Cracked Dunks On The NBA: 5 Wild, True Basketball Stories That Need Movies
Welcome to Cracked’s Silly History of the NBA. This week, we’ll be exploring the oddities and eccentricities surrounding some of the most talented and richest people to regularly wear tank tops to work. We promise to solve no GOAT debates or write anything of consequence beyond fun and goofy stories about putting a ball through a modified peach basket. Lace up a pair of Jordans, put on a '90s throwback Penny Hardaway pinstripe jersey, and start counting to 21.
In 2022, HBO released Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty, an Adam McKay-helmed fictionalization of the beginnings of the Showtime Era. Led by first-year point guard Magic Johnson and veteran center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the team would go on to become one of the best to ever play basketball. It’s one of the most storied time periods in NBA history, and as the series shows, it was pants-pooping insane behind the scenes. Some may quibble with the accuracy, but the broader point of “the NBA is wild” remains.
I loved season one of Winning Time and can’t wait for season two. McKay’s mixing of documentary filmmaking techniques with fictionalized versions of true events is a compelling way to tell a story to me, but most fascinating is how it humanized these god-like athletes and de-mythologized the executives and organization employees that make the spectacle of professional basketball happen. Because it turns out, everyone involved in this multi-million dollar celebration of human athletic achievement is some kind of combination of goofball and maniac, with deep, interesting pathos not often covered in newspaper beats or sterilized ESPN features. The NBA is famously a league that allows players to be and express themselves, and there are so many stories from NBA history that could stand to get the Adam McKay/John C. Reilly treatment (we’ll not hold our breath but keep our fingers crossed for a McKay/Reilly/Will Ferrell reunion. More on that at the end).
The Spirits of St. Louis, In Perpetuity
The Story: The Spirits of St. Louis played in the American Basketball Association for two seasons before the ABA merged with the NBA. That should mean they’re a meaningless footnote of history, but boy, oh boy, did the Spirits do more than play basketball. The 30 For 30 documentary, Free Spirits, is like watching a crazy '70s grindhouse action film, except it’s real life, and basketball is involved. Starting point guard Fly Williams, a New York streetball legend, is cut from the team right after their surprising playoff success and sticks around because he’s “the drug guy.” He later retired because he got shot by an off-duty cop. Star player Marvin Barnes embraces the nickname “Bad News Barnes” in every respect and refers to himself as the original NWA. Bob Costas, yes, the pink-eye-at-the-Olympics-having-Bob Costas, is announcing their games, in total disbelief of everything he’s recounting all these years later.
Somewhere along the line, as the NBA merger negotiations unfold, team owners Ozzie and Daniel Silna—hereafter the Silna Bros—negotiated for the NBA to pay them 2% of league TV revenue every year, and I swear this is a real legal term, in perpetuity. The Silna Bros cashed free checks from the league until 2014 when the NBA basically paid them $800 million to disappear. $800 million for a team full of guys who self-identified as pimps and gangsters at the tail end of a decade tainted by drug scandals. You have to imagine the team behind Semi-Pro, which features players getting traded for copy machines, hearing the Spirits’ story and saying, “Patti Labelle as Will Ferrell’s angel mom who teaches him to throw an alley-oop to Andre 3000 is way more realistic than this legal quagmire.”
The Movie: It’s pretty simple; Free Spirits is the blueprint. Cast those roles (Lakeith Stanfield has to be there somewhere, maybe as Fly Williams, and a jacked-for-Beast Idris Elba can channel some Luther rage to play Bad News Barnes), get some director/screenwriter combo to watch Semi-Pro and Winning Time over and over, then make a movie. Make that screenwriter me, for all I care; no one’s stopping you, Hollywood.
The LA Clippers Kidnap DeAndre Jordan
The Story: In the summer of 2015, the Los Angeles Clippers were in the middle of a stunning stretch of relevancy for the first time in franchise history. Young All-Star and comedy nerd Blake Griffin was dunking all over everyone, Chris Paul was the best or second-best point guard in the league, and rising star DeAndre Jordan was dunking all over people so hard that former Cracked EIC Jack O’Brien made a video comparing him favorably to Mormons. Oh, and slop-mouthed human pond scum Donald Sterling had been forced out as team owner, with ultra-rich and ultra-enthusiastic Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer now signing checks, along with whatever this is:
Times were good in Clipperland, is what we’re saying, but there was trouble on the horizon.
DeAndre Jordan, whose full name is helpful to type out because the last name “Jordan” is bizarrely associated with some other NBA player, was a free agent in the summer. He could sign with any other team he wanted. The Dallas Mavericks promised him a bigger role on the court, a lot of money, and a fresh chance to prove he could be a cornerstone center on a title team. They even sent perpetually injured forward and guy-who-gets-a-party-bus Chandler Parsons to recruit DJ with a party bus. It was an enticing offer, and DJ took it.
