Spike Lee was an inspiring young film director. By 1989, his first feature release - Do the Right Thing, put him on the filmmaker's map.
By the time July 1997 rolled around, Lee was getting ready to shoot his next feature, a story about the struggles of a top high school basketball player.
The movie would be called He Got Game, and Lee wanted to get a real NBA player who could play the part of the main character.
The main character in the film is a high schooler by the unique name of Jesus Shuttlesworth. He has huge dreams of making it as a pro one day.
Shuttlesworth is a top prospect in high school, and the top colleges show interest in him.
While trying to decide which college to go to or if entering the NBA is the right decision, Shuttlesworth deals with a family tragedy.
His father, Jake, is serving time in Attica Correctional Facility, for accidentally killing his wife, Martha, Shuttlesworth's mother six years earlier.
The prison ward approaches Jake one day with an unusual offer: He'll give Jake a week of parole to convince his son to attend the governor's alma mater, with the promise of a shortened sentence if he succeeds.
With the story written, the problem of finding the right candidate began. One of the candidates that were reportedly considered for the part was Stephon Marbury.
The interesting fact about Marbury is he believes the Jesus Shuttlesworth character is based on himself.
This might not be a farfetched statement. Let's compare:
Marbury was a basketball player from the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York.
He attended Abraham Lincoln High School, where he won a state championship. Marbury emerged as the top prospect in the nation.
Marbury then had to decide either to attend college or go straight to the NBA. He chose to go to college.
Then, in Lee's film, Jesus Shuttlesworth is from Coney Island’s Lincoln High, and like Marbury, Shuttlesworth picks college over the NBA.
“It’s pretty obvious who they were doing the movie on,” said Marbury. “It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that one out. Who else are you doing it on? What other player?”
Spike Lee would respond to Marbury's accusations in a 1998 interview with The New York Times.
“Even though Stephon, and his father, and his brothers, might think this is the Marbury story, it’s not about them,” Lee said. “Coney Island has been basketball crazy for a long time. And the story is not unique. It happens to a lot of these kids.”
Lee came up with the idea for He Got Game from his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee. She challenged Lee to write an original screenplay, without co-writers, for the first time since his 1991 hit movie, Jungle Fever.
When asked to come in to audition for the role of Jesus Shuttlesworth, Marbury declined.
“I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me,” Marbury said. “Because I knew the movie was about me.”
Since Marbury didn't work out, Lee's search for his leading actor would continue and go on to a name that would eventually rule the NBA… Kobe Bryant.
At first, Bryant appeared to be interested in the role, but then, the play that would define his career occurred.
The Los Angeles Lakers trailed 3-1 against the Utah Jazz in the second round of the 1997 NBA playoffs.
In Game 5, the game was close at the end, the Lakers needed someone to step up and win the game. That player to step up was a rookie Kobe Bryant.
Things didn't turn out the way Bryant wanted them to. He air-balled four shots in the fourth quarter and overtime. The Lakers would lose the game and the series.
“Too much time,” Bryant explained about turning down the role.
“When you look at actors and what they have to go through, and the downtime that’s involved in that, it’s just too much. I wanted to play ball. I wanted to go to Venice Beach and play, where actually I broke my wrist. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well… I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season. I [didn’t] really have time to do a film.”
So, with Bryant removing himself from the list of potential actors, Lee had to figure out which player fit the role of Jesus Shuttlesworth.
Lee looked at Allen Iverson, bringing him in for an audition. It was reported that Lee said Iverson “wasn’t prepared when he came in for auditions and seemed distracted.”
Tracey McGrady, fresh from high school, was also brought in to audition. It was said McGrady was “too reserved for the part.”
So, Lee and his crew went on to a bunch of other names:
- Kevin Garnett
- Walter McCarty
- Travis Best
- Rick Fox
- John Wallace
- Felipe Lopez
- Allan Houston
- Danny Fortson
Some of these players ended up landing roles of other characters in the film, but none fit what Lee was looking for in his main character.
Then on March 4, 1997, the Milwaukee Bucks were playing the Knicks in New York.
Lee was in attendance in his usual courtside seat. He watched rookie Ray Allen scored 17, but more importantly, he saw his character in Allen.
Lee approached Allen after the game and said:
“Hey, I’m doing a movie. I’d love for you to audition for it.”
Allen didn't think much of the encounter at first:
“I gave him my information… but didn’t know if it was going to amount to anything.”
The Bucks failed to make the playoffs that year, and once their season was over, Allen contacted Lee:
“He told me, ‘I want you to audition for the lead role, but if you don’t get it, you may possibly get [another] role in the movie.’” Allen said. “I told him I’d love to try my hand.”
Allen participated in two auditions, and he didn't feel too good about it. He went on to say:
“We were all playing around, going through lines. But I didn’t know if I could act to their standards.”
Allen would get called back for a third audition, and this time he'd read with legendary actor, Denzel Washington.
In his 2018 autobiography titled, From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love. Allen wrote this about his session with Washington:
I was in awe. I felt chemistry between the two of us, as did Spike.
Allen would get cast to play Jesus Shuttlesworth, and He Got Game would go on to become a classic for any basketball fan.
The Shuttlesworth character itself would become iconic, and something Allen has never forgotten.
Allen would go on to wear the name "J. Shuttlesworth" on the back of his Miami Heat jersey for a few games in the 2013-14 season.
He Got Game had a bunch of memorable cameos from Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, Bill Walton, and Michael Jordan, to name a few. It also showcased the new (at the time) Jordan 13s, but all these things don't beat the most memorable moment of the film…
The final one-on-one basketball game between Denzel Washington's character and Ray Allen's character.
If you haven't seen it, I'd recommend watching it, and all that's left to say is… enjoy.