He Got Game

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He Got Game
He got game poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Spike Lee
Produced by Jon Kilik
Spike Lee
Written by Spike Lee
Music by Howard Shore
Cinematography Malik Hassan Sayeed
Edited by Barry Alexander Brown
Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures
Release date
  • May 1, 1998 (1998-05-01)
Running time
136 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $25 million
Box office $22.4 million

He Got Game is a 1998 American sports drama film written, produced and directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington. This is the third of four film collaborations between Washington and Lee.

Washington portrays Jake Shuttlesworth, father of the top-ranked basketball prospect in the country, Jesus Shuttlesworth, played by NBA star Ray Allen. Jake, in prison for killing his wife, is released on parole for a week by the state's governor to persuade his son to play for the governor's alma mater in exchange for a much reduced prison sentence.


Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington), is a convicted felon serving time at Attica Correctional Facility for the murder his wife, Martha (Lonette McKee), six years earlier. Jake meets with Warden Wyatt (Ned Beatty) and the two have a discussion about Jake's son, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), who has become the #1 high school basketball player in the nation and is being pursued by the top college basketball programs in the country. The governor of New York, who happens to be an influential alumnus of Big State University, offers Jake a deal: get Jesus to commit to playing for Big State in exchange for Jake's early release from prison. Jake is given one week's time and is temporarily released to make the deal, while being closely monitored by two officers assigned to Jake, Spivey (Jim Brown) and Crudup (Joseph Lyle Taylor). Jake, Spivey and Crudup travel to Coney Island, Brooklyn, where Jesus is living. The officers place an ankle monitor on Jake with a fatal warning should Jake deviate from the plan or attempt to escape, and leave him in Coney Island to close the deal while they monitor his activities loosely.

On his first day out of prison, Jake contacts his daughter, Mary Shuttlesworth (Zelda Harris), who is happy to see him. Mary invites her father to the apartment where she and Jesus now live, having moved out of their Uncle Bubba's place. Jake and Mary use that time to catch up, while Mary questions why Jake has been released so soon from prison. As Jake and Mary reconnect, Jesus returns home from school, and is very cold towards Jake due to the strained relationship between Jesus (who resents his father for killing his mother) and Jake. Refusing to look him in the eye, he tells his sister to get rid of the "stranger" in their living room. Jesus later agrees to meet Jake at an alternative location away from Mary. Angrily, Jesus scolds Mary and takes her to their Uncle Bubba's, where they advise Uncle Bubba and Aunt Sally about Jake's release. Conflicted, Jesus asks Uncle Bubba (Bill Nunn) for advice; Uncle Bubba, however, wants reassurances from Jesus that him and Sally will be taken care of for taking in Jesus and Mary when Jake was sent to prison. This frustrates Jesus, as earlier, Coach Cincotta, Jesus' coach at Abraham Lincoln High School, was pressuring Jesus into a decision.

Jesus takes his cousin "Booger" Sykes (Hill Harper) with him to meet with Jake at the basketball court. Jake breaks the awkward tension by talking to Booger and connecting with him, going as far as to tell Booger that he grew since he saw him last, which disarms Booger and allows him to welcome Jake back. However, Jesus is resentful of Jake as Jake tries to find out how Jesus is doing, subtly looking to see what schools Jesus is looking at. Jake tries to figure out what school Jesus is attending for college (without telling him about the Big State deal with the governor), but Jesus advises he hasn't made a decision yet between school or declaring for the NBA draft, figuring that Jake is like everyone else, pressuring him into a decision or wanting something from Jesus. While Jake attempts to form a bond and remind Jesus that he is his father, Jesus still harbors bitterness towards Jake over his mother's death and his given name, going as far as to ask Jake when does he go back to prison, before leaving.