Except, no. He didn’t. During a waiting period between when the deal was signed and when it became official, Jordan started having second thoughts. Maybe the Clippers, well-positioned to contend for a title, was where he wanted to spend the prime of his career. As these second thoughts began percolating, Clippers descended on him like buzzards. Literally descended: Griffin, Redick, Ballmer, new Clipper and NBA champion Paul Pierce, and Coach Doc Rivers flew to Jordan’s mother’s house in Texas, where they tried to talk DJ into remaining in LA. They had a timer set, too: at midnight, DJ could officially sign his contract. So if only the Clippers were there to offer a contract, there’s no way DJ could physically sign with Dallas. They did their damnedest to keep the Mavs away. Blake Griffin tweeted about the door being barricaded.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban was trying in vain to get in touch with DJ and remind him of the cool party buses. Eventually, the clock struck midnight, DJ could re-sign with the Clippers, and that was that. It was one of the most fun days in NBA Twitter history.
The Movie: A Reservoir Dogs-style look at the Clippers hiding with Jordan. There’d be flashbacks to the season and various important conversations over whether or not Jordan wanted to stay with the team, you know, dramatic tension stuff. Maybe Chris Paul can FaceTime from a banana boat. There’d be cutaways to a desperate Mark Cuban driving around, looking for DeAndre’s mother’s house. But most of the time, it’d just be most of the starting five of the 2016 Los Angeles Clippers, a team with real title hopes, sitting around a house playing cards and munching on chicken and bonding over how they can win a championship next year. They won’t, but they don’t know that. Dramatic irony, you know.
Skywalker Vs. Iceman, Diesel Vs. The Admiral: The Scoring Title Battles
The Story: At the end of every regular season, the player who averages the most points per game over the course of the year is awarded what’s called the scoring title. It's not a physical award, to my knowledge, and doesn’t necessarily mean you or your team were the greatest, but it’s a notch in the record books you can brag about. You win basketball games by scoring points, scoring is the flashiest thing you can do on a basketball court, and being the best at scoring points is a big deal. Two NBA scoring titles have been decided on the final day of the season, and I think those stories have lots of potential for heart-pounding, nail-biting drama over an ultimately meaningless honorific.
In 1977-78, George “Iceman” Gervin and David “Skywalker” Thompson went into the final game of the season separated by 14 points for the scoring title. They weren’t playing other, and Thompson at least is coy about how much it actually mattered to him, while Gervin says he only went for it because his gracious teammates were so encouraging. Thompson also claims to have broken the NBA record for most points in a quarter without knowing it, which is rad as hell. I chose to believe Thompson when he says he got 32 points basically by accident—I’ve never caught fire like that in a game, but there are times you can just shoot and shoot, and everything goes in. It’s one of the best feelings life can give you. Anyway, Thompson finished with an insane 73 points, then the highest total in a single game by anyone not named Wilt. George Gervin, despite missing his first six shots, went for blood and finished with 63 to secure the scoring title. It was the closest scoring race in history. If Twitter had existed, this would have been up there as one of the greatest days in NBA Twitter history. Instead, camera crews weren’t even at the Thompson’s Nuggets game.
In 1993-94, David “The Admiral” Robinson and Shaquille “The Big Diesel” O’Neal entered the last day of the regular season neck-and-neck for the scoring title. The two had some low-simmering beef since they both had reasonable claims to the title of “best center” and MVP. With one game left to play, Robinson needed 33 points to top Shaq. 33 is a lot for one dude, but something well within The Admiral’s capabilities. Well, the Spurs kept feeding Robinson so much that he scored 71 goddamn points, something only five other players have done in history.
We just talked about David Thompson, and Elgin Baylor also had 71. Devin Booker at 70 a few years ago. Kobe, of course, had 81. Wilt famously got 100, plus a bunch of 70-point games. Michael only ever got a nice 69. And Naval Good Boy David Robinson scored 71 on the last day of the season just to teach brash young Shaq-ling a lesson.
The Movie: You know how Moonlight is told in three sections, each not explicitly connecting but all unfurling together as you understand Chiron’s life and its defining points through three stories? We’d have four sections, each deep-diving Iceman, Skywalker, The Admiral, and The Big Diesel’s lives and seasons up to that fateful final regular season game, where nothing is decided except who best puts a round ball through a 10-foot tall hoop, and yet everything is decided, man.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving’s Comedy of Errors
The Story: This story is still unfolding, so things may change between me turning this in and it getting published. Let me first say I have a lot of respect for Kevin Durant and think he’s a fascinating person, so before you come at me on social media, KD, let me say I think you’re a beautiful basketball player. But KD and Kyrie Irving’s teamup in Brooklyn so far has been a clown show moving at such a million-joke-a-minute pace that 30 Rock would tell it to lay off the Adderall. In the three seasons, they’ve been together, KD and Kyrie’s Nets have somehow been both the biggest title favorites and also never even had a chance. Let me try to explain.
