MANILA, PHILIPPINES — The game of basketball has gotten more global in recent years. It’s become so popular that basketball is now inching closer to the popularity of soccer/football worldwide. This is a concept that might seem matter-of-fact in the Philippines, but Europe, Africa, and the Middle East have slowly embraced the sport.
The pinnacle of basketball, however, remains the National Basketball Association (NBA). If you make it in the NBA, then you become the stuff of legend. If in the past we could only dream about playing against legends like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, the global expansion of basketball sees the next great basketball superstar emerging from obscurity outside the United States. That’s the premise behind Adam Sandler’s new film, Hustle.
Stanley Sugerman is an international scout for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. A former college standout at Temple University, a freak accident ended his dreams of playing professional basketball. Stanley spends most of his time on planes and in hotels all over the world, searching for the next basketball superstar.
Years of international scouting have taken their toll on Stanley’s family life and he wants to be home for wife Theresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). 76ers owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) believes in Stanley and promotes him to assistant coach but suddenly dies. This leaves Rex’s son, Vince (Ben Foster) in charge, and his beliefs often clash with Stanley’s.
Vince wants Stanley back as an international scout even though the latter just wants to stay home with his family. Stanley’s old teammate and current player agent Leon Rich (Kenny Smith) encourages Stanley to leave the 76ers and join his agency instead. Vince tells Stanley that if he finds a superstar, he can return to his role on the Philadelphia bench.
On a scouting trip to Spain, Stanley is blown away by the talent of a player in a local pickup game. The young man is named Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) and was supposed to come to America at an early age until he got his girlfriend pregnant.
Stanley is convinced that the 76ers should draft Bo but Vince isn’t as enamored so Stanley uses his own money to bring Bo from Spain to the U.S., telling Bo that either the 76ers sign him or he’ll enter the NBA Draft.
In a showcase event organized by Leon, Stanley tells Bo to shut down the presumptive second overall draft pick Kermit Wilts (Anthony Edwards). When Wilts’ trashtalking and flashy play throw Bo off his game, other scouts and NBA executives like Vince become even more doubtful about the young man’s ability.
This forces Stanley to quit his job with the 76ers and he commits himself to training Bo for the NBA Draft. If Bo can turn some heads and stay focused, Stanley is sure that Bo can be a legitimate NBA player.
A really good sports movie is a rare thing to find. Most of the best sports movies are about boxing (the entire Rocky series), baseball, or American football. The challenge of any sports movie, particularly one about basketball, is balancing the story with really good basketball action.
This is where director Jeremiah Zagar and writers Taylor Materne and Will fetters succeed with Hustle. By using real NBA players who just happen to act quite well in Hernangomez, Edwards, Smith, and so many others, the basketball looks believable and we as sports fans become invested in Bo Cruz’s and Stanley Sugerman’s story.
By Sandler agreeing to play an aging scout instead of the basketball star, we no longer have to suspend our disbelief that he can pass off as an NBA player. It also opens up more opportunities for Sandler to show off some acting chops because of the choices Stanley has made in life.
Hernangomez and Edwards, as leads and main rivals Cruz and Wilts, are revelations as actors. Everyone already knew they could play, particularly a franchise player like Edwards is on the Minnesota Timberwolves. But to see them act, Hernangomez as a struggling young father who is trying to secure a future for his daughter and Edwards as a slimy, trahstalking hustler, is an absolute shock.
Since Hustle counts LeBron James and his partner Maverick Carter as producers with Sandler and others, you know that they have access to NBA players and licenses. The draft combines, pickup games, and basketball scenes all looked real, with actual NBA and streetball legends participating.
For all of that glitz, however, the core of the story remains the relationship built between Stanley and Bo. The former who never made it to stardom but still has something to give to the game while the latter thought basketball had eluded him because of how far he was from the NBA and because he has a young daughter to feed.
Of course, there are sports cliches here. A training montage to help Bo focus, an inevitable fall from grace, and one last shot at redemption. Yet that’s why Hustle also succeeds. It doesn’t allow sports movie tropes to take away from the great basketball on display or the story of Stanley and Bo. Hustle achieves that delicate balance that sports movies too often fail at reaching.
Hustle is currently streaming on Netflix and is showing in select theaters.