film, Do The Right Thing, the bespectacled director links up with Chuck D and company for He Got Game, enlisting the crew to record the entirety of the soundtrack. The group's first album since 1994's Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age, He Got Game would peak at No. 26 on the Billboard 200, marry sports-driven content with socio-political insights and introduced Public Enemy to a new generation of fans in the process.