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20 Years Later, Spike Lee’s “He Got Game” Remains A Cultural Slam Dunk

It’s difficult to believe that 20 years ago, Spike Lee delivered one of his most poignant and poetic works of art through the sport that he loves unconditionally. Today is the 20th anniversary of “He Got Game”, a film that tapped into the underbelly of elite high school basketball recruiting in a way that no other filmmaker had dared to before.

He Got Game – Trailer

Academy Award(R)-winner Denzel Washington stars in this must-see story about a convict given one shot at a second chance to be a father! With promises of a reduced sentence, Jake Shuttlesworth (Washington) is granted temporary release from state prison in order to persuade the nation’s top basketball recruit …

It captured the true essence, beauty and soul of the NYC playground game, with its unique rhythms and cadences playing as much as a starring role as Denzel Washington, Ray Allen and Rosario Dawson.

With visuals that are vibrant and colorful, combined with the on-court action that was sincere, the story was about much more than the greed, under the table inducements and ruse of amateurism that some might say have ruined the purity of basketball on its grassroots levels.

The true strength of the narrative are the subplots surrounding regret, loss, lost love, emotional pain and time that can never be reconciled, and ultimately ambition and a race against time to make something that had been long-fractured whole again. 

He Got Game eschewed the cliches of every other basketball movie. There was no come-from-behind victory, no game-winning shot, no unlikely victory against improbable odds. Lee treated the actual on-court action sequences with love and care, deftly delivering them as artistic expression within the realm and on par with basketball’s musical contemporaries – Jazz and Hip Hop. 

He Got Game – Movie Intro

He Got Game is a 1998 American sports-drama film written and directed by Spike Lee. It stars Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth, a prison inmate convicted for killing his wife.

The film was beyond ambitious. It’s a sports movie that isn’t about sports at all, with a tenderness at its undercurrent that softens all that Lee is being critical of. It’s also the brilliant filmmaker’s love letter to the game that shaped his sensibilities as a young man. 

In the housing projects of Coney Island – which in real life produced the likes of Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, Isaiah Whitehead and Lance Stephenson, who all starred at the same Lincoln High School as He Got Game’s fictitious Jesus Shuttlesworth – Lee’s cinematic strokes paint the portrait of the game as religion, a vehicle for deliverance. 

After all, the main character’s name is Jesus. And on a personal level, as a basketball junkie, the scene where Jake tells his son the true origins of his name still gets me misty eyed no matter how many times I’ve seen it. 

Something about Black Jesus “Pearl” Earl Monroe

Comment on Earl Monroe in the movie “He Got Game”

But Spike doesn’t refrain from commenting on the narcotic effect of the game’s true nature of capitalism, with everyone but Jesus’ little sister angling for a piece of the cash windfall that his skills might soon bring. 

Jesus is just a teenager, a mere child himself, but his decency and maturity are evident in him accepting the responsibility of doing his best to raise his sister in lieu of their mother’s tragic death and Jake’s subsequent incarceration.

Despite the murky waters that he has to navigate as a hoops prodigy, he’s determined to cling to the one pure element in his life as sustenance for the future: his sister’s love and innocence.

At its emotional core, the relationship between Jake and Jesus is heartbreaking. 

he got game 1 on 1

he got game 1 on 1 discorso figo padre figlio da guardare

And Denzel’s portrayal is some of his best work, and very near the apex of his accomplished career. We feel Jake’s pain and regrets. As a husband, he’s failed the woman he loves, accidentally killing her in a flash of domestic violence. As a father, he’s failed his children. 

And still, we root for him to become whole again, which he’ll obviously never be. 

He Got Game was Spike’s best work since Malcolm X dropped in 1992. It’s not only an insightful glance into the pressures of a basketball phenom, but a larger exploration into dreams, temptation and an exploitative system that will chew up and spit out even the most talented prospect. 

The Shadow League on Twitter

Today is the 20th anniversary of ‘He Got Game.’ Let’s remember the grimiest game of one-on-one between father and son. “Man, I quit…” https://t.co/sxO2wIrBSk

But even more than that, it’s about fathers and sons trying to bridge a wide divide of pain that will never fully dissipate. 

And despite their differences, their love of the game is the one shred that, whether Jesus likes it or not, will always connect them beyond the bonds of blood.  

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