I’m not going to source this paragraph, because then it would be one big eye-peeling wall of blue text, but here are some facts. Also, know that I shaved this paragraph down from an entire page. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden only played 16 games together. James Harden quit on the Rockets, then quit on the Nets. Kyrie Irving has played maybe a third of the games he possibly could for the Nets, mostly because he has stubbornly refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and couldn’t play home games. Coach Steve Nash has been constantly undermined but has also done absolutely nothing to indicate that he’s aware he coaches the Nets. Kyrie has referred to himself as “in a partnership” with the Nets owners. KD demanded a trade the day before his four-year contract extension kicked in. The guy they replaced James Harden with, Ben Simmons, just sat out a season because his confidence is shot after he got exposed as too scared to shoot in the 2021 playoffs. They enter the 2022-23 season fractured, knowing that everyone wants to be somewhere else and most everyone has tried to get everyone else fired.
What’s really funny about all of this is KD and Kyrie think they are being forward-thinking, think that they are on the cusp of some more egalitarian system where the players are empowered to … something, it’s never quite defined. KD is an ultimate vibes guy, and Kyrie is a true BS artist, so they’re very good at identifying problems without providing solutions. Now, I’ll always be on the side of players, and I’ll always be on the side of organized labor. But from the outside looking in, it reads to me like KD and Kyrie want to turn the multimillion-dollar industry of professional basketball into their personal international pickup run. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a rad idea; I’d watch that. But the practicalities of the NBA have consistently shown that one person cannot handle two jobs, whether that’s player-coach, coach-GM, or player-GM. KD and Kyrie constantly think their every action is revolutionary, even when that action is stomping firmly upon and subsequently tripping over their own dicks.
The Movie: What We Do In The Shadows, except for NBA players instead of vampires. A slapstick comedy about a bunch of idiots who take themselves extremely seriously. Not that I’m calling any of the vaccinated-against-COVID individuals on the New Jersey Nets idiots. So not you, Kevin Durant. All I’m saying is that “serious idiots” would be the genre. Taika Waititi would be my first choice to direct, though Edgar Wright’s rhythmic cutting would make for a fun basketball movie. Like those pint glasses going slam-slam-slam in Shaun of the Dead, except it’s basketballs going dunk-dunk-dunk or swish-swish-swish.
Unsolicited Winning Time Season 20 Pitch: Will Ferrell As Phil Jackson
The Story: Phil Jackson’s name is firmly etched on the NBA Mount Rushmore of coaches, along with at least Red Auerbach and Gregg Popovich. Probably Pat Riley, too. Jackson won two titles with the Knicks as a player, six with the Bulls as a coach, and five with the Lakers as a coach. He’s also a 6’8” Grateful Dead-loving hippie who burns sage on the sidelines at practices, had a long-term romantic relationship with then-Lakers owner’s daughter and current Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, and is frequently unreachable in the offseason because he’s fly fishing in Montana.
Jackson is a lumbering, grumpy giant with bad knees and a bad back who talks in a gruff baritone while carrying himself like he knows he’s both the smartest and quirkiest person in the room. He has a deep passion for basketball but is an intimidating, quiet weirdo. He was famous for never calling timeouts and opting for letting his players figure out how to stop sucking on their own. He famously asked Michael Jordan the simple question, “Michael, who’s open?” before MJ passed to John Paxson for a game-winning Finals shot. He famously called Kobe Bryant uncoachable before coaching him to two titles after Shaq was traded. He’s a bundle of contradictions and eccentricities.
The Movie: You’re telling me you wouldn’t watch Will Ferrell play that guy??! Look, I get it: the partnership that created Funny or Die is broken up. McKay offered John C. Reilly the Jerry Buss role without even contacting Ferrell, knowing full goddamn well it was Ferrell’s dream role. Ferrell has every right to never want to talk to McKay again. So what better way to make up than by casting Ferrell as the sage-burning hippie basketball giant who shepherded Reilly’s Jerry Buss’s Lakers through their third great era of dominance while banging his daughter, who would eventually become his boss? Make things right, Adam McKay. Find it in your heart to forgive, Will Ferrell. I’ll even write the bulk of the series, if you want.
Chris Corlew can shoot from three and handle some playmaking duties, but will absolutely not get back on defense. He is one half of b and the nothingness and co-hosts The Line Break Podcast. Send him DeMar DeRozan highlight videos on Twitter.
Top image: Spirits of St. Louis press photo