When you're one of the best in your field, it is only natural that it opens up lots of opportunities outside of your expertise. For NBA players, this leads them to all sorts of endorsements and, sometimes: Hollywood.
In NBA history, several athletes have appeared in films either as the lead character, in a small role, or even an extra. Here are some of these players who have appeared in films — both popular and those out of the radar.
Michael Jordan is arguably the most famous basketball player in the world. And it only sounds right that the 1996 live-action/animated film "Space Jam" is also the most popular basketball film. The film is heralded as a classic among basketball fans as it featured the GOAT and several iconic cartoon characters.
Given Jordan's immense popularity, the movie also raked in sales through different merchandise such as toys, jerseys, video games, and of course, Air Jordans. Once again, this proved that Jordan is the most marketable athlete in history.
LeBron James starred in "Space Jam 2: A New Legacy," the sequel to the 1996 classic. It inevitably received comparisons with the first film. Some poked fun at LeBron James' acting. Some slammed how it shamelessly endorsed products. Others were more positive, noting that just like the first film, Space Jam 2 was an effective way to introduce the classic Looney Tunes characters.
Apart from Space Jam 2, James also played himself in the 2015 rom-com "Trainwreck." James also lent his voice to the animated musical "Smallfoot," where he played a large purple male yeti named Gwangi.
Among the players in this list, O'Neal is the most prolific actor. "Shazam" is understandably on top of Shaq's filmography. Not because it was good, but because his colleagues at NBA on TNT regularly poke fun at the 1996 comedy. But there are several decent films in O'Neal's filmography. One of them is the 1994 basketball drama "Blue Chips," where he impressed Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert with his acting chops.
Before superhero films became a trend, O'Neal already starred in one in 1997's "Steel." O'Neal also played Norman in "The Wash," which starred hip-hop icons Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Shaq also played himself in various films: "Freddy Got Finger," "Scary Movie 4," "The House Bunny," "What Men Want," and many more.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Airplane!
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appeared in the 1980 spoof flick "Airplane!" The film was a critical and commercial success. Abdul-Jabbar showed his decent acting skills in the cockpit scene where a kid called out his seeming lack of effort in the regular season. The kid blasted Kareem, noting that he only worked hard during the playoffs. That scene was so seminal that Abdul-Jabbar reprised his role in commercials for Delta Airlines and Travel Wisconsin.
Wilt Chamberlain - Conan the Destroyer
Wilt the Stilt starred as Bombaata, the captain of Taramis's guard, in the 1984 film "Conan the Destroyer." This was Chamberlain's only film role, and he starred alongside blockbuster king Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film was packed with fight scenes showing Chamberlain's physique and brute strength. Note that Chamberlain was in his late 40s when he did the movie. But the man was still in tiptop shape.
Giannis Antetokounmpo - Dead Europe
While almost all players in this list made their film appearances at the peak of their basketball careers, Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo made his film debut even before he stepped foot in the NBA. He made a cameo in the 2012 Australian film "Dead Europe." The film needed a family who could play refugees. 16-year-old Giannis and his family were looking for a side-hustle to make ends meet and said yes to being cast. Interestingly, the film credited Giannis and his mother as YIANNIS ADETO KUNBO' and 'VERA ADETO KUNBO.'
Gheorghe Muresan - My Giant
7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan, tied with Manute Bol as the tallest players to play in the NBA, starred in the 1998 comedy "My Giant." The story was reportedly inspired by Billy Crystal's real-life friendship with WWE legend Andre the Giant. Muresan played just six seasons in the NBA and averaged as much as 14.5 points and 9.6 rebounds. He was crowned Most Improved Player in 1996.
Julius Erving - The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh
Dr. J played the lead role in the 1979 sports/comedy film "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh." A team called the Pittsburgh Pythons has been struggling to squeeze out victories that they've become the laughing stock of the neighborhood. In a familiar twist of events, some players ask to be traded. But then, Julius Erving's character, Julius Erving, arrives to lead them to the promised land.
