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Lawrence Sher: The 10 Greatest Sports Movies
Lawrence Sher

We always say when we watch sports that, “This is a Hollywood ending!” or “If they put this in a movie, we wouldn’t believe it!” If you really dissect all the movies on this list, what you realize is the movies are never about the sport. The movies are about the emotion. The movies are about the human beings that are playing in sports, and redemption and hopes and dreams and challenges — all the things we come upon in our lives — just happen to revolve around some sport.

One on One
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I remember when I was a kid, every single basketball season, before the first practice or before the first tryout in October, my twin brother and I would watch One on One. It feels like such an authentic portrayal of college basketball, and it’s got one of the great endings. It gives me chills thinking about it. That movie would get me so fired up and inspired to play basketball the next season. There’s an example of a sports movie that still just holds my attention and still has such a memory point for me.

The Rookie
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There are magical moments in this movie. The fact that it’s also a true-life story and when he gets that call that tells him he’s going to be called up to the majors — after, against all odds, getting a chance in the minors — it just brings tears to my eyes. Because it’s not just his dream, it’s his family, his son, and his wife’s dream. Their reaction when they get this news just kills me. That’s a great one. It’s also about not giving up on your dreams. For me, I literally went out the next day and thought, “Oh, I can throw 90 miles per hour,” even though I was 40 years old when I saw the movie. Of course I couldn’t, but it gave me the hope that I could.

The Natural
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It’s sophisticated, amazing storytelling and photography by Caleb Deschanel. Just gorgeous. And Robert Redford, who I’ve always loved ever since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s that classic archetype, Joseph Conrad-type storytelling. It’s a 40-year-old baseball player who comes back into the league. When he hits a home run at the end — hurt, bleeding in his side because of this bullet that’s been in his body for 25 years — it’s magical. He hits the lights and they explode like fireworks all across the stadium as he rounds the bases.

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It’s the most satisfying ending. We feel such joy, and he loses. When’s the last time you saw somebody lose and it’s still as satisfying an ending as anything? Because his goal wasn’t to win, it was just to go the distance. And of course, the emotional connection is in the hug with Adrian and him looking for her in the crowd after he’s lost. Rocky is a great example of how sports movies are about the humans and not about the sport.

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The same way you can hear a song and remember where you were, I just think about where I was as a human being at that time. I was 16. I was mad about basketball. And this is the classic movie about Indiana basketball. It’s the classic underdogs. These guys are terrible. It’s the Bad News Bears, which, by the way, should have been on this list, too. But it’s Indiana basketball, which is kind of the Mecca of American basketball, a bunch of kids shooting hoops in their backyards and a coach that needs a second chance. It’s about redemption and second chances. Hoosiers is a great underdog story.

Tin Cup
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A lot of these are very similar in the sense of forgotten dreams that you can still collect on… Tin Cup is a washed-up, could’ve-been-great golfer in Kevin Costner getting a chance in his 40s to win the US Open. And of course, like Rocky, he does not win. He loses in the most spectacular way. He loses in such a spectacular way that years after Tin Cup, the famous golfer John Daly basically pulled a quote-unquote Tin Cup in a professional tournament.

Breaking Away
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One of my favorite movies on this list is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I think at the time, it was the smallest movie ever nominated for Best Picture: Breaking Away. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the greatest. Breaking Away is a lovely little movie about this wanna-be cyclist in a small town. It follows this group of three or four friends, and one of the friends wants to be an Italian cyclist. He wants to be anywhere but in this tiny podunk town. And there’s a race, it’s a real race, at Indiana University, called the Little 500. These misfit friends of his, who are the outsiders, enter the race. Again, the most underdog story. And they win the Little 500. The winning shot of that movie is so beautiful and satisfying. It’s one of those movies I always recommend to friends. I was nine years old when I saw that movie and it just lifted me up and made me feel like anything was possible.

Raging Bull
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When I was in college, Raging Bull was part of my experience with a movie where I now had decided, “I think this is what I want to do for a living.” And of course, it’s Scorsese and it’s a masterwork of filmmaking. I remember literally rewriting the dialogue for that movie by hand while watching the movie on VHS. That was my first experience in which I saw the supreme artistry of a movie.

Hoop Dreams
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It’s one of the best and most memorable documentaries for me. Obviously, I was interested because of the sports element, but it really shined a light on the same things that all these movies that are written by somebody have, which are obstacles, underdog perseverance, disappointment. There’s so much disappointment in that movie. As much as there’s joy, the disappointment is what you stick with: the lost dreams and the fact that you don’t always succeed. It’s a great, great doc.

He Got Game
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It’s an amazingly authentic portrayal of what it is to be a high-profile basketball player and the transition into greatness, and the father-son story, because I love father-son stories. Also that Spike Lee cast a professional basketball player in the role. He decided to take an athlete and turn him into an actor, instead of the other way around. Ray Allen is so good in that movie, and he had to go up against Denzel.

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