15 Trivia Tidbits About the Original ‘White Men Can’t Jump’
Thirty-one years ago, writer/director and lifelong baller Ron Shelton released the best basketball movie not involving confused cartoon icons. With Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson teaming up as two streetballers hustling their way on the courts and life, White Men Can’t Jump dunked its way into the Sports Comedy Hall of Fame and into our hearts. The casting was on point, the attitude was authentic and the jokes went a mile a minute as Snipes and Harrelson dripped with chemistry.
With the Hulu remake dropping today, we’re hitting some tidbits about the hoops classic that featured Alex Trebek and implored everyone to not just listen but actually hear the music of Jimi Hendrix...
The Near-Shooting Scene Was Based on Shelton’s Own Experience
Shelton revealed that the scene in which Raymond (former NBA player Marques Johnson) threatens to turn trigger-happy after realizing that Billy (Harrelson) and Sidney (Snipes) were scamming him came about following his own second-hand experience. “I went on Friday, and (the park) was chained up,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I said, ‘What happened?’ They said, ‘So-and-so got shot. Somebody went to the glove box.’ When someone says that, everyone goes running. He came back and shot the guy dead. I said, ‘What was the issue?’ He said, ‘Block or charge.’”
There Were Tons of ‘Yo Mama’ Jokes
The cast enjoyed the ‘Yo Mama’ jokes so much that Shelton told them all to go home, write a few down and bring them to set. Apparently, they brought back hundreds, and Shelton shot them all — even though most of them were cut in the end. “The rhythms of the movie are really important,” he explained to The Irish Times. “So in the mama-joke sequences, I was more concerned in getting three or four of them in a row that had a rhythm than whether they were all the best mama jokes I heard. So sometimes the funniest mama joke was surrounded by three flat mama jokes, and I would end up taking all of them out. It had to be, I tell a mama joke, then you top me, then I top you, then you top me, and we get out while the rhythm is still alive.”
Gloria Clemente Was Originally Written as a White Woman
When Rosie Perez showed up to audition for Gloria, she knew it “was going to be a long shot.” Even more so when she saw actresses like Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette lining up for the role since the character was initially written as a white, upper-class Southern woman. On top of that, the studio was worried about casting the proudly Puerto Rican Perez in an interracial relationship, but according to the actress, both Snipes and Harrelson campaigned for her inclusion, and that was that.
The Movie Made It onto ‘Jeopardy!’
Following Alex Trebek’s appearance in the scene where Gloria lives out her Jeopardy! dream, the film was referenced on the show in October 1997, as Trebek presented the contestants with the category that Gloria aced, titled “Foods That Start with the Letter’ Q.’”
There’s a Video Game Based on the Movie
In 1995, Atari published a game loosely based on the movie featuring awful arcade-style gameplay, which has since been dubbed one of the worst games ever.
Snipes and Harrelson’s Shots Were Authentic
Shelton wanted authenticity and opted to film the guys landing shots for real (instead of using camera tricks like cutting away to the basket), but it wasn’t easy. As actor Ernest Harden Jr. (who played George) told Grantland in 2012, there were days when the cast and crew had to watch the guys throw bricks for up to six hours.
Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves Were Initially Considered for the Leads
During an oral history for the film’s 20th anniversary, it was revealed that if the original casting choices came on board, we’d have seen Washington and Reeves hustle the streets of Los Angeles. Washington turned the movie down to do Malcolm X instead, but Snipes made the director take notice. “Wesley came in talking trash and was in character and had the attitude and the cockiness,” Shelton said about Snipes’ audition. “I thought, He’s got what it takes. I just got to figure out, can he play basketball? He didn’t pretend he could play basketball as much as he showed off his athleticism. And he was very coachable.”
As for Reeves, it turns out that he just wasn’t alley-oop material. “We worked with him for days,” Shelton has remembered. “He worked hard. He was a really nice guy. I think he wouldn’t have been convincing on the court because we had a lot of real basketball players out there.” Which is why...
