As a basketball fan who started a bit later than most, I’ve found basketball documentaries and documentary series’ to be incredibly helpful in filling in my knowledge gaps. Yeah, I was kinda paying attention as a kid in the 90’s, but I didn’t really care. And if you had asked me before I got into this about Bill Russell or sports management or player development, I would have had nothing to say.
Thanks in no small part to the awesome basketball documentaries in this massive list, I can now hold down a reasonably interesting conversation about basketball, without hours of preparation and research. I even sometimes find myself pulling out obscenely obscure facts on occasion like a real sports fan.
And it’s just fascinating to see how this sport impacts people, to better understand how the legends of the game have faced down the obstacles it presents, or to get sucked into the machinations of the big players that operate behind the scenes of this massive international money machine that is professional basketball. This stuff probably doesn’t help my play, but it does add to the enjoyment.
So yeah, I’ve plugged through a mountain of the top basketball documentaries to pull them together into this massive list. They’re roughly organized by most enjoyable to watch. But I’ve also split them up into categories to try and make it a little easier to pick one to start with.
If you want to narrow your choices to a specific streaming service, I have similar lists for HBO basketball documentaries and Netflix basketball documentaries specifically. And if you’re into the 30-for-30 series from ESPN, I’ve compiled a list of every 30-for-30 that covers basketball related topics.
Basketball Documentary Features
These are self contained basketball documentaries in the traditional style. If you’re not trying to binge a massive series like the kids are doing these days, but rather looking for a self-contained story and a viewing experience tilted towards quality, this is the set for you.
The quintessential basketball documentary. Hoop Dreams follows two Chicago high schoolers, William Gates and Arthur Agee in their pursuit of a professional basketball career. What began as a 30-minute short film turned into a five-year project, culling from over 250 hours of footage.
Premiering at Sundance, the film has won countless awards and has been included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, ranking #1 on the International Documentary Association’s list of the Top 25 Documentaries of all time.
This doc about the birth and growth in popularity of a women’s basketball league in Los Angeles is inspiring. Seriously, it got me going. I wanna go do something I’m scared of right now. Like, tonight!
A group of women, many of them performers and comedians, wanted to play competitive team basketball. They found that there were no active leagues in their community. They re-started the league and it kinda took off.
Maybe you’re naturally good at things, or you’ve been doing them from a young age. But most of us are sitting on the sidelines and just a little embarrassed of how others will see us when we step outside of comfort.
I highly recommend checking this out. If you’ve ever had something in the back of your mind that you’ve wanted to do, wanted to try, but been just a little uncomfortable about, The Pistol Shrimps stands in service against that fear.
If you’re into crime docs or even procedurals, this is the basketball documentary for you. I just tried to explain the plot to my wife and I’m winded. This one is intricate and fascinating and goes in so many different directions as it reveals the unfortunate corruption of the professional athlete pipeline.
In 2017, Christian Dawkins was implicated in a bribing scheme that was deeply woven into the highest levels of college basketball. But the truth looks much more like bribery itself is deeply woven into the fabric of college basketball itself. And the case ends up looking an awful lot like entrapment.
The Scheme takes candid interviews with the accused and his lawyer and works them into a compelling story of the government going after the lower rungs of an organization grown of the very structure they impose.
City Dump: The Story of the 1951 CCNY Basketball Scandal (1998)
The CCNY Beavers in the 50’s came to represent a lot more than a solid basketball team. These were hometown boys, straight off New York streets, and they played a New York brand of basketball. When several players were busted in a point fixing scheme, the whole city felt the pain.
This is a story of greed and corruption and racial tensions. You should come away from this one with a renewed appreciation for the importance of basketball to New York City culture and Madison Square Garden, and a better understanding of just how deep the roots run.
Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in PyongYang (2015)
Dennis Rodman is on a mission to bridge the gap between the US and North Korea through a historic basketball game. Despite criticism and disapproval from the NBA, The White House, and the press, Rodman is determined to make this game happen.
Through his unlikely and ill-advised friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, Rodman is able to assemble a team of former-NBA players and make the game a reality. Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in PyongYang is the true story of the controversial game, and the remarkable friendship between Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un that made it possible.
Rodman has visited North Korea multiple times in the past and has publicly expressed his admiration for the North Korean leader. He has also criticized the US for its role in maintaining the sanctions against North Korea.
