“White Men Can’t Jump” was released on March 27, 1992. On the morning of March 28 — according to a wonderful if apocryphal sports legend — Michael Jordan rolled up to the Sunset Ridge Country Club in the suburbs of Chicago, drank around 10 bottles of Coors Light and played two rounds of golf. He had a game that night. Brimming with beer, Jordan posted 44 points, six assists and three steals to help the Bulls beat the visiting Cavaliers 126 to 102.
The writer-director Ron Shelton’s brisk, lighthearted basketball comedy isn’t about the N.B.A., and the only time Jordan is mentioned, it’s somewhat disparagingly: Sidney Deane, the stylish, loudmouthed streetball virtuoso played by Wesley Snipes, brags that Jordan was impressed with his skills and advised him to join the summer league, an offer he declined. (Professional training, Sidney balks, “might mess up my game.”) But there is something of Jordan’s brazen, bravura post-beer performance in “White Men Can’t Jump,” which fairly thrums with cocksure athletic swagger. It’s not, like many sports movies, about what it takes to win. It’s about what it takes to win with panache.
A hit with audiences and critics back then — in The Times, Janet Maslin praised its “raucous wit” — the movie’s reputation has swelled enormously in the intervening three decades. “White Men Can’t Jump” has since emerged as a bona fide classic, adored by basketball fans and cherished for its loving depiction of streetball. On Friday, Hulu will release a remake starring Sinqua Walls and the rapper Jack Harlow, though it hardly seems likely to recapture the singular magic of the original (which is also streaming on Hulu).
Part of the appeal is in how grounded the movie seems in its time and place. Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) is a gifted hooper who makes a precarious living for himself and his girlfriend, Gloria (Rosie Perez), by hustling Black streetball players who underestimate him because he’s white. When he shows up to the courts of Venice Beach, Shelton shoots our entree into this world with a local’s eye for color. We see sand being combed, people performing tai chi, bodybuilders curling dumbbells: the rich sense of detail establishes us firmly in this community. And what we appreciate immediately is that we are far, far away from the world of professional basketball: this is real Venice Beach streetball, and it’s basketball as a fixture of everyday life.
Billy is there to take Sidney’s money. But other than a few cracks about race — Sidney and his friends mock the uncool-looking Billy as a geek — it’s clear that he fits right in. What Billy understands, and what the movie so beautifully expresses, is that streetball is about more than merely who is the most accomplished player. Streetball is about attitude and verve, about bombast and braggadocio. When Billy drains a three-pointer in a shootout, Sidney nonetheless derides his style: “No aesthetic beauty whatsoever,” he jeers. Or as one of Sidney’s friend puts it, after Sidney’s more elegant three in reply: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever. My man John Keats said that!”
Other sports movies have captured the power of victory. Only “White Men Can’t Jump” has captured the power of talking smack. The movie is a master class in mockery and ridicule. On the court, Sidney and Billy eloquently extol the virtues of the incisive barb or well-timed insult, demonstrating the degree to which winning and losing in streetball comes down to disturbing an adversary’s concentration and preserving one’s own clarity of mind. “It’s different than your country club,” Sidney teases Billy, insinuating that he won’t be able to cut it on a real streetball court, where mental toughness more than simple proficiency is the name of the game. But Billy can malign with the best of them. “Let’s stop and gather all these bricks. Let’s build a homeless shelter,” he snickers, “so maybe your mother has a place to live!”
Billy thinks he has Sidney’s number. “You’d rather look good and lose,” he tells him, “than look bad and win.” It’s an apt diagnosis, but it cuts both ways. Billy’s game is wrapped up in his ego and pride, too — a fact made clear when he later takes an ill-advised bet to prove that he can dunk, simply because he can’t stand to be insulted. Billy and Sidney both strive for what the Italian courtier and writer Baldassare Castiglione called “sprezzatura”: studied carelessness, “which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.” They want to dominate, but more to the point, they want to make dominating look easy.
It’s not that the movie endorses this point of view. In fact, it wisely complicates the idea, later making Billy pay for his hubris when Gloria leaves him over his obsession with the game. “Sometimes when you win, you really lose,” Gloria cautions Billy, in the film’s most memorable monologue, and perhaps the closest thing it has to a thesis statement. But the film understands the driving force that keeps Billy and Sidney in the game even when they should quit, and it’s one of the few movies of its kind to depict that pure streetball attitude with real wisdom. For these guys, ball is life. They can turn down a challenge about as easily as they can stop breathing.
“White Men Can’t Jump” opens and closes on the same court on the same beach, with the same a cappella trio, the Venice Beach Boys. The circular structure is fitting for a movie about what is in essence an endless pastime — and we can well imagine Billy and Sidney remaining there, draining shots back and forth until the end of time. That may account for why the movie has endured for more than 30 years, and why its appeal seems timeless. It’s not just about a few games of basketball in the summer of 1992. It’s about the magic of streetball — and that magic is forever.