Many NBA players have made the move from the basketball court to the big screen—and in honor of Adam Sandler’s new Netflix basketball drama Hustle, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best basketball players turned actors. This isn’t about who is the G.O.A.T.—though, the leading contenders for that title did make this unranked list. No, this is about shouting out those pro-ballers who are training to become the Meryl Streep of the NBA. Most of the players included here have been cast as fictionalized versions of themselves on screen, but many have shown they’re not afraid to poke some fun at their public personas. Others have revealed they can also tackle characters that have no athletic prowess.
From a former “Bad Boy” to a 20-season legend and so many former Los Angeles Lakers in between, here are the NBA players who have shown they can do way more than dribble.
The Kid From Akron made his big screen debut in the 2015 Amy Schumer comedy, Trainwreck. James played a fictionalized version of himself, who is trying to make Cleveland a vacation destination and is as frugal as they come (a trait apparently shares with the real LeBron). James made clear with this early performance that if you surround him with a strong cast, he can pull off some amazing feats of comedy, from giving Schumer’s Trainwreck character the third-degree on her relationship with his bestie, sports surgeon Aaron (Bill Hader) or trading dad jokes with Bugs Bunny in Space Jam: A New Legacy.
With his megawatt smile and gentle giant demeanor, Hollywood quickly came calling. Unfortunately, many of Shaq’s star vehicles aren’t very good. (Sorry, Kazaam apologists.) That’s not to say the big guy doesn’t have any talent. To the contrary, his role in the 1994 drama Blue Chips showed that given the right material, he’s an absolute slam dunk.
The hardest part about being an NBA player-turned-actor is convincing the audience you’re not just an NBA player-turned-actor. The former Milwaukee Buck, who now covers the team as a sports analyst, achieves that and more in 1992’s White Men Can’t Jump as Raymond, a street baller who doesn’t take kindly to getting hustled by Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) and Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson). His over-the-top reaction, which includes swinging around a switchblade, is one of the funniest moments in the beloved sports comedy.
The former Boston Celtic made his acting debut alongside Adam Sandler in 2019’s Uncut Gems. In it, Garnett plays a version of himself that is hellbent on getting his hands on a black opal owned by Sandler’s eccentric jeweler Howard Ratner. The athlete believes the rare gem will bring him good luck in the NBA playoffs. Garnett’s intense performance showed that anything is possible from this basketball player who is known for his tenacity.
The Laker legend is known for his calm, but stern demeanor, which is probably what makes his supporting turn in Airplane! as a pilot named Roger Murdock who looks a lot like Kareem so laugh out loud funny. When he lets the young passenger whose dad is not a fan know that he “works his buns off” every night on the basketball court, you can’t help but believe him. Just look at how good he is at selling these silly jokes on the big screen.
What’s harder than hitting a clutch off-balance three to tie a win-or-go-home Finals game? Going one-on-one with Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s 1998 basketball drama, He Got Game. Somehow Allen matches Washington’s intensity in the film in which the now retired NBA star, who won championships with the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat, plays the acting legend’s estranged son. It doesn’t hurt that Allen is really good at playing basketball when the cameras are rolling.
For those who never got the pleasure of watching Salley’s beloved Detroit Pistons team, better known as the “Bad Boys,” in action, they might think the four-time NBA champ is just an actor. No, he’s just that good. While he’s appeared in Eddie, Nappily Ever After, and Sneakerella, his breakout role is in 1995’s Bad Boys where he plays Fletcher, the Coke-bottle glasses-wearing computer hacker. Fletcher was such a fan-favorite, Salley reprised the role for the 2003 sequel, Bad Boys II.
The retired Dallas Maverick isn’t the star of 2002’s Like Mike, that would be Bow Wow. But in a matter of seconds he manages to steal the movie. In his second film, Netflix’s Hustle he also manages to outshine the movie’s star Adam Sandler in one perfect scene. Dirk clearly knows there are no small parts, only small actors.
The former Laker has been working steadily in Hollywood since 1994 when he made his acting debut in Blue Chips alongside Shaquille O’Neal. It’s safe to say, the man’s got range; he’s been a baseball legend in the feel-good family film Holes, the love interest in Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns, and a questionable councilman in the coming-of-age drama Dope. But his standout role may be his most serious turn in HBO’s prison drama Oz, where he plays a famous basketball player with a history of assault who’s hoping to find the notoriety he didn’t find on the court in jail.
The former New York Knick has built up quite an acting reel thanks to appearances in projects such as Trainwreck, The Mindy Project, and New Year’s Eve. (He also produced 2014’s Beyond the Lights.) But it’s his cameo in 2010’s Macgruber, which marked his big screen acting debut, that solidified him a place on this list. Seriously, just go watch that Will Forte comedy and you’ll understand why.
No one will mistake one of the world’s greatest athletes for the world’s greatest actor. Yet there is definitely something to be said about Jordan’s performance in 1996’s Space Jam, where he’s forced to act with a lot of big men in green screen suits. It’s nearly impossible to be more animated than Bugs Bunny, but MJ tries—and mostly succeeds—to bring some life to this 2-D sports comedy. There really is nothing better than watching Jordan posterize the Monstars.
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