I’ve never seen Air Bud. Think about how weird that is: The movie came out in 1997. I was 8, the perfect age to see a movie about a dog that plays basketball. Everybody saw Air Bud. Everybody loved Air Bud. The Air Bud franchise was to children in the ’90s as the 50 Shades of Grey franchise is to suburban moms now, just with more sports and no sex stuff.
And yet, I missed it. I blame this on the fact that I’m an only child whose parents are more into Marcel Proust than they are Disney movies (they’re very smart and wonderful people). But because I didn’t have cable or siblings to tell me what was cool, I grew up watching PBS and not knowing the lyrics to the Spice Girls’ songs. My 1990s cultural blindspots still haunt me. Case in point: Kel Mitchell went to Super Bowl media night as his Good Burger character, and I got mercilessly roasted when I asked my colleagues who the guy in the fast food uniform was.
I’m telling you this to explain why I’m sitting at my desk watching Air Bud in the SB Nation offices at 4:25 pm on a Thursday. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, the NBA trade deadline is over, and the Oscars are this weekend. I felt like the only way I could create content of dubious quality honoring all three momentous occasions at once was to finally watch Air Bud and blog my experience.
I also want to see if you guys have been right this whole time. Is Air Bud as good as everyone’s been saying it is for the past 20 years? Let’s find out.
HERE WE GO!
The movie opens on an idyllic country road, and, oh my god, what is happening? A giant wooden clown head is cresting over a hill. It’s perched on top of a pickup truck driven by a guy dressed as a clown.
I’m confused. Is this a horror film or a movie for children? Is Air Bud actually the prequel to Saw? Has everyone has been lying to me about this movie a part of some sick, elaborate prank?
Things start to make more sense when I see a dog in the back of the pickup truck. I’m pretty sure it’s Air Bud himself, dressed up as a clown.
It turns out that Bad Clown Dude performs at kid’s birthday parties, and Air Bud is his sidekick who does tricks with balls. Bad Clown Dude is a real dick. He beats Air Bud and decides to take the dog to the pound after things go awry at the party. I hate this man with my entire being.
Fortunately, the gate of the pickup truck is down, so Air Bud’s crate — with Air Bud locked in it — falls out the back. Trucks are screaming by as he’s trapped in the middle of the road, and then he gets hit by a car.
I mean, not, like, badly, but hard enough so that his crate topples over and he pops out. I know I’m not supposed to laugh right now, but a dog in a clown suit is pretty funny. The mom driving the SUV that hit him is like, “Huh, hit a dog, whoops,” and then keeps driving.
What kind of monster hits a dog and doesn’t stop to save it?
We can tell that her son Josh — who’s sitting up front because no one gave a damn about air bags in the 1990s and we all turned out OK, OK? — is the main character by the way the camera lingers on his face. He longingly watches Air Bud trot down the road behind the car.
Josh and his family have just moved to Fernville, Wash. to be near his mom’s relatives after his dad passed away. A shot of Josh in his empty room holding a box of stuff shows us how lonely and sad he is. In the kitchen, Josh’s mom is on the phone having a conversation that clearly isn’t relevant to the plot but intrigues me, because I hear her say, “I understand that Bolivia didn’t get the napkins, and Venezuela did?”
“Napkins” is definitely code for “cocaine.” Josh’s mom is an international drug lord.
Drug Dealer Mom hangs up on whatever cartel runner she was talking to and asks Josh how school was. Josh says his first line of the whole movie: “It sucks.”
School does, indeed, suck; Josh tries to sign up for the basketball team, but the asshole coach makes him be the manager instead. I feel bad for the kid, but things start looking up when he finds a magical basketball court behind his house. It’s on the edge of a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains, and it’s a good thing Drug Dealer Mom is a kingpin, because otherwise this family wouldn’t be able to afford such prime real estate.
There are bits and pieces of a clown suit strewn about the court. We hear barking from the bushes. And then ****SPOILER ALERT**** Air Bud shows up! He eats a pudding cup that must’ve fallen out of Josh’s backpack. Pudding can’t be good for dogs, but Air Bud is dirty and hungry, so we aren’t supposed to care.
Josh picks up a basketball and tosses it to Air Bud. Because he’s a trained clown dog, Air Bud can balls out, and the two pals have the time of their lives playing together. I start laughing because it’s so delightful, but I’m also tearing up, because it’s very moving to see Josh finally make a friend.
I’m starting to understand why everyone loves this movie so much.
Josh brings Air Bud home. Air Bud eats Spaghetti-Os in the bathroom, and I will honestly be shocked if this dog is alive in 10 minutes given all the crap this boy has fed it. There are five open cans of SpaghettiOs on the ground. The poor animal is going to have to get his stomach pumped.