The First Basket
I can’t think of a stronger bond between a cultural group and a sport than the one that exists between Judaism and basketball. Personally, I find this topic incredibly interesting. Like, why is basketball so prominent in the Jewish community?
And the answer truly is complex and fascinating. This documentary examines that bond from its early days, as basketball gained popularity in urban Jewish communal institutions. It goes on to profile a number of Jewish players and coaches who’ve made a lasting impact on the game and address the struggles that they faced in their careers.
One in a Billion (2016)
Satnam Singh Bhamara was the first Indian-born player drafted in the NBA from a country of over 1 Billion people. This one is kinda a player documentary but it focuses more on player development and the international spread of basketball than Satnam himself.
Follows Satnam from the rural town in Punjab where he grew up, to an elite sports academy in Florida, and on to the night of the 2015 draft in New York.
The film also touches on the motivations of the NBA in India as the Indian economy grows and comes into its own. India is a massive developing market with very little exposure to the sport.
The Street Stops Here (2010)
Basketball Team Documentaries
There’s a certain class of basketball documentary where you zoom in on a team and a moment in time. sometimes it’s a playoff bid. Other times it’s an entire dynasty. Either way, the focus is the team, and the trials on the way to glory.
The Redeem Team (2022)
4 years after the US Men’s Olympic team was forced to settle for bronze in the Athens games, Coack K, Kobe and the 2008 US team battle for redemption.
It’s a cool story, and it tends to get overshadowed by that of The Dream Team and other compelling sports stories emerging at the time. But after dominating Olympic basketball in the 90’s with a 24-game run, the 04′ US team floundered.
US basketball dominance was put into serious question. In 2008, the Redeem Team crashed in. This documentary takes us on that journey, showing these basketball greats at work, bringing Men’s Basketball Gold back to the US.
Women of Troy (2020)
In the mid-1980s USC Trojans women’s basketball team, led by Cheryl Miller, upset the world of women’s basketball.
Miller brought in a new, uptempo era of women’s basketball. Her relentless motor helped carry the Trojans to back-to-back national titles in 1983 and 1984 to prove it. .
Women of Troy is a delightful documentary that features voices of women, the wisdom of the mid-eighties Trojans and a successful documentation of the daily challenges they encountered as female athletes of color at a primarily-white university.
Fast Break (1979)
This classic sports documentary tells the story of the 1978-79 Los Angeles Lakers, one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Featuring interviews with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and other members of the Lakers, the film chronicles their journey to the 1979 NBA Championship. Fast Break was released in 1979 to critical acclaim and commercial success, and remains one of the most influential sports documentaries of all time.
The Dream Team (2012)
The Dream Team is a documentary about the legendary 1992 US Men’s Olympic Basketball Team, made up of 11 future Hall of Fame players and one of the NCAA’s most well-known players Christian Laettner.
Through interviews with the players, the film details how they made the decision to join the team, how their rivalries and stories impacted the team, and how Chuck Daly handled the massive personalities. It also shows how the team’s success had a lasting impact on the game of basketball, leading to the influx of international players in the NBA.
The Fab Five (2011)
This article is about the 2011 ESPN Films documentary The Fab Five which chronicles the recruitment, glory years, infamous time-out fiasco, cultural impact and scandal that followed the 1990s Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball players known as the Fab Five.
It aired on March 13, 2011 and drew 2.7 million viewers, setting a record as the highest-rated ESPN documentary ever. It sparked a verbal war between Jalen Rose and Duke University’s Grant Hill through the media regarding issues of race in sports and education that fueled the Duke–Michigan basketball rivalry.
The documentary was praised for its “warts and all” depiction and for presenting the inside story of a group of players that th
The Greatest Game Ever Played (2008)
This documentary focuses on the famous 1982 NCAA Championship game between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Georgetown Hoyas, widely regarded as one of the greatest games in college basketball history. Featuring interviews with players and coaches from both teams, the film looks at the impact the game had on the sport and how it resonates with basketball fans today. The Greatest Game Ever Played was released in 2008 to critical acclaim, with many critics praising its insights into the game and the impact it had on college basketball.
