You may have seen viral videos circulating around of Adam Sandler on the court, enthusiastically joining pickup basketball games with strangers. It isn’t one of those one-in-a-million moments where a celebrity reluctantly makes a public appearance like a god stepping down from Olympus to wander amongst mortals – no, if you’ve seen the videos, you know that the Sandman is sincerely happy just to be out there passing the rock and showing off his skills. And hey, he might not be the next Greek Freak, but he’s actually pretty good for a mere actor, an old-timer. You can see him out there, usually keeping up with the youngsters he’s playing against … actually making baskets! Twitter feeds are occasionally flooded with awestruck accounts of folks lucky enough to play against the guy. See, Sandler is a genuine aficionado of the sport, and he’s implemented it one way or another into his career from his early days on Saturday Night Live to his recent (simple-but-good) flick Hustle. He’s shared screen-time with court GOATs Shaquille O’Neal, Dr. Jand Kevin Garnettand in Hustle he swaps dialogue with Khris Middleton, Juancho Hernangómezand many others.
Sandler’s role in Hustle as Stanley Sugerman, a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, could not have been given to a better performer. Few actors are more adequately equipped for the role, with the Sandman’s natural charisma and sincere knowledge (and passion) for basketball making the performance an easy slam dunk. Even if his performance in Hustle never reaches the astounding transformative heights that he reached Uncut Gems, Punch Drunk Loveand Meyerowitz Storiesit’s nevertheless an excellent addition to a resume that has in recent years became properly recognized as sincerely respectable.
It helps that Sandler seems to pull plenty of Sugerman from himself. It helps that the guy’s been a clear enthusiast for basketball since his youth, falling in love with the game as a boy as he played on teams at his local Jewish Community Center (and, eventually, his high school). Even if the Sandman did not have the makings of a varsity athlete, he definitely had the heart, and hey, that’s the kind of thing that his character Stanley Sugerman would consider invaluable. Sandler has essentially followed the game devoutly for a large section of his life, as a player, spectator, and performer in fictionalized portrayals of the game.
One can trace it back to the beginning: his famous (but distasteful and poorly-aged) recurring “Cajun Man” character on SNL often turned to tossing out March Madness predictions. There’s the deliciously absurd scene in Little Nicky where Nicky (Sandler) executes a Space Jam–esque physics-defying slam dunk, shattering the rim and sending the referee (Dana Carvey) falling flat on his ass.
In the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard, Sandler’s character, Paul Crewe, plays a bloody one-on-one pickup game with the leader of a prison gang.Michael Irvin). He tears up the court, scoring no small amount of shots, and earning the reluctant respect of many of the inmates. The plot of Sandler’s 2010 box office smash (and critical failure) Grown Ups revolves around a high school basketball team that reunite three years after their championship victory. After their old basketball coach (Blake Clark) dies, and the boys … uh …grow up, they’re confronted by an old rival (Colin Quinn) who claims that the championship win was illegitimate. Of course, the film climaxes with basketball, in a scene where Lenny (Sandler) rematches his old rival to prove that he’s still got the skills. Spoiler alert: Lenny misses the shot, loses the game, but everybody still loves him. Still, even those uninitiated into the Temple of the Sandman might notice a trend here: What is it about this guy and basketball?
Recent years have made more sense of things. Of course, Sandler made waves as his performance as the gambling-addict / bling-dealer / basketball-junkie Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems, in which a pivotal plot point revolves around the titular gem catching the eye of the Celtics-era Kevin Garnett (the basketball legend playing himself). Sure, Ratner’s obsession with all things b-ball stems largely from his ability to make money off the game, But there’s also a sincerity in the way Ratner trades off stats and game predictions with wide-eyed excitement. Writers / directors Josh and Bennie Safdiealready established as basketball fans via their powerful documentary film Lenny Cooke, found the ideal candidate in Sandler. Watch Howard’s boyish glee when he visits the training center of the Celtics, absolutely unable to refuse taking a few shots on the crow, as if he was a pro himself. Okay, you might say, “but isn’t that just acting?”. Yeah, sure: Sandler does plenty of acting in Gems (enough of it to make his exclusion from the Academy Awards that year a widely agreed-upon snub), but there’s something in scenes like this that feels like 100% authentic Sandler.
In terms of Hustle, Sandler brings it all home, performing among a dizzying list of professional athletes from the days of basketball’s past and present alike that even The God of Basketball would struggle to assemble. In the film, Sandler’s a talent scout that has undeniably put in the hours to deserve a coaching position but gets saddled with the responsibility of finding and bringing in a new star to the team. Like Sandler himself, Sugerman’s a guy with a basketball history of his own, only instead of a minor leaguer who found a better vocation in the art of comedy, Sugerman’s an ex-semi-pro whose shot at stardom is cut short. Sugerman (and Sandler) has an encyclopedic knowledge of basketball, knowing enough of the game’s history and present to make a reasonable effort at predicting its future.
Few other actors could have as believably filled Sugerman’s shoes in Hustle. It is not that it is not a good performance by the Sandman, it’s just that it feels so natural. (Maybe if the whole acting thing does not pan out, the dude can pick up some coaching gigs along the way). Sandler’s talked about being starstruck by some of the guests in the film, namely Julius “Dr. J” Erving, the former ’76er that brought unprecedented artistry to the act of dunking. “Me and my brother had his poster up in our room,” Sandler says on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. “I was just staring at him,” he explains, fanboy-like. Dr. J’s a hero to Sandler, and of course he is. Sandler’s a basketballhead and Dr. J’s a damn legend. It’s hard to say how much leverage Sandler had with assembling the film’s many guests, but it has was noted by director Jerimiah Zagar that Sandler hand-picked Timberwolves shooting-guard Anthony Edwards to play the role of the trash-talking prodigy Kermit Wilt-Washington. Wow, with such a limitlessly talented crew of athletes that signed on to make appearances in Hustleit’s clear: most of these guys must dig Sandler, too.
Sandler once again showing his chops in Hustle makes so much sense. It’s a script dealing with a topic he’s passionate about, something he’s followed for his whole life. Anybody following the Sandman closely can see it: he’s sat courtside with Jack Nicholson at a Lakers game (the two later walked out on the game in disappointment when the team was “torched” by Kevin Durant and the Thunder), and has made appearances on late night television dressed in Lakers jerseys. On the press tour for Grown Ups 2, Sandler’s even picked up some genuine compliments from Shaq on his skills on the court (“[he’s] a damn good player ”) and showed up on Inside the NBA to reminisce on the history of his friendship with the Shaq-Fu.
Maybe Sandler missed the window for a shot at NBA stardom, but he’s done pretty well for himself when all’s said and done. Considering that he has been able to share screen-time with one of his childhood heroes, the meandering and winding road that his career set him on lead to an result he may have once only dreamed of: meeting KG … and Dr. J … and Kevin Garnett, and Khris Stapleton, too! And if his passion for the game helps coax more performances out of him like his roles in Hustle and Uncut Gemsit’s nothing but a good thing.
So listen up, Sandman fans: if you’re out on the court in some urban American neighborhood, keep your eyes peeled and keep your A game sharpened. You might just witness an appearance of Happy Madison himself, ready to join in, toss the rock, and score a couple of points on you.