Throughout the week, the decision between attending college and fulfilling his mother's wishes versus declaring for the NBA draft in order to play professionally sooner and immediately lift himself and Mary out of poverty weighs on Jesus as he is constantly influenced by Jake, Uncle Bubba, his girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) and even neighborhood stalwarts like Big Time Willie (Roger Guenveur Smith), who warns Jesus of leaches, women and other vices that will come to Jesus for a handout or to use him for money or fame. Coach Cincotta also tries to again get Jesus to commit, going as far as to bribe him with money. Jesus refuses the money, but Coach Cincotta reminds Jesus that he previously took the money, which helped set him and Mary up in their own apartment in the first place to get them away from Uncle Bubba. Jesus still refuses the money and leaves without being influenced. Jesus also gets agitated with Uncle Bubba, when Uncle Bubba purchases a luxury vehicle with the promise from the car dealership that Jesus will endorse them. Jesus demands that Uncle Bubba return the car.

Also during this time, Jake befriends Dakota Barns (Milla Jovovich), a prostitute who stays in the room next to Jake in the run-down hotel, which the warden has booked for him. Dakota is being abused by her procurer and companion, Sweetness (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). Jake overhears the violence through the thin walls. Throughout the week, Jake is seen helping clean Dakota's wounds, and Jake gives Dakota some of his money to be used for his expenses during his week out of prison. He also develops a romantic relationship with her, admitting that he hasn't been with anyone since his wife's death.

The tension between Jesus and Jake continues to build during the week, as Jake's reappearance effects Jesus and the animosity he holds toward his father. We also learn that Jesus has a shoebox filled with letters from Jake addressed to Jesus and Mary that are unopened while Jake has been in prison. A flashback shows the events that led to Jake's incarceration. One night, an intoxicated Jake pushes a young Jesus too hard on the basketball court while practicing, with Jake shoving Jesus and playing rough as a way to get his son to play better. Jake sees his overbearingness as a means to get him and his family out the projects one day, while Jesus views this as his father being rough on him and living vicariously through him. Eventually the practice comes to a head when Jake hard fouls Jesus during a game of one on one. Jesus, frustrated over Jake's demands, throws the basketball over the fence and leaves in disgust to go home. An enraged Jake, angry that Jesus lost the basketball, becomes overbearing to Jesus over dinner. When Jesus tries to leave the table, Jake confronts Jesus while Martha is trying to pull Jake off of Jesus. In a fit of rage, Jake tosses Jesus to the side and shoves Martha into the kitchen, where she fatally hits her head on the stove door. Jake tends to an unconscious Martha while instructing Jesus to call 9-1-1.

Jake meets with Jesus again on the pier and Jake explains the story of Earl Monroe, and how he got his nickname Jesus. Jake explains that Jesus got his name from Earl Monroe and not from the bible, illustrating his father's love and connection to basketball, something Jesus inherited. As Jesus and Jake are bonding, Jake informs Jesus that the governor let him out so that Jake can persuade Jesus to play for Big State. Jesus becomes angry at Jake for trying to use him and pressure him into a decision like everyone else has been doing. Jesus however tells Jake that Big State is in his top five choices, something Jake can live with. Jake continues to try and bond with Jesus, giving him a hug, but Jesus is still at-odds with Jake (and goes as far as to give Jake's gift of a stuffed bunny to a little girl).

Continually persuaded by Lala, Jesus agrees to meet with an agent, Dom Pagnotti (Al Palagonia) who's working with Lala's friend D'Andre (Leonard Roberts), and Dom tries to persuade Jesus to signing with him and declare for the NBA, going as far as to offer Jesus his Rolex watch as a gift. Jesus declines and decides to keep his options open before making a decision. While Jesus and Dom talk, Jesus notices Lala and D'Andre in the pool flirting. Jesus also attends a college visit from Tech University, meeting with potential teammates, coaches and enjoying the perks of being a top prospect (Jesus has a threesome with two women who are considered "assistant coaches" arranged by one of the players, Chick Deagan (Rick Fox) to help persuade Jesus to committing to the University).

While Jesus is out of town, Spivey and Crudup confront Jake on Jesus' trip out of town. Trying to get information, Jake goes to Jesus' school and runs into Lala. Jake confronts Lala with not having the best intentions for Jesus while Lala dismisses Jake. D'Andre arrives to pick up Lala and Jake accuses Lala of using Jesus. When D'Andre confronts Jake to defend Lala, Jake strikes D'Andre's throat and knocks him out in front of the school before leaving the scene before police arrive. An intoxicated Jake also confronts Booger about Jesus' whereabouts.