Ray Allen - He Got Game
Ray Allen probably has the best monicker in all of sports: "Jesus Shuttleworth." It was his character's name in Spike Lee's "He Got Game." The name stuck, and during the first Nickname Jersey Night, Allen donned his J. Shuttleworth Heat jersey.
The sports drama wasn't much of a commercial success despite Denzel Washington's presence. However, it did receive praise for Spike Lee's direction as well as Washington and Allen's performance.
Darius Miles - The Perfect Score
Darius Miles, most known for his stint with the LA Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers, appeared in the 2004 heist film "The Perfect Score." The story revolved around a group of high school misfits who attempt to break into a testing office and get the answers to the SATs, with hopes of acing the exam. Miles didn't just star alongside your average celebrity. He rubbed elbows with pre-Avengers Chris Evans and Scarlett Johannson.
Kevin Garnett - Uncut Gems
Kevin Garnett starred 2019 crime thriller "Uncut Gems." He starred alongside Adam Sandler, whose performance was critically acclaimed. KG also received praise, but he was a bit puzzled by this since he basically portrayed himself. Like the character, Garnett is a bit superstitious. He reportedly ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before a game.
Bernard King - Fast Break
Bernard King heralded as one of the best pure scorers in NBA history, starred in the 1979 comedy film "Fast Break." Unlike most players on this list, King didn't portray a role as a basketball player. Rather, the four-time All-Star was a pool player named Hustler. Fortunately, King didn't have to train hard for his role as he admitted to shooting pool almost every day after playing basketball.
Marques Johnson - White Men Can't Jump
Last but not least, five-time All-Star Marques Johnson starred in the sports comedy flick "White Men Can't Jump." While Johnson also appeared in other films, it's his performance as Raymond in the 1992 film that he's most remembered. Johnson didn't just ride on Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson's star power. Johnson showcased his acting chops, and some consider it to be the best acting performance by a basketball player.
Whereas Kareem's scene in Airplane! was reenacted in commercials, Johnson's epic scene has been immortalized through memes.
Kobe Bryant would've done Space Jam 2 with LeBron James under one condition
Space Jam 2 featured a ton of cameos from NBA stars. Fans were on the lookout for their favorite player, curious to see what role they would be playing. Interestingly, Kobe Bryant was offered to make a cameo in the sports-fantasy film. However, he declined the offer to be in front of the camera because he wanted to take part in the film but in a different capacity.
The sequel to 1996's "Space Jam" was hotly anticipated but was put on the backburner after Michael Jordan's hesitancy to return. The ball finally started rolling in 2014 when LeBron James agreed to star in the film.
In 2018, Kobe Bryant was asked if he was going to make a cameo in the upcoming film. Kobe said he would only join production if he was the director.
"Being in front of the camera for me was something that never excited me. Never. ... I'll direct it," Bryant said, per Access.
Kobe further expounded: "But being in front of the camera is something that I would never [do]."
To recall, Kobe had just won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short at the 90th Academy Awards a year prior. Though he had appeared in various commercials and TV programs, winning the Oscar for his writing might have been a signal for Kobe: his talents for the silver screen lie in being behind the camera. And so, Bryant wanted to further hone his newfound skill by putting on a director's hat.
Fans want Bean
Even before LeBron James was considered for the lead role in Space Jam 2, Kobe was actually one of the fans' top choices. After all, since Kobe was a young stud, he had already been receiving comparisons with Michael Jordan. They called Kobe the Heir Apparent. In fans' eyes, Kobe was the only deserving basketball star to lead Space Jam.
In fact, when it was formally announced that it was James who would take on the mantle, there was an outrage on Twitter. Fans claimed that the Black Mamba should star alongside Bugs Bunny and not King James.
This was simply a case of not meant to be. Bryant was already carving his post-basketball life as some sort of a media mogul and artist. In those days when he appeared in front of the camera, his focus was solely on basketball, and so he promptly said yes to commercials and TV appearances. Perhaps this was just an act of courtesy on his behalf. After Kobe retired, he basically had the free reign to do whatever he wanted. He had the leverage and the talent to do it. One can't help but wonder if Kobe did indeed end up directing Space Jam 2.