More Than a Game (2008)
This documentary follows the story of the 2008 LeBron James-led Akron Fab Five basketball team, from their humble beginnings to their rise to national prominence. Featuring interviews with LeBron, Dru Joyce III, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton, and Willie McGee, the film celebrates the power of friendship, the importance of teamwork, and the impact these five young men had on the Akron community. More Than a Game was released in 2008 to critical acclaim, with critics praising its insights into the lives of the five boys.
When The Garden Was Eden (2014)
This documentary chronicles the story of the New York Knicks during the early 1970s, a time when the team won two NBA Championships and became one of the most beloved teams in the history of the game. Featuring interviews with players, coaches, and fans, the film looks at the team’s success and how they created a lasting legacy. When the Garden Was Eden was released in 2014 to critical acclaim, with many critics praising its nostalgic look at the beloved Knicks team.
One Billion Rising (2015)
This documentary follows the story of the 2015 Women’s Basketball World Cup and the inspiring stories of the players who participated in it. Featuring interviews with players, coaches, and fans, the film celebrates the power of women’s basketball and the impact it has had on the world. One Billion Rising was released in 2015 to critical acclaim, with many critics praising its uplifting look at the power of women’s basketball.
The Junction Boys (2002)
This documentary chronicles the story of the 1954 Texas A&M Aggies football team and their legendary coach, Bear Bryant. Featuring interviews with former players, the film looks at the grueling three-week training camp the team endured in Junction, Texas, and how it shaped their season. The Junction Boys was released in 2002 to critical acclaim, with many critics praising its insightful look at the team and their historic season.
Basketball Documentary Series’
Here we have the epic, multi-parter tomes designed to suck you in and spit you out days or months later. Put one of these on and watch the time slip away.
The Last Dance (2020)
This 10-part documentary series takes a deep dive into the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, featuring interviews with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and other key figures from the team. It chronicles the team’s journey to their sixth NBA championship, with behind-the-scenes insight into the personalities, rivalries, and controversies that surrounded the team. The documentary was released April 19, 2020, and captured the attention of an entire generation of Netflix watchers who grew up with Jordan as the penultimate example of greatness.
Black Magic (2008):
This series focuses on the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in college basketball, and how these schools have produced some of the greatest players in the history of the game.
Featuring interviews with former NBA players and coaches, the film looks at the impact these schools have had on the game, and how their legacies continue to shape the sport. Black Magic was released in 2008 to critical acclaim, with many critics praising its insightful look at the history of HBCUs in college basketball.
Basketball: A Love Story (2018)
From ESPN Films!, this 20-hour series is jam-packed with 62 “short stories” exploring all aspects of the game we love, from the NBA, ABA, WNBA, college hoops, and the international game, to a broad range of social and cultural issues.
The series weaves together over 500 hours of interviews from 165 personalities, including Adam Silver, David Stern, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Charles Barkley, and more! The episodes are narrated by some of the biggest names in Hollywood, like Chadwick Boseman, Michael Che, Chris Cuomo, Daveed Diggs, Ansel Elgort, Ashley Judd, Julianne Moore, Robin Quivers, Ahmad Rashad, and Fisher Stevens.
62 short stories touch on every aspect of the game. Director Dan Klores explains that it’s “like opening a book of short stories”. While some praised the ambitious nature and distribution format of the series, others criticized its tendency to gloss over or omit unhappier aspects of basketball history. It’s still an epic contribution to the collective basketball lexicon.
You may be aware of the 30-for-30 series. It’s a remarkably high quality collection of documentaries covering the most captivating stories in sports history. they’re not all about basketball.
But the episodes that are about basketball end up being some of the coolest basketball documentaries out there. The full list is extensive and kinda goes beyond the scope of this already lengthy article. Head over to my full breakdown on every basketball episode of 30-for-30 if you’re interested in heading this direction, which I do highly recommend.
This Netflix series in the vain of ESPN’s 30-for-30 includes 3 episodes related to basketball. The theme that holds this series together honest storytelling. The creators endeavour to tell dramatic stories where the participants are willing to speak candidly and offer valid portrayals of events as they occurred.
Hop over to my list of basketball documentaries currently available on Netflix to get a more in-depth breakdown of the 3 episodes in question.
Basketball Player Documentaries
Certainly you can’t look at basketball without looking at the players. These are the documentaries that focus on the iconic players you know and love.
