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Big Screen Dream Team: the 10 best ballers in film history

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It's award season, which means it's the perfect time of year for Dan Grunfeld to announce his all-time squad of basketball players from movies. GIFs have graciously been provided for each selection, so their greatness is most properly understood.

Illustration by Tom Ziller, screenshots via YouTube

I have and have always had a romantic notion of the cinema. Of movies. Of film. From a young age, I've believed --nay, I've known -- that a finely-crafted motion picture has an unparalleled ability to grab hold of you, to take you on the ride of a lifetime, and to never let you go.

I can still recall, as if it were yesterday, that special moment when I first fell in love with the silver screen. In the blink of an eye, the details rush back: the perfectly plush seat; the impeccable salt-to-butter ratio of the popcorn; the anxious giggles I shared with my friend (we were 9); the hushed excitement of the packed house as the previews gracefully receded. In an instant, the lights of the theatre dimmed, and before my very eyes, a story unfolded that enveloped me in wonderment. The depth of this tale captured my imagination like never before.

Suddenly, I was hooked on the majesty of the movies, and needless to say, Robin Hood: Men in Tights has held a special place in my heart since that night. Sure, when I forced my entire extended family (of adults) to see my new favorite film weeks later on our family vacation, I was unilaterally shunned and branded a disgrace by the ones I love. Still, my resolve couldn't, and can't, be shaken. I will always cherish Men in Tights, and I will always appreciate how it ignited my passion for the movies.

Given this great enthusiasm for cinema, it should come as no surprise that, as someone who eventually grew into a professional basketball player, I particularly treasure movies that somehow include my favorite sport. Whether hoops is central to the plot or just a momentary aside, it's always fun to see different interpretations of the game played out on the big screen.

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But which films stand out from the rest? And which moments are the most iconic? And which basketball-playing characters evoke the strongest memories? These questions are all subjective, but since it's award season -- the time of year to give praise and props to the movies -- someone really must answer them. As a ballplayer who's always been keen on films, I believe I am that someone.

With that in mind, I've determined that the surest way to honor and explore the great history of basketball in movies is to construct a dream team of sorts, a 10-man roster made up of the best and brightest of those who have played basketball in the flicks (and a coaching staff, too). There have been so many timeless performances, and it's only fair that these characters and the thrills they've provided be properly immortalized.

Of course, no one will agree with all my choices -- I readily admit that there were many deserving candidates who didn't make the cut -- but there were various players and scenes that were just too good to ignore. Certainly, it's not an all-encompassing group, but at the very least, this roster was chosen carefully and thoughtfully. I paid close attention to the players' significance in cinematic lore, their abilities and positions on the court, and how all of their (fictional) skill sets would best complement each other to form the most well-rounded team possible. I've delineated between the starters and the reserves, and there's a one-player-per-movie limit, so that many different films are represented. So, without further ado, here is the squad. Or, as we (they) say in the movie biz: lights, camera, action!

Starting 5

Point Guard: Teen Wolf, Teen Wolf


All of the derogatory and hurtful names that Teen Wolf encounters off the court in the 1985 comedy Teen Wolf are actually appropriate (and complimentary) descriptions of his game: he's a beast, a freak, and an absolute monster. At the point guard position, Teen Wolf's uncanny athleticism and aggression conjure up present-day comparisons to Russell Westbrook (except for the lion's mane and the blanket of body hair, of course). He's a stat-stuffer extraordinaire who can rebound, block shots, defend, push the ball, and most importantly, fly through the air for animalistic tomahawk dunks at a moment's notice. The fact that Teen Wolf is literally part wolf no doubt helps his speed and agility, while his work surfing the neighborhood on top of a van has clearly made his balance and coordination second-to-none. Though he's ruffled teammates' feathers in the past by not sharing the ball, I'm not worried about that: I plan on surrounding him with much better talent than the likes of the chubby fellow who plays center for the Beavers. Yes, a team headed by Teen Wolf is built on a strong foundation, as long as we don't let opposing fans bring dog whistles into the arena. Teen Wolf might be capable of a quadruple-double every time the ball tips, but he does not do well with dog whistles.


