“Never back down” is the single most important phrase in Hustle, the new Netflix movie from Adam Sandler and LeBron James’ production company, Spring Hill. The short but powerful line serves as both the foundation and bridge into the world of countless NBA athletes.
The film, which quickly ascended to the #1 spot on Netflix since debuting on June 10, follows the life of an NBA scout Stanley Sugarman (Sandler) as he tries to achieve his dream of becoming an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers.
While on assignment in Spain, he discovers an unknown and unlikely talent in Bo Cruz, played by current NBA reserve Juancho Hernangomez. Sugarman makes it his mission to get the hustling streetball player drafted into the NBA.
The story, in itself, is simple. But the nuanced depiction of “the struggle” that drives numerous prospects in their pursuit to go pro hit close to home.
Basketball was my life for a long time — I played all the way through high school but turned down an opportunity to play collegiately Division 1, while helping coach my brother, who eventually went on to play D1.
It’s difficult to make it to a high level, to say the least. And the obsession and sacrifice needed are two of the most crucial characteristics required for success.
There've been plenty of movies documenting the struggles of both life and basketball like High Flying Bird, He Got Game, White Men Can’t Jump, Coach Carter, and Like Mike, but none of them incorporated the wide range of diverse, yet qualified perspectives of actual players in the game to express the minutiae within the sport.
What Sandler, James, and director Jeremiah Zagar get right is how to tastefully highlight the grind by handing over the mic to the purest community—current players, members of the Hall of Fame, coaches, trainers, and street legends—to amplify the story with their perspectives.
Pre-production, it was decided early on to cast a real hooper as the lead—something that is typically hard to nail down, considering the challenge of transitioning from athlete to actor. Hernangomez, who initially rejected auditioning for the role several times, finally sent tapes due to boredom from the Covid lockdown in 2020.
Despite having no prior big screen experience, Hernangomez’s acting was enough to make Sander fall in love. And the choice to cast him set the standard for every other supporting role, opening up the door for professional insight at every level of the film.
The roster of cameos includes current NBA standouts Trae Young, Anthony Edwards, Tobias Harris, Kyle Lowry, and Boban Marjanovic (plus a quick showing of his brother Willy Hernangomez), to Hall of Fame talent in Shaquille O’Neal, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Allen Iverson, and Charles Barkley.
The film shines a spotlight on the intensity of training and the “anything goes” nature of trash-talking, the latter performed exceptionally well by Athony Edwards who played the top NBA prospect, Kermit Wiltz. Edwards was arguably the standout actor in the film and is currently one of the best young talents in the NBA.
Professional athletes acting as themselves flawlessly captured key nuances of the game: They fluidly created space between themselves and their defender to score, and used complex practice drills and key coaching techniques (like Sugarman’s attempts to insult Cruz to distract him).
Training for the NBA is an arduous endeavor, one that doesn’t often get enough portrayal in film. For me, it was refreshing to see the number of scenes showcasing the high level of endurance needed for growth, especially the tribute to Kobe Bryant’s work ethic.
Sugarman references Bryant’s drive to wake up every morning at 4AM to work on his craft, but the film doesn’t stop there in honoring the legend’s influence on the game. Hernangomez also specifically requested Nike for the brand’s Kobe shoes to be a part of the showcased footwear in a big way. The Nike Kobe 5’s play a major role for Cruz (Hernangomez), as he trains and plays in them for a majority of the film. Among the numerous sportswear brands featured in Hustle (including Reebok, Under Armour, Champion, and adidas), none are seen as heavily as Nike Kobe and Jordan Brand, due to the high influence from both Hall of Famers on the game.
While it is still early to tell, Hustle may go down as one of the greatest sports films in recent history. The result of intentional focus on the details has led to praise from NBA players as well as general fans around the world, including myself. I’ll be pressing play on Netflix again soon.
Here are some of our favorite footwear styles featured in Hustle.