Harrelson Credits Reeves for His Movie Career
As the actor told Interview Magazine: “I was on Cheers for eight years, and I couldn’t get another job. I thought, ‘I’m going to be Woody Boyd forever, which is not bad, but I really thought I was capable of more. I probably would’ve just been Woody Boyd, but for the fact that Keanu Reeves didn’t play great basketball.” He should probably thank John Cusack for being terrible at it, too, since the Say Anything… actor also auditioned for the part but also couldn’t ball.
There Was Very Little Improv
Almost every character in the movie bounces more words around than balls, leading one to think that there was a ton of improv during filming. Not so, it turns out. “I rehearsed these guys for two weeks so we could get all the busy stuff out,” Shelton has said. “There’s five percent improv, I think, but it’s mostly all scripted — but then some of that script came off those two weeks. Some guys like to improvise, and some don’t; I’ve worked with Tommy Lee Jones twice and Paul Newman — these guys don’t like to improv; they say, ‘Gimme the words, and I’ll do ’em as best I can.’”
When the Cast of ‘Cheers’ Showed Up
Harrelson brought his pals from the famous TV sitcom bar along one day to play a game with the cast members. “Ted Danson was there, and the heavy one, the fat one — George (Wendt) — and another guy,” Ernest Harden Jr. told Grantland. “They were playing me, Woody, and someone else. George Wendt hit a jumper on me. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, let me get to work on this guy.’ But they stopped the game so we could go film. I never got the chance to redeem myself.”
The Film Had the Best Test Screening of Shelton’s Career
The director told Filmmaker Magazine that, of all his movies, White Men Can’t Jump had the best test reception — in Black theaters only. “I have never had good test-screening scores,” he explained to the magazine in 2015. “The one exception was White Men Can’t Jump, which went through the roof when we took it to the Black theaters in Baldwin Hills — the scores were so high it was like a Balkan election. Then a week later, we went to a white theater in Woodland Hills, and it scored something like 12 percent. I was drinking and devastated, and the late, great Tom Sherak, who was head of marketing and distribution, said, ‘Don’t worry. They will follow Baldwin Hills.’ And he was right.”
Marques Johnson Has a Spin-Off Idea Based on His Character
Making a guest appearance on The Rich Eisen Show, the retired NBA All-Star jokingly pitched a spin-off in which his character, Raymond, takes center stage, and we see the character as both a young man (in flashbacks) and an older ball player. “He’s sober; he’s spiritual right now,” Johnson mused. “But, he’s still got that edge. He still carries that blade, though. He carries that blade in the name of the Lord — but he still carries it.”
Shelton Was Adamant About Giving Gloria Her Own Goals Outside of Her Relationship With Billy
Shelton said he wrestled with the character of Gloria because he didn’t want her to simply be the love interest. “I was trying to figure out what Gloria’s thing was,” he has explained. “It had to be so unconnected from the guys. Because that’s big for me, to make sure that the women aren’t defined in terms of the guy business.” One day he overheard someone talking about a friend who wanted to be a contestant on Jeopardy!, and everything clicked.
The Games Were Choreographed to Death
Or, as Shelton put it, “It’s all choreographed within an inch of its life in order to look unchoreographed.” The cast had a four-week training camp with real basketball coaches, and the director had a big playbook with everything marked out. “We ran endlessly. We ran them for days. And it was all to make them look as if they were spontaneous. That’s the whole trick of this type of choreography, to make it look spontaneous. Because if you just throw up a ball and let them play, there’s no way the camera can be in focus, and there’s no way the camera can follow them.”
Harrelson and Snipes Had an Actual Bet Going On
Harrelson told Yahoo! that a real dunking bet was going on one day, with him besting Snipes thanks to his “introduction to yoga.” At first, he was losing badly because he really couldn’t jump. More specifically, he couldn’t reach the nine-and-a-half-foot rim. Then, when Snipes took a break and retired to his trailer, a crew member approached him and asked why he wasn’t doing any stretches. That, apparently, did the trick. “I pretended I couldn’t, and we upped the bet and upped the bet, and then I slammed it,” Harrelson said. “I’ll never forget the look on Wes’ face: It was joyous.”
Snipes and others later claimed that it was BS and that someone simply lowered the ring — a claim that’s since been confirmed.