The score to the opening sequence in the classic basketball film He Got Game sounds more symphony than street.
But that’s just another way director Spike Lee reels you in, combining the brilliance of composer Aaron Copland with montages of young ballers practicing and pursuing their hoop dreams.
Fifteen years ago today, He Got Game set a blueprint for how basketball films should be made. This wasn’t based on a true story of any historical significance or an underdog team’s ‘season on the brink.’ This was about one player’s view from the top — navigating the pressures from all angles to please others while simultaneously confronting his strained relationship with his father.
The player was Ray Allen. The father was Denzel Washington.
It was quite an on-screen combination. Allen had never acted before and Denzel was…Denzel.
Spike Lee’s gamble on Allen
“A bigger risk would have been to cast an actor to play the best high school player in the nation,” Lee said last month on ESPN’s First Take. “[You] see these basketball movies…somebody shoots. What’s the next shot? The ball going through the hoop. I hate that.”
Allen’s character “Jesus Shuttlesworth” remains a staple in film and basketball lore.
“I think my role was important because it helped a lot of kids to see what they may have to deal with in not only basketball, but in life as well,” Allen said via a team spokesperson. “To this day, I still get called Jesus at least once a day.” (Probably by his Heat teammates.)
He was just 22 years old at the time, but Allen pulled off the high school phenom role especially well.
Sure, Allen was an NBA player ‘playing’ an incredible basketball player. But Allen spent most of the film off the court, in scenes with his father, “Jake,” sister, girlfriend, teammates, agents, coaches and recruiters. Originally, Allen was Lee’s third choice behind Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury. (The film is partly based on Marbury’s rise to the NBA out of Brooklyn.)
But Allen actually auditioned. He earned it.
“You needed a guy who had a certain innocence, a guy with a certain baby face,” recalls Roger Guenveur Smith, who played shady street agent ‘Big Time’ in the film. “You needed somebody who would be able to show up on the set every day prepared to work. You don’t just come in and do your scenes in two days and walk off the set. It was quite a commitment on Allen’s part to come in on the offseason and devote that kind of focus to make it work.”