Jesus is suspicious of D'Andre and confronts Lala about it when he comes back into town. The two have an argument at the boardwalk. During the argument, Lala confronts Jesus over cheating on her while on college visits while Jesus accuses Lala of infidelity; it is revealed that Lala had an abortion, against her wishes, at Jesus' request due to them being young and the fear of college recruiters being potentially scared away from Jesus. Jesus reminds Lala that she was the one that pressured him to having unprotected sex in the first place. After questioning her into an answer, Lala admits that she has been sleeping with D'Andre and that she's been working with D'Andre and Dom to get Jesus to sign with them in order to look out for herself out of fear that Jesus will leave her for another woman once he goes off to college. Seeing that he was being used by Lala, Jesus breaks up with her.

Frustrated over his breakup with Lala and everyone around him, Jesus goes to the basketball court, where Jake runs into him. Out of time and out of options, Jake decides to play Jesus in a basketball game of one on one for high stakes: if Jake wins, Jesus signs the letter of intent that the governor provided Jake and Jesus will attend Big State University; if Jake loses, Jake will go back to Attica and remove himself from Jesus' life forever. Jesus immediately accepts the bet and the two battle on the court, with the first to ten winning. Jake immediately jumps out to a 3-0 lead, outplaying Jesus early while trying to impose some wisdom to his son in an attempt to connect. Jesus eventually gets furious when Jake scores again to a 4-0 lead and takes a lap around the court to mock Jesus. Jesus then proceeds to score four straight and tie the game 4-4, mocking Jake in the process. Jesus goes on to score the next six points, including emphatically dunking over a fallen Jake for the game point and the win, 10-4. Defeated, Jake retrieves the letter of intent for Big State and hands it to Jesus; a remorseless Jesus drops it on the ground in front of Jake, dismissing his father. Jake implores Jesus to get the hate out of his heart and not be like his father, attempting to reach his son one last time. Spivey and Crudup arrive to take Jake back to Attica, and they handcuff Jake in front of Jesus. Jake shares one final glance at his son before Spivey and Crudup take Jake back to prison. In the local newspaper, they report Jake's appearance in Coney Island as an prison escape.

During the press conference for Jesus' announcement, Coach Cincotta reads a statement that Jesus had prepared. Jesus advises that he declined to be in attendance, citing that he wanted to be with his family privately, before advising that he will attend Big State University. D'Andre and Lala can be seen in dismay over Jesus' decision while Big Time Willie is shocked that Jesus would pass on the money to go pro. In closing, Jesus sends his prayers to Jake in the letter. At home, Jesus decides to open one of Jake's letters that he held onto from prison, and Jake explains how proud he is of Jesus, finally getting through to his son.

Back in prison, Jake meets with Warden Wyatt again over the decision and Jake's parole. While the governor has not made a decision on Jake's early release, the governor got what he wanted with Jesus attending Big State, despite Jake being unable to get Jesus to sign the letter of intent. Dakota is seen in one of the final scenes taking a Greyhound bus away from Coney Island. Jake ultimately finds freedom by casting away his dreams and burdens to his son, Jesus, symbolized by the throwing of his old basketball over the prison wall and magically onto the Big State court where Jesus is practicing alone. Jesus clutches the ball, knowing it is a message of hope from his father.



Filming took place between July and September 1997. Locations included Coney Island, Brooklyn, Cabrini–Green housing projects in Chicago, Illinois, Elon University, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Los Angeles, California.