Shooting Guard: Jesus Shuttlesworth, He Got Game


If you're a high-school basketball player, and if legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson says that you're "the best thing to happen to the game since the tennis shoe was invented," then you're probably pretty nice at hoops. In the case of Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee's amazing He Got Game, that is definitely the case. Jesus is an iconic figure -- the young, gifted, aptly-named basketball savior that everyone wants a piece of -- and his skills merit the attention. His unfathomably silky jump shot is the type that could one day make him the NBA's all-time leader in three-pointers made and attempted. His all-around game could easily propel him to, say, 10 NBA All-Star appearances. And it's not presumptuous to think that his competitiveness and perseverance could win him an NBA Championship in the twilight of his career, is it? Whatever path he's destined to take, Jesus has all the tools that you want in a shooting guard, and he's the perfect complement to Teen Wolf in the back court. Furthermore, on road trips, Jesus can delight his teammates with sultry tales of his college recruiting visits, since all other trips pale in comparison to his. My tour of a library at Stanford University, for instance, was a far cry from Jesus Shuttlesworth's treatment at Tech U, where his recruiting host hand-delivered him a late-night session of one-on-two with a pair of incredibly curvy co-eds. Being the best thing since the tennis shoe has its perks, it seems.


Small Forward: Michael Jordan, Space Jam


There was no easier choice than this one. When the greatest player ever to play the game stars as himself in a movie about basketball, you pick him to be an integral part of your basketball-in-movies squad. That's just sound reasoning, even if you're forced to play him slightly out of position at small forward. Ideally, I would like to use MJ at shooting guard, but with Teen Wolf and Jesus Shuttlesworth both barking at the door (one literally and one figuratively), I had to get creative. His Airness at the three ultimately works, because when Space Jam came out, MJ was an experienced 33 years old, with four championships under his belt and two more to come. At this point, he'd maybe lost a pinch of the other-worldly athleticism that he once possessed, but he'd replaced it with a veteran's savvy that allows him to thrive in any situation. I mean, in Space Jam, he's able to defeat a team of monsters boasting an average height somewhere between 20 and 30 feet tall with a supporting cast that features a few rabbits, a duck, a pig, a coyote, a rooster, a tweety bird, Newman from Seinfeld, and, for the end of the game, Bill Murray. That's greatness right there, and that's why MJ at the three is just fine with me.


Power Forward: Chip Douglas, The Cable Guy


While superstars like Teen Wolf, Jesus Shuttlesworth and Michael Jordan are scoring big-time buckets and making mind-blowing plays, there must be someone who's talking some trash and diving on the floor. Who's knocking you on your ass with a screen then flexing in your face about it. Who's violently climbing the back of a bent over defender and catapulting himself into the air to throw down a ferocious slam, possibly shattering the backboard in the process. For me, that guy is The Cable Guy -- a rough and tough open gym enforcer whose provocative style of play gives new meaning to the term "prison rules." The Cable Guy won't add much in the way of offense, but he disrupts on defense like a young Bill Laimbeer and irritates under the boards with Dennis-Rodman-level intensity. With a perimeter full of offensive juggernauts, that's the best type of production I can ask for from my power forward. And, as an added bonus, The Cable Guy happens to be one of the most durable and physically-prepared players around. He's healthy as a horse by nature, but also, his comprehensive warm-up routine ensures that he stays extra fit and limber at all times. Obviously, The Cable Guy has a lot to offer this team on the court, as long as he keeps appropriate distance off it. I'm all for team chemistry, but if he's having karaoke jams with Shuttlesworth every weekend or guilting Teen Wolf into impromptu trips to Medieval Times, then we might have a problem. Until then, I'll take my chances. This team needs his grit, his toughness, and lastly, free cable.


Center: Neon Boudeaux, Blue Chips


It's one of the best scenes in basketball movie history: after receiving a cherry recruiting tip, Coach Pete Bell makes the trek to the bayou town of Algiers, La., where he's escorted to a bustling neighborhood pickup game in what appears to be an abandoned barn or a deserted warehouse. Young kids are sitting high on stacks, wood beams crisscrossing their heads, their mouths gaped open in awe as they watch Neon Boudeaux abuse the competition and obliterate the snap-back rim of a makeshift hoop with power dunks that surely splinter the worn-out wooden backboard. Neon is big and broad, quick and nimble, and considering he's played by a 21-year-old Shaquille O'Neal -- in the midst of an NBA season with the Orlando Magic that ended with rather respectable averages of 29 points and 13 rebounds -- he seems like a fairly intriguing college prospect. Coach Bell gets Neon to Western University, and the rest is history. On my squad, Neon is the perfect big man to anchor the defense and provide a low-post presence on offense. Can you imagine a high pick-and-roll between Teen Wolf and Neon, with Jesus and MJ perched as shooters in the corners and The Cable Guy sneaking behind the defense to establish early rebounding position? Not a team in the U.S. can guard that. Or in Mexico. Or Guatemala. Or Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Costa Rica.


