So here we are in early September, the NBA is currently in hibernation. If you want to scratch that nagging itch, that desire to watch some Knicks basketball, perhaps you could check the TV. Maybe ESPN Classic is playing that old 90’s game (you know the one) when everybody got into a straight-up brawl, then shook hands and complimented each other on their post moves and hard screens (because that’s what men did in those days). Perhaps you could check Instagram, maybe you'll find a heavily edited clip of a bench player hitting 20 corner threes in a row.
You could enjoy the definitive Top 10 Films Knicks Fans Should Watch!
To have a full appreciation of the Knickerbockers, you should have some awareness of both the team’s history AND New York basketball culture in general. This is reflected in the rankings.
Before I begin, an honorable mention:
The Business of the NBA Draft
This is a 23-minute Youtube video, so I decided it couldn’t be eligible for the top 10 films list. However, I strongly recommend every Knicks fan watch it. It’s a short 2015 documentary about a handful of NBA prospects preparing for the draft. Featured prominently is (you guessed it) a skinny, 19-year-old Kristaps Porzingis. The viewer gets a bit of an inside look at how teams evaluate prospects, and how agents influence that process. It doesn’t go too in-depth, but it’s an interesting watch if you know where all these players end up.
So without further ado, here is the official list!
So, here’s the thing…this isn’t actually a good movie. Stay with me.
It is, however, kind of a surreal experience for a long-time Knicks fan. This movie was filmed in 1996, when Patrick Ewing was still in New York and the team was pretty good every single year. That’s not what this movie is about.
This movie is about a hopelessly struggling, incompetent Knicks squad distracted by off-court drama, bloated egos, and an eccentric owner. Sound familiar? Their fortunes don’t turn until the owner hires Eddie, a well-known, local Knicks superfan, to coach the team. She has no professional coaching experience, but she did win a half-time free-throw shooting contest. If this happened in real life, (I wish no harm towards James Dolan or his family) it would basically be the French Revolution all over again.
Most of the jokes fall flat and it plays everything too safe to be so bad it’s good, but it’s cool seeing how many real NBA players participated in the film. Mark Jackson basically plays himself as a Jesus-obsessed point guard, and John Salley gives a surprisingly competent performance as the team’s veteran leader. Rick Fox is good at being handsome and speaking knowingly about adultery. Clyde Frazier’s reaction to getting his jersey incinerated by a pyrotechnic special effect alone makes the movie worth watching.
This documentary attempts to give some context and backstory to arguably the most exciting two weeks in the last decade of Knicks fandom, Jeremy Lin’s legendary stint as the Knicks’ starting point guard. It’s extremely earnest, and goes all in on being an inspirational, feel-good story about an underdog proving everybody wrong. To its credit it is effective, and Lin is a very likable central figure.
It doesn’t really delve into Lin’s subsequent struggles with injuries or finding a long-term role at all, which is a problem of any sports documentary that features a still-active athlete. I’m sure Lin doesn’t want to damage relationships with anybody he might have to work with in the future. The film also doesn’t quite manage to show changes in Lin’s personal life after becoming ultra-famous overnight. Basically, I’m still waiting for a more interesting documentary to emerge 20 years from now, but give this a watch on a rainy day.
- Patrick Ewing - Standing Tall
This is an old TV special about Patrick Ewing, illuminating his character and passion, as well as the racism he faced as a dominant high school and college player. It very much is a product of its time, featuring cheesy movie trailer-style narration and background music that always sounds like The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby but somehow never actually is The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby. It’s a great introduction to Ewing’s career though, and is recommended for any new fans wanting to learn some history.
- Whatever Happened to Michael Ray?
Admittedly this is right on the border of not being eligible, as a half-hour long TV Special. However, because of Chris Rock’s involvement and IMDB classifying it as a “TV Movie”, I decided that it makes the cut. Seemingly not available for purchase anywhere (watch it on Youtube), this obscure little documentary is about the rise and fall of Michael “Sugar” Ray Richardson. Michael Ray was once hyped as the next Clyde Frazier, but ended up with the (dis)honor of being the only player in NBA history to receive a life-time ban. Sugar was a nightmare for opposing teams on the court, and his life became a cocaine-fueled nightmare off the court. It’s striking how reserved and unassuming he seems in interviews, and how starkly his personality contrasts with the crazed man who would fake his own kidnapping to ransom some drug money.