For the role of Jesus, Lee had drawn up a list of every NBA player who could pass for a high school senior. Kobe Bryant was the original choice to portray Jesus Shuttlesworth, but after shooting several air balls that resulted in a brutal playoff loss to the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA Playoffs, he planned an extensive workout plan that would help maintain his strength throughout the duration of the longer NBA seasons. Lee found Tracy McGrady too reserved and was not impressed by Allen Iverson's performance. Management for Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury wanted a guarantee that one or the other would be offered the part. Travis Best, Walter McCarty, and Rick Fox also auditioned, and Lee cast them in supporting roles. Lee approached Allen during halftime of a Bucks-Knicks game, ultimately offering him the role of Jesus. Allen had never acted before, and he trained with an acting coach for eight weeks prior to filming.[1]

NBA players Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller, Bill Walton, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley, Syracuse University coach Jim Boeheim, NBA coaches Rick Pitino and George Karl and broadcaster Dick Vitale made cameo appearances at one point early in the film.[2] Former football legend Jim Brown also appears as one of Jake's parole officers, assigned to keep tabs on him while he's away from the prison.


Box office[edit]

He Got Game was produced on an estimated $25 million budget.[citation needed] In the opening weekend of its release, it was shown on 1,319 screens, and took in $7,610,663 at the U.S. box offices debuting at #1.[3] It eventually grossed a total of $21,554,585.00, which was a box office flop considering it fell short of its $25 million budget.

Critical response[edit]

Response to the film was largely favorable, with review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes showing it receiving 80% favorable reviews, praising Lee's artfulness, commentary, and honest connection to human characters. Negative reviews focused their criticism on the film's length and Lee's overindulgence, with Time Out London writing, "Most scenes play too long, with a surplus of ideas, textures, tones and characters, and after 134 minutes it's clear Lee's problem with closure hasn't gone away."[4][5] Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half-stars, and called it Lee's best film since Malcolm X. He was particularly encouraged by Lee's determination not to adhere to typical conventions.[6]

Both Ray Allen and Washington drew praise for their performances,[7] with Roger Ebert writing that Allen "is that rarity, an athlete who can act," and Slate magazine writing that Washington's performance was "gorgeously underplayed".[6][8]

ESPN's review pointed out factual flaws in the story: "...coaches aren't allowed to discuss potential recruits until after the signing period. Come on, Spike. (And while we're at it, players aren't allowed to visit a college one week before the signing deadline; Jesus couldn't live alone with his sister without both of them being thrown in a foster home; and there's NO WAY IN HELL that Jesus wouldn't have just turned pro if he was that good and that broke.)" [9]


The soundtrack for He Got Game was composed of numerous orchestral pieces by Aaron Copland with songs created by Public Enemy. It was released by Def Jam on April 21, 1998.

Awards and nominations[edit]

1999 Acapulco Black Film Festival
  • Best Actor — Denzel Washington (nominated)
  • Best Director — Spike Lee (nominated)
  • Best Screenplay — Spike Lee (nominated)
  • Best Film (nominated)
  • Best Soundtrack (nominated)
1999 NAACP Image Awards
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Motion Picture — Denzel Washington (nominated)
  • Outstanding Youth Actor/Actress — Zelda Harris (nominated)
  • Outstanding Motion Picture (nominated)
1999 MTV Movie Awards
  • MTV Movie Award Best Breakthrough Male Performance — Ray Allen (nominated)


  1. ^ "He Got Game (1998)". Thisdistractedglobe.com. Retrieved 2010-08-19. 
  2. ^ Jesus Shuttlesworth. YouTube. Archived from the original on February 27, 2013. Retrieved 2010-08-19. 
  3. ^ Weekend Box Office Results for May 1-3, 1998 - Box Office Mojo
  4. ^ "He Got Game Review. Movie Reviews - Film - Time Out London". Timeout.com. 2005-04-06. Archived from the original on 2007-03-11. Retrieved 2010-08-19. 
  5. ^ "He Got Game Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2010-08-19. 
  6. ^ a b "He Got Game :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews". Rogerebert.suntimes.com. Retrieved 2010-08-19. 
  7. ^ "He Got Game Review - Read Variety's Analysis Of The Movie He Got Game". Variety.com. 1998-04-27. Retrieved 2010-08-19. 
  8. ^ Edelstein, David (1998-05-03). "He Got Balls - By David Edelstein - Slate Magazine". Slate.msn.com. Archived from the original on 2009-01-25. Retrieved 2010-08-19. 
  9. ^ Simmons, 'Review - He Got Game', ESPN sports

External links[edit]