“White Men Can’t Jump” was released on March 27, 1992. On the morning of March 28 – according to an incredible sports legend – Michael Jordan gathered for drinks at Sunset Ridge Country Club in the suburbs of Chicago. 10 bottles of Coors Light and 2 rounds of golf. He played the game that night. A beer-fuelled Jordan recorded 44 points, six assists and three steals as he helped the Bulls defeat the visiting Cavaliers 126–102.
Writer-director Ron Shelton’s flamboyant, light-hearted basketball comedy isn’t about the NBA, and the mere mention of Jordan is somewhat offputting. Stylish, big-mouthed streetball maestro Sydney Dean, played by Wesley Snipes, claims that Jordan is impressed. his skills and advised him to join the Summer League, an offer he declined. (Professional training, Sydney Balks, “You can mess up my game.”) But Jordan’s brazen, bold post-beer performance in “White Men Can’t Jump” is spot on. Like many sports movies, it’s not necessary to win. It’s all about having what it takes to win in form of panache.
In The Times, a hit with audiences and crtics at the time, Janet Maslin praised its “raucous wit”. The film’s reputation has grown tremendously in the 30 years since. “White Men Can’t Jump” has since emerged as a cult classic beloved by basketball fans and a cherished portrayal of streetball. On Friday, Hulu will release a remake starring Cinqua Walls and rapper Jack Harlow, but it’s unlikely to bring back the unique magic of the original (it’s also streaming on Hulu).
Part of its appeal is how grounded the film is in its time and place. Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) is a talented hooper who earns a precarious livelihood for himself and his girlfriend, Gloria (Rosie Perez), by annoying black streetball players who underestimate him for being white. Shelton entered the world with an eye for local color when he showed up to the courts in Venice Beach. We comb the sand, we watch people doing tai chi, and bodybuilders swinging dumbbells. A rich sense of expansion keeps us firmly in this community. And what we appreciate right away is that we are a long way from the world of professional basketball. It’s real life Venice Beach streetball and basketball as a fixture of everyday life.
Billy has come to collect Sydney’s money. But other than a few racial slurs (Sydney and her friends ridicule Uncool Billy for being eccentric), it’s clear he fits right in. What Billy understands and the film expresses so beautifully is that streetball is what the best players are. Streetball is all about attitude and passion, bragging and bragging. When Billy made a 3-pointer from the penalty shootout, even Sydney laughed at his style. Or, as one of Sidney’s friends put it, after Sidney’s more elegant threesome reply: “Beautiful is eternal bliss. Said my friend John Keats!”
He had winning powers in other sports movies. Only “White Men Can’t Jump” captured the power of the beat. The film is a master class in derision and derision. On the court, Sydney and Billy deftly praise the virtues of quickness or timely offense, demonstrating the extent to which victory or defeat in streetball distracts opponents and keeps one’s own mind clear. “It’s not like your country club.” Sydney teases Billy, implying that mental toughness beyond mere proficiency won’t cut it on the actual streetball court that is the name of the game. However, Billy can infuriate the best of them. “Let’s stop and collect all these bricks. Let’s build a homeless shelter,” he said with a laugh.
Billy thinks he has Sydney’s number. “It is better to lose because you are ugly than because you are beautiful.” Fair diagnosis, but cuts both ways. Billy’s game is also wrapped up in his pride and arrogance. The truth later becomes apparent when he gives false advice to prove that he can sting because he cannot be insulted. Billy and Sidney both try for what the Italian courtier and author Baldassare Castiglione calls “sprezzatura”. It is this carelessness that “hides all artistry and makes everything it says or does artificial and facile.” They want to dominate, but more importantly, they want to make it easy to dominate.
The film does not support this view. In fact, it wisely complicates the idea and later makes Billy pay for his arrogance when Gloria dumps him because of her obsession with the game. Gloria warns Billy, “Sometimes when you win, you really lose.” But the film understands the driving force.
It keeps Billy and Sydney in the game even when they have to quit, and it’s one of the few movies that portrays pure street attitude with real wisdom. For him, the ball is life. They can turn down a challenge so easily that they can hold their breath.
“White Men Can’t Jump” opens and closes on the same beach, on the same court, with the same a cappella trio, the Venice Beach Boys. The circular structure lends itself well to a film that is essentially an endless pastime, and you can well imagine Billy and Sydney, firing off shots back and forth until the end of time. This may explain why the film has survived for over 30 years and its appeal is timeless. This isn’t about a few basketball games in the summer of 1992. It’s about the magic of streetball, and that magic is forever.