Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With March Madness in full swing, and a Criterion Blu-ray upgrade of Hoop Dreams dropping in a week, we highlight some of the best movies about basketball.
Toward the end of his star-making run on Welcome Back, Kotter, Gabe Kaplan made his film debut in the fascinatingly weird 1979 sports comedy Fast Break. He plays a basketball-obsessed New Yorker whose extreme long-shot dream of becoming a coach comes true thanks to an unscrupulous Nevada social climber who wants to get his private university on the map by scheduling a game against national powerhouse Nevada State. In order to achieve this end, he proposes to pay Kaplan’s character per win, with the promise of a formal contract for a legitimate salary should he succeed.
Fast Break is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an exposé of corruption in college sports. Nor is it particularly overflowing with grand moral statements, even by simplistic sports movie underdog/outcast advocacy standards. Instead, Fast Break openly sympathizes with a basketball coach who recruits “student athletes,” diminishing the former in favor of the latter. One of them literally can’t read, and has warrants out for his arrest. One is on the run from his crooked preacher mentor, whose daughter he impregnated. Another makes his living as a pool hustler. But they’re all great basketball players, and—mild plot reveal—there’s none of that foolishness about them being scrappy underdogs. They lay waste to everyone in their path, and with all manner of flashy maneuvers whose sole utility is looking cool. And it’s really funny.
Fast Break sneaks in a cogent commentary about the state of basketball at a point when the discourse around the game was particularly pointed, racially speaking. Firmly taking the side of the black players as the actual heart and soul of the game was a bold statement at the time and one that has aged quite well. Clumsier is the movie’s satire of homophobia: The team’s shooting guard is a woman who dresses as a man in order to be allowed to play; everyone thinks she’s a gay man, including the wildly homophobic power forward who inevitably falls for her. Some of this is basically indistinguishable from actual homophobia.
But this is Fast Break’s sole misstep. In all other regards, its deadpan lunacy still plays fantastically, especially during the scenes on the court. Basketball is a difficult sport to shoot around when the actors can’t really play (see Wesley Snipes dribbling four feet over his head in White Men Can’t Jump), but Fast Break’s cast are all well up to that challenge. In particular, Bernard King, as Hustler, the star of the team and the narrative’s fifth business, shines as both sportsman and actor, giving one of the best performances by an athlete in the cinema. King would go on, some years later, to become one of the legendary you-had-to-be-there players in NBA history; before a catastrophic knee injury, he peaked as an unstoppable scorer, before Michael Jordan reshaped the sport in his own image. Now, old basketball fans discuss King in much the same way Gabe Kaplan discusses Bob Cousy at the beginning of Fast Break, deepening the movie’s place in basketball lore.
Availability: Fast Break does not appear to be available on DVD or Blu-ray, but it is currently streaming on Netflix and can be rented or purchased from the major digital services.