You may have seen viral videos circulating around Adam Sandler on the court, enthusiastically joining in basketball games with strangers. It’s not one of those moments in a million when a celebrity reluctantly makes a public appearance as a god leaving Olympus to wander among mortals – no, if you’ve seen the videos you know the Sandman is sincerely happy to be out there getting over the rock and showing off his skills. And Hey, he may not be the next Greek Freak, but he’s actually pretty good for a single actor, an old. You can see him there, usually following the youngsters he’s playing against…in fact, shooting hoops! Twitter feeds are sometimes awash with rave accounts from people lucky enough to play the guy. You see, Sandler is a true aficionado of the sport, and he’s implemented it in one way or another in his career since his debut. Saturday Night Live to his recent movie (simple but good) Hustle. He shares screen time with the goats in the yard Shaquille O’Neal, Dr. Jand Kevin Garnettand in Hustle he exchanges dialogue with Kris Middleton, Juancho Hernangomezand many more.
Sandler’s role in Hustle as Stanley Sugerman, a talent scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, couldn’t have been given a better performer. Few actors are better equipped for the role, with the Sandman’s natural charisma and genuine knowledge (and passion) for the game of basketball making the performance an easy slam dunk. Although his performance in Hustle never reaches the astonishing heights of transformation that he has reached Uncut Gems, Love Drunk Punchand Meyerowitz storiesit is nonetheless a great addition to a resume that in recent years has become rightly recognized as genuinely respectable.
It helps that Sandler seems to take a lot of Sugerman out of himself. It helps that the guy has been a basketball fan since his youth, falling in love with the game as a boy while playing on teams at his local Jewish community center (and, eventually, high school). Even though the Sandman didn’t have the makings of a varsity athlete, he definitely had the heart, and Hey, it’s the kind of thing his character Stanley Sugerman would consider invaluable. Sandler essentially followed the game with devotion for much of his life, as a player, spectator and interpreter in fictional depictions of the game.
We can go back to the beginning: his famous (but unpleasant and poorly aged) recurring character from “Cajun Man” on SNL have often turned to rejecting March Madness predictions. There’s the delightfully absurd scene in Little Nicky where Nicky (Sandler) performs a space jam–esque physics-defying slam dunk, smashing the rim and sending the referee (Dana Carvey) falling flat on her ass.
In the 2005 remake of The longest yard, Sandler’s character, Paul Crewe, plays a bloody one-on-one game with the leader of a prison gang (Michael Irvin). He tears up the field, scoring a large number of shots and earning the grudging respect of many inmates. The Plot of Sandler’s 2010 Box Office Hit (and Critical Failure) The adults revolves around a high school basketball team that reunites three years after their championship win. After their former basketball coach (Blake Clark) dies, and the boys… uh…growing up, they face an old rival (Colin Quinn) who claims the championship victory was illegitimate. Of course, the movie culminates with basketball, in a scene where Lenny (Sandler) takes on his old rival to prove he still has the skills. Spoiler alert: Lenny misses the shot, loses the match, but everyone still loves him. Still, even those uninitiated at the Temple of the Sandman might notice a trend here: what about this guy and basketball?
The last few years have made things more meaningful. Of course, Sandler made waves as his performance as drug addict/bling-dealer/basketball-junkie Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems, in which a central plot point revolves around the titular gem catching the eye of Celtics-era Kevin Garnett (the basketball legend playing himself). Of course, Ratner’s obsession with all things b-ball stems in large part from his ability to earn money with gambling, but there’s also a sincerity to the way Ratner trades stats and game predictions with wide-eyed excitement. Writers/directors Josh and Bennie Safdiealready recognized as basketball fans via their powerful documentary film Lenny Cook, found the ideal candidate in Sandler. Look at Howard’s childish glee as he visits the Celtics practice facility, utterly unable to refuse to fire a few shots at the crow, as if he were a pro himself. Okay, you might say, “but isn’t that just playing?”. Yeah sure: Sandler plays a lot in Gems (enough to make his exclusion from the Oscars that year, a widely accepted snub), but there’s something about scenes like this that feels 100% authentic Sandler.
In terms of Hustle, Sandler brings it all home, performing among a dizzying list of professional athletes from basketball’s past and present that even the basketball god would struggle to muster. In the film, Sandler is a talent scout who has undeniably spent hours earning a coaching job, but is given the responsibility of finding and bringing a new star to the team. Like Sandler himself, Sugerman is a guy with a basketball story of his own, but instead of a minor leaguer who found a better calling in the art of comedy, Sugerman is an ex-semi -pro whose fame is cut short. Sugerman (and Sandler) have an encyclopedic knowledge of basketball, knowing enough of the game’s history and present to make a reasonable effort to predict its future.
Few other actors could have filled Sugerman’s shoes so well in Hustle. It’s not that it’s not a good performance by the Sandman, it’s just that it’s so Natural. (Maybe if all the acting doesn’t pan out, the dude can pick up a few coaching gigs along the way). Sandler has spoken of being smitten by some of the film’s guests, namely Julius “Dr. J” Erving, the former ’76er who brought unprecedented artistry to the act of dunking. “Me and my brother had his poster in our bedroom,” Sandler says on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. “I was just watching it,” he explains, like a fanboy. Dr. J is a hero for Sandler, and Classes It is. Sandler is a basketball player and Dr. J is a fucking legend. It’s hard to say how influential Sandler was in bringing together the film’s many guests, but he did. was noted by the director Jeremiah Zagar that Sandler chose the Timberwolves shooting guard Anthony Edwards to star as trash-talking prodigy Kermit Wilt-Washington. Wow, with such a talented team of athletes signed up to make appearances in Hustleit’s clear: most of these guys must also like Sandler.
Sandler again showing his assets in Hustle makes so much sense. It’s a screenplay that deals with a subject that fascinates him, that he has followed all his life. Anyone who follows the sandman closely can see him: he is sitting at the edge of the field with Jack Nicholson during a Lakers game (the two later left the game in disappointment when the team was “burned” by Kevin Durant and the Thunder), and made late-night television appearances wearing Lakers jerseys. On a press tour for Adults 2, Sandler even got some real compliments from Shaq about his skills on the court (“[he’s] a Damn good player”) and appeared on Iinside the NBA to reminisce about the story of his friendship with the Shaq-Fu.
Maybe Sandler missed the window for a shot at NBA stardom, but he did pretty well when all is said and done. Considering he was able to share screen time with one of his childhood heroes, the twisty, winding road his career took him down led to a result he may have only dreamed of. only once: meet KG… and Dr J… and Kevin Garnett, and Khris Stapleton too! And if his passion for acting helps him get more performances like his roles in Hustle and Uncut Gemsit’s nothing but a good thing.
So listen up, Sandman fans: if you’re out in the field in an urban American neighborhood, keep your eyes peeled and keep your A-game sharp. You might see an appearance from Happy Madison himself, ready to join in, throw the rock, and score some points on you.