‘Hustle’ on Netflix is the best basketball movie of all time

Adam Sandler has come a long way. From “Billy Madison” to “Grown Ups,” he’s made some of the most quotable movies in history, and even the bad films gross so much money that I can’t be sure I actually hate them. 

In my mind, his crown jewels have been his sports films. I quote “Happy Gilmore” during literally every round of golf I play whenever someone gets upset about missing a putt. 

“Here comes the putter throw! Wait. He’s restrained himself. Maybe this is a new Happy Gilmore.” 

To date, not a single person has failed to understand the reference. That’s not to mention that all of America knows what a medulla oblongata is because “The Waterboy” taught us. No one has done sports comedy as well as he has, but those films rely on Sandler’s “SNL”-esque character work.

With “Uncut Gems,” Sandler introduced us to a different version of himself that’s captivating without being goofy. If “Uncut Gems” showed us that Sandler has another speed, “Hustle” on Netflix is Sandler driving comfortably in that gear. His character is Stanley Sugarman, a failed Philadelphia hooper turned NBA scout who finds a prospect with a troubled past on the streets of Spain. Sandler plays it like he’s on the brink of a heart attack the entire time, but despite all the praise I just heaped on him, the best thing about “Hustle” is … wait for it … the basketball. 

Juancho Hernangomez, right, plays Bo Cruz in "Hustle."

Juancho Hernangomez, right, plays Bo Cruz in “Hustle.”

Cassy Athena/Netflix

You can’t help but root for Sugarman to succeed, but what sets this apart from other heart-warming movies like “The Sandlot” or “Rudy” is that “Hustle” gets the nuance of the actual sport. My favorite basketball movie of all time is still “White Men Can’t Jump,” in part because of its heart, but also because Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes actually play the game. It’s streetball, so it doesn’t need to be NBA-level in terms of skill, but it’s still so well done that I found myself in awe of the ability of the actors. 

What “White Men Can’t Jump” does well, “Hustle” does at a stratospheric level. The basketball in “Hustle” is so good that it almost feels unreal. It makes sense given that LeBron James is the executive producer and was able to attract high-level NBA talent to make cameo after cameo (Seth Curry, Julius Erving, Dirk Nowitzki, Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Tobias Harris, Kenny Smith and many, many more). 

We aren’t used to seeing real athletes showing their full athleticism in a film like this. For example, Anthony Edwards is perfectly cast as the arrogant young stud. Every time he shows up on screen, we know we’re getting two things: intense competition and unreal trash talk. He’s so good at it that I almost hate him — his timing and delivery is so authentic that it seems like the lines were improvised, because I don’t think it’s possible to recite memorized dialogue and play basketball at that level at the same time.

Juancho Hernangomez, left, as Bo Cruz and Anthony Edwards as Kermit Wilts in "Hustle."

Juancho Hernangomez, left, as Bo Cruz and Anthony Edwards as Kermit Wilts in “Hustle.”

Scott Yamano/Netflix

The action that steals the show, however, comes from the film’s other star, Juancho Hernangomez, who plays sleeper Spanish prospect Bo Cruz. Emotionally, his basketball scenes connect with me because I remember my first couple of years after graduating from Cal when I was training for summer leagues and training camps and combines (scrimmages for unsigned talent). From the running up the hill to the drills and even the pickup games, it all felt very familiar. The movie gave a real sense of how much work it takes to improve even 1%. 

The fact that the movie shows us what it takes to make it in the NBA is also a credit to Juancho’s basketball talent. He is actually doing everything you see in the movie. It blew me away. I remember doing similar drills in my D-League days, but I never got close to pulling off some of the skill drills in the movie. It’s wild because for the first time, people get a sense of just how good you have to be to sit on the end of an NBA bench. 

Do you know how often people have come up to me and said, “If I was your height, I’d be in the NBA”? Of course you don’t, but it must be 20,000 times and counting.

Juancho Hernangomez, left, trains in "Hustle."

Juancho Hernangomez, left, trains in “Hustle.”

Scott Yamano/Netflix

I’ve never been able to explain to people just how good you have to be to get into the league. The amount of skill and talent required is almost impossible to lay out in conversation. I sometimes liken it to the idea of Thor explaining how mortals can’t wield his hammer Mjolnir. It’s not that someone can’t pick up Mjolnir, it’s that humans can’t fathom the power it holds and will never actually wield it. 

In “Hustle,” Hernangomez shows all of us the true skill at play here. I usually get impatient during long training montages, but in his (which was by all accounts very long), I was captivated as both a former player and a fan. He throws balls through tires while dribbling with his off hand over and over. It’s shocking, not just because he pulls it off, but because he’s a career 5-point-per-game player. 

It begs the question: What is KD capable of? What’s Jokic doing? 

Juancho Hernangomez, left, as Bo Cruz in "Hustle."

Juancho Hernangomez, left, as Bo Cruz in “Hustle.”

Cassy Athena/Netflix

People who don’t know the NBA will enjoy “Hustle” because of Sandler’s performance, the struggle of Bo Cruz, and the heart that comes with a good sports film. But with a deeper understanding, I think that this is a basketball film for basketball heads. The closer you are to the game, the more likely you are to enjoy it because it just gets the details right. The speed of the game. The pressure of the tryouts. The front office nonsense. The trash talking. And most of all, the training. 

Mind you, I’m not going to walk around quoting “Hustle,” because it’s not “The Waterboy.” There are no iconic punch lines about the medulla oblongata; it’s just a film portraying real sports played by real athletes. And although that seems easy to execute, I’ve never seen it done like this.

Juancho Hernangomez, left, as Bo Cruz and Adam Sandler as Stanley Sugarman in "Hustle."

Juancho Hernangomez, left, as Bo Cruz and Adam Sandler as Stanley Sugarman in “Hustle.”

Scott Yamano/Netflix