- Bernie and Ernie
The first ESPN 30 for 30 on the list, this doc tells the story of Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld’s college friendship, and details their divergent paths in the NBA. Like every 30 for 30, the documentary is very well done. This film is mostly recommended for its portrait of King, the underrated Knicks star of the 80’s. The extraordinary scorer is a more troubled, thoughtful man than players like Melo or Ewing, and the documentary portrays some of King’s struggles with racism and alcoholism. The problem with the narrative is that Bernard King never really reached the coveted mountain top, nor did his inner demons truly ruin his career. The stakes just never seem that high. While it lacks a particularly engrossing climax, Bernie and Ernie is nevertheless a pleasant odd couple friendship story.
- Doin it in the Park
There are multiple documentaries that explore the pickup basketball scene in New York City, and this is probably the best of the bunch. The film was made by two insiders, and they produced a fun look at the toughest courts in all five boroughs. New Yorkers take pick-up basketball VERY seriously, and future pros claim they weren’t good enough to get in a game on certain courts until high school. The subculture is presided over by a colorful cast of ballers, all of which hope to teach a single lesson: Everything is earned. Nothing is given.
- He Got Game
He Got Game is a movie about a prisoner named Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) who is given a week of parole to convince his New Yorker, basketball-prodigy son, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), to play for the Governor’s Alma Mater. If he does so, his prison sentence for killing his wife will be reduced. On paper it’s the movie Spike Lee was born to direct, and though it’s not quite as good as it should be, there are several scenes that are just perfect.
That scene where Denzel walks around Coney Island with Ray Allen talking about Earl “Jesus/Black Jesus/the Pearl” Monroe? So good. That scene in the end, where Denzel has to play Ray Allen for his freedom? So good.
That completely unnecessary sub-plot where Denzel tries to save a prostitute? Not so good. Ray Allen’s “good for a ball player” acting? Ehhh. Not so good.
Still, Denzel kills it as usual, and Spike Lee has a lot more on his mind than just basketball. He uses the central premise of a star athlete's recruitment to analyze capitalism and the way it can negatively affect even an essentially innocent, decent person (Jesus Shuttlesworth/Ray Allen). Lee can be a little heavy-handed when it comes to dialogue, but his films are always beautifully shot and engaging.
- Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault
My favorite of the scripted films on the list, Rebound recounts the tragic fall from grace of NY playground legend Earl “The Goat” Manigault. The movie is propelled by a wonderful performance from Don Cheadle, and makes you wish Hollywood would give the guy better material to work with these days. Being a TV movie, it doesn’t look as pretty as some of the other films on this list, which shows most notably in the actual basketball scenes. Believe it or not, Don Cheadle never convinced me that he is good at basketball or 6’1”. Still, imagining someone like Rick Fox portraying Manigault’s harrowing descent into heroin addiction really makes you appreciate the choice to use a real actor.
- When the Garden Was Eden
We now enter the “Required Viewing” tier of the list; this documentary is absolutely essential to anyone who bleeds orange and blue. The film covers the golden era of Knicks basketball, the two championship teams. I find anything from the era of players who smoked during halftime and held down day jobs to be fascinating.
This Knicks squad is often held up as the pinnacle of what a basketball team can be, and you can see why. They may not have had the sustained dominance of Russell’s Celtics, but the Knicks’ style and identity embodied the principles every team strives for: selflessness and seamless cooperation. Perhaps the film would benefit from some added drama, but that’s just not who these Knicks were. Outside of one or two crazy moments (the obvious favorite being Willis Reed singlehandedly beating up an entire Lakers team), the film is mostly just a portrait of an excellent basketball team. Good enough for me.
- Winning Time: Miller vs. The Knicks
This may be a controversial #1, since it focuses on one of the Knicks’ most heartbreaking defeats (the 1995 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals) and leans toward the perspective of Reggie Miller and the Pacers. However, it’s simply the most fascinating look at Knicks basketball you can experience through the film medium, and it functions as a necessary reminder. It reminds us of what must be redeemed, and it enables the uninitiated to understand what it would mean for the team to bring home a ‘ship after such a long drought. Unlike When the Garden Was Eden, Winning Time tells a truly riveting tale, one with twists and turns, heroes (for us, Ewing and Starks) and villains (for any reasonable human being, Reggie Miller). Really, if you haven’t seen it, find a couch and laptop right now and watch all of it. You won’t be disappointed.