Josh is wearing a suit of old-timey rain gear. He gives Air Bud a bath and brushes his teeth.
Drug Dealer Mom comes home from dealing drugs and gets pissed when Air Bud spills paint all over the house. But she lets Josh keep the dog, because if she didn’t, the movie would be over.
Now we’re at the school gym, where Josh meets a kind, older man who works as a janitor there, because what would a ’90s movie be without a non-threatening black man whose backstory is developed just enough — but not more — to serve the narrative needs of the white protagonist? It turns out that this guy was a great basketball player for the Knicks, and I’m like, “Uh, why would a former NBA player now be working as a janitor at a middle school in Washington state as opposed to sipping margaritas in Tulum or hosting a show on ESPN?”
But I let it go, because I start wondering what happened to Josh in real life. What if Josh is hot now?
He is. I just Googled him. Check out how hot Josh is.
He’s over-groomed, but the man looks good. This is not a Haley Joel Osment situation.
Things are getting better for Josh. Buddy (that’s what Josh calls Air Bud) performs basketball tricks during halftime after Josh makes the team. Josh even has a friend, this kid with an aggressive bowl cut who carries around an orange peel that Scotty Pippen once threw away, as well as a piece of chewed-up gum that Dennis Rodman once spit out. I don’t know where he’s getting all this famous trash. The boys put it in their socks for good luck.
The asshole coach ends up getting fired when the principal catches him pelting Trash Kid with basketballs in a dark gym. This feels a little heavy for a children’s movie, but it works as a plot device, because it means that the basketball-great-turned-janitor can take over the team as Good Coach and preach the beauty of teamwork.
The inevitable Scary Moment Where Everything Could Fall Apart comes when Bad Clown Dude shows up to reclaim Air Bud. Josh steals Air Bud back, but worries that he’s just going to get taken again. So he hops a ferry with the dog and goes to an island.
“Go on Buddy, you’re free now,” Josh says, crying, as he makes Buddy leave him. I feel this sharp pain in my chest. Buddy hops into the water, whining as he watches Josh get carried away.
I’m softly crying. I’m glad I didn’t watch this movie when I was little because I don’t know that I could’ve handled heartbreak at such an early age.
Josh is back at school playing basketball. I’m still broken up over the fact that he left his goddamn dog on a goddamn island. But then we hear barking and — could it be?! — BUDDY RETURNS! Thank God I only had to suffer like that for seven minutes.
Josh’s team only has four players on the court because one just got hurt. There’s no rule that dogs can’t play basketball, so Buddy, wearing little doggie basketball shoes and an adorable doggie jersey, checks in. I’m laughing and crying again as I watch Josh and Buddy win the game.
It’s 6 p.m. now, and the office is emptying out.
I breathe a sigh of relief knowing there are only 15 minutes left and more truly bad shit can’t happen. But there’s going to be some slightly bad shit, because Bad Clown Dude shows up again.
Drug Dealer Mom says something along the lines of, “Hell no, you’re not taking my dog!” Bad Clown Dude goes, “I’LL SEE YOU IN COURT!” Donald Trump plagiarized Air Bud.
I guess legal fees don’t matter when you’re Drug Dealer Mom and want to be sure your kid doesn’t lose his dog, because here we are, in court. Thankfully, Good Coach shows up and saves the day — it turns out that he used to be the old, curmudgeonly judge’s favorite player.
Good Coach proposes that Buddy choose who he wants to belong to. After a few suspenseful pump-fakes, Air Bud obviously chooses Josh, jumping up to give him a hug. The movie ends with a huge crowd cheering outside the courthouse.
Hulu asks me if I want to watch Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco. Yes, Hulu, that’s literally all I want, but it would be weird to stay in the office until 9 p.m. watching another kid’s movie about dogs, and I’m emotionally exhausted, so I go home.
Air Bud is good. I love Air Bud. I think I probably would’ve questioned less — why is Josh wearing foul weather gear to take a bath with his dog? Why are bullies in ’90s movies always chewing gum? Why do the feds never show up to investigate Drug Dealer Mom? — if I’d seen this as a kid.
But I’m glad I didn’t. Watching it now reminded me what it felt like to be a child. It brought me back to the days when all I worried about was if my crush would pick me to be on his soccer team at recess and if there was a new episode of Wishbone that night. When a new set of baseball cards could bring infinite happiness.
Air Bud stands the test of time. It’s a cinematic masterpiece that gave me a respite from being an adult almost two hours. What could be better than that?