Some of our best sports movies feature fictional players and teams, from Roy Hobbs and the New York Knights in “The Natural” to Reggie Dunlop’s Charlestown Chiefs in “Slap Shot” to Phil Elliott playing wide receiver for the North Dallas Bulls in “North Dallas Forty.” Great movies, one and all – but when sports films combine fictional characters with real-life players and coaches, and we don’t have fake teams a la the Miami Sharks (“Any Given Sunday”) or the Western University Dolphins (“Blue” Chips”), that verisimilitude often gives the story an extra layer of authenticity and immediacy.
Such is the case with the latest Adam Sandler/Netflix film – wait, come back, this isn’t some throwaway nonsense on the order of “The Ridiculous 6” or “Hubie Halloween,” this is the Adam Sandler we respect and admire, the Adam Sandler of “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Uncut Gems”! In director Jeremiah Zagar’s savvy basketball drama “Hustle,” Sandler delivers one of his most endearing performances, as Stanley Sugarman, a former college hoopster and longtime scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who has been sent on a global mission to find the next Luka Doncic, the next Giannis Antetokounmpo – or face possible extinction.
This is “Trouble With the Curve” meets “The Air Up There” with a dash of “The Blind Side,” and it’s set largely in Philly so there are some direct nods to “Rocky” as well, and while “Hustle” breaks no new ground and we can see the plot pivots coming from the last row of Section 315, the basketball sequences are crisp and well-choreographed, the behind-the-scenes machinations feel true to the sport and the myriad of real-life former and current stars adds to that veracity factor.
Sandler puts his shambling physicality, low-key intensity and hangdog expression to great use as Stanley, who has been traveling the globe for 30 years and is worn thin by the grind – and thus thrilled when the 76ers’ crusty but beloved owner Rex Merrick ( Robert Duvall) promotes Stanley to assistant coach of the big club. “Feels like I’ve been waiting my whole life to become a coach,” says Stanley as Rex beams with paternal pride.
Uh-oh. If we know anything about the Venerable Character Actor Playbook, if there’s a touching moment early on when the legend gives their blessing to the underdog, we’re due for a memorial service scene and a reversal of fortune for our hero. Sure enough, Rex dies, and his petulant grown son (an underused Ben Foster) assumes control of the team and sends Stanley back on the road, callously telling him he’s going to miss yet another birthday celebration for his daughter. What a cad!
About that family: Queen Latifah has a wonderful and natural presence as Stanley’s wife, Teresa, and Jordan Hull sparkles as their teenage daughter. The domestic scenes with the three of them are sweet and warm and plausible and add to our rooting interest for Stanley as he rolls the dice on an unpolished but clearly talented streetball player from Spain, bringing him back to Philly and putting him up on his own dime after the 76ers take a pass on him.
Here’s where we get into the meshing of real-life basketball figures and fictional characters, with three key characters:
• Journeyman NBA veteran Juancho Hernangomez plays the aforementioned prospect, one Bo Cruz, a physical specimen who possesses all the tools to become a star – if he can control his temper and shake off his past. (Hernangomez is playing someone with a greater skill set than his own, but he IS an NBA player, so we believe him as a spectacular talent on court, and he has a likable presence as an actor.)
• Basketballer-turned-broadcaster Kenny Smith turns in excellent work as Leon Rich, the most powerful agent in the game and a former college teammate of Stanley.
• Up-and-coming star Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves is fantastic as one Kermit Wilts, a top pro prospect with an enormous ego and a cruel streak who becomes the Apollo Creed to Bo’s Rocky.
“Hustle” features a ton of basketball sequences – but it’s virtually all about the practices and five-on-five scrimmages and playground ball, as we see Bo demonstrating flashes of greatness but also showing signs of wilting under pressure. Does Bo have what it takes? Will Stanley and Bo forge a bond that goes beyond basketball? What do you think, veteran viewer?
We also get a host of cameos from real-life NBA figures including Shaquille O’Neal, Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Cuban, Trae Young, Mark Jackson, Pat Croce, Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Doc Rivers, Julius Erving and Allen Iverson, among others – and the added treat of seeing playground legends such as Grayson “The Professor” Boucher and Larry “Bone Collector” Williams. Even in its more melodramatic moments, “Hustle” feels like it’s taking place in today’s NBA world. This is Adam Sandler’s love letter to the game, and it is great fun from the opening tip to the final buzzer.