I’m particularly a fan of the examples that cover figures of previous generations, the names you’ve heard but may not quite have placed in their time. I was too young when Kareem played his last games to grasp the gravity of his presence and his impact on culture. Same with Pistol Pete and Bill Russel.
It’s for this reason that several of these go beyond cinematic portraiture and into a philosophical examination of history and the evolution of modern culture. But I digress. Find a character that seems cool and dive in.
Kareem: Minority of One (2015)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the most iconic figures in the history of basketball. I mean, until recently, he was the greatest scorer in NBA history, right?
HBO’s ‘Kareem: Minority of One’, follows the legendary athlete through archival footage and intimate interviews with fans, family, players, and Abdul-Jabbar himself.
The film offers a glimpse into his career, his competitive nature, his strong will and resilience, and his complicated relationship with the spotlight. It reveals his massive impact on culture and depicts the NBA legend as a figure entirely necessary to the evolution of a struggling culture. This is a compelling look into the life of one of the greatest athletes of all time.
Bill Russell: Legend (2023)
If you’re a fan of the NBA, you’re aware of the legendary Bill Russell, but you may have overlooked some of the incredible details of his legacy.
Before Kareem, before Wilt, before Jordan, there was Bill Russell, dominating the league and breaking trail for these modern legends to roll through decades later.
The documentary is a long one, pushing up over the 3-hour mark. But it’s worth the investment for a firm understanding of what Bill did for both basketball and civil rights.
Stylistically, this is a little closer to a Ken Burns doc than The Last Dance. It’s a little slower, meandering through impassioned interviews and supporting knowledge. You’ll want a genuine interest in basketball and basketball lore to really get hooked in here.
38 at the Garden (2022)
On February 10th, 2012, New York Knicks Jeremy Lin dropped 38 points on the Lakers in a 92-85 victory.
With 38 at the Garden, director Frank Chi commemorates that moment and its importance to the Asian-American community. Seeing a player of Taiwanese descent emerge from relative obscurity to lead a banner franchise to glory.
The Year of the Yao (2004)
This documentary chronicles the story of Yao Ming, one of the greatest Chinese basketball players of all time. Featuring interviews with Yao Ming, his family, and former coaches, the film looks at Yao’s journey from his humble beginnings in Shanghai to becoming one of the biggest stars in the NBA. The Year of the Yao was released in 2004 to critical acclaim, with many critics praising its insightful look at the life of Yao Ming.
The Life and Times of Pete Maravich
‘Pistol’ Pete, as he was known, may well have been the greatest ball handler of all time. Well, his time at least. But he kinda squandered his incredible skills. This story ends up a tale of glory and failure, followed up by some form of redemption, but in the megalomaniacal way you might expect from a pro athlete, and it ultimately ends in tragedy.
Pete Maravich led a pretty whacky existence. Growing up with an obsessive basketball coach for a father, you’d expect a kid to rebel at some point, maybe swear off basketball for life. Not Pete, he seems to have enjoyed it. To a point…
The film details Pistol’s virtuosity as it develops from a young age. Never without a basketball within reach, he developed his skills quickly enough to outgrow any chance at competitiveness in his age range.
His college career put LSU on the map in the basketball world. But games quickly evolved into more spectacle than sporting event. But this celebrity-like existence wold ultimately make the transition to the NBA a difficult one. And once Maravich did find his stride in the NBA, he would only struggle with personal issues, substance abuse, and injury.
The documentary is dated and the quality is pretty terrible, as it was produced for television in the video era. But it serves as an interesting portrait of an iconic player. It’s worth a watch for the 60’s LSU highlights alone. This guy was snapping ankles and flicking laser-like passes off his teamates heads in black and white.
Through the Fire
Through the Fire follows the life of Coney Island native and NBA star, Sebastian Telfair, as he strives to make it in the NBA. We see Telfair transition from high school through his first season in the NBA with the Portland Trailblazers. I
The film examines the pressures and temptations thrust upon a professional athlete. It also examines the inner city culture of basketball, and how it affects the lives of those who live in it. Through the Fire depicts the struggles and triumphs of Sebastian Telfair and illustrates the power and importance of dreams.
The Basketball Docs I Haven’t Seen
These are the basketball documentaries that are still on my list. I’ll cover these over time and migrate them into their proper location, but for now, let me know if you spot anything I should move up the list.