Off the Bench

Point Guard: Billy Hoyle, White Men Can't Jump


Billy Hoyle is the lead character from (in my opinion) the holy grail of basketball movies. He's a combo guard with some real funk to his game: he can handle, distribute, score, and while doing it, he can rock a tie-dyed hat and some grey sweat socks like it's nobody's business. A great source of leadership and experience off the bench, Billy is a stellar sub for Teen Wolf, and he's the sole reason why goofy white guys, when asked at an open gym if they "want to run?" can respond hilariously by saying, "you mean play basketball?" A lasting legacy to be sure.


Shooting Guard: Rocky, 3 Ninjas


Louis Scott from Celtic Pride was the safe choice here, but I went with a true game changer instead. Rocky from 3 Ninjas might be a middle-schooler, but he's a freaking ninja, and when thuggish schoolyard ruffians steal his crush Emily's bike, he has no problem playing them two-on-two for it (with his brother Colt). He wins the game for his team on the most athletic play in movie basketball history: a soaring two-handed jam from the foul line. He's in middle-school, he's a ninja, and he can dunk from the foul line wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Yes please.


Small Forward: Jimmy Chitwood, Hoosiers


Fundamentals. Shooting. Ice water in his veins. That's what Jimmy Chitwood will give this team off the bench. Any time he's open for a mid-range jumper, you can count on Jimmy to tuck that elbow underneath the ball, square his shoulders, and flick his wrist until the rock tickles the twine. In Hoosiers, Jimmy was Hickory High's go-to-guy. On this team, he won't be asked to shoulder such a load. When he comes into the game, however, you better believe we'll be running the picket fence for him. And he won't get caught watching the paint dry. That much I can assure you.


Power Forward: Jackie Moon, Semi-Pro


Not only does Jackie Moon bolster the bench as a solid stretch four with some useful coaching experience, but he's also got the type of style and panache that female fans can't resist: the thick sideburns, the flashy sweatbands, and the white-man's-afro won't exactly hurt at the ticket window. Jackie can play ball with anyone, and his image and promotional acumen only add to that draw. He's also a reliable free-throw shooter whose underhand toss does Rick Barry proud, even if those short-shorts risk exposing his giblets every time he bends.


Center: Saleh, The Air Up There


When Coach Jimmy Dolan (played by the impeccable Kevin Bacon) travels to Africa to find the next star of his college program, he meets Saleh, a raw and lanky African big man with undeniable natural potential and a million-dollar smile. Under Dolan's tutelage, Saleh's game evolves and his horizons broaden to the point where he masters his mentor's world-famous basketball maneuver: The Jimmy Dolan Shake-N-Bake. Saleh's length, leaping ability, and undeniable enthusiasm for this crazy thing called life make him a real asset off the bench, and if he doesn't become the fan favorite of this team, then my name's not Ron Burgundy.


Coaching Staff

(Repeat movies are allowed to guarantee the best possible leadership.)

Head Coach: Pete Bell, Blue Chips


I like Norman Dale from Hoosiers, but I can't risk his old-school, slow-it-down methods on such a talented and athletic group. I need someone like Coach Bell, a fiery disciplinarian who knows the game and who can manage the personalities and playing styles of the modern-day superstar.

Lead Assistant: The Deaf Coach, Van Wilder


Just a tremendous Xs and Os guy.

Workout Guru: Jake Shuttlesworth, He Got Game


He will push players to their limits, for better or worse.


Heavy thanks to Clay Wendler, who put together all of the GIFs. Follow him on Twitter: @SBNationGIF. A special thanks to Hollywood and the game of basketball for all the memories! Here's to many more!