The Best HBO Basketball Documentaries

HBO basketball documentaries are solid. First of all, you have access to streaming Hoop Dreams on HBOMax, so start there if you haven’t seen it. You also might wanna check out the newest addition to this list where Coach K interviews LeBron right after the all-time scoring record takedown. But also, there are a bunch of exclusives that are totally worth digging into.

HBO’s game is strong in the documentary department, but if you’re interested in movies in general, I have a post for that as well.

When I first got into basketball, I was a little older than most, so I had some catching up to do. And basketball documentaries were a big part of that. I was playing every day, and watching games, but these films and series’ helped me fill in the massive knowledge gaps in terms of basketball lore.

And honestly, that’s what I love most, the story of the sport. It’s just super interesting to start to understand how this game impacts people, and how the legends of the sport have confronted the obstacles it presents.

So I’ve crushed through all of the best HBO basketball documentaries here to lay out what’s worth watching. I’d argue it’s just about all worth it, but you gotta start somewhere, so this is organized in something like a proper ordering in terms of viewing pleasure, at least how I see it.

But I’ve also divided the set into documentary series’ and documentary features because it just seems like a good initial selection factor. If you’re just looking to crush through a one-and-done feature, stay at the top. If you’re prepared to binge a series, click down to the next set.

Oh, and if you’re into basketball documentaries in general, I’ve put together lists just like this one for Netflix basketball documentaries and ESPN’s 30-for-30 episodes as well.

HBO Basketball Documentary Features

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Hoop Dreams is a true classic. This 1994 documentary film directed by Steve James and produced by Frederick Marx, James, and Peter Gilbert, with Kartemquin Films follows the journey of two African-American high school students, William Gates and Arthur Agee, from Chicago and their dreams of making it big in the world of basketball.

It’s an incredible story of talent, dedication, and resilience, as the featured personalities battle through personal and financial hardships to make their mark in the game.

The documentary was originally intended to be a 30-minute short film. The filmmakers ended up five years in with 250 hours of footage. Premiering at Sundance, the film would garner countless awards, and .

It’s also been included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, and ranks #1 on the International Documentary Association’s 2007 list of the Top 25 Documentaries of all time. It’s an inspiring story of two kids with a dream, and if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worth a watch. Hoop Dreams is a timeless basketball classic.

Kareem: Minority of One (2015)

“if you’re in a racist society and you’re being discriminated against, it’s up to you to do something for yourself.” – Karrem Abdul-Jabbar

As dominant athletic personas go, Kareem is easy to love. Through archival footage and intimate interviews wih fans, family, players and the man himself, HBO’s ‘Kareem: Minority of One’ manages to make it even easier.

The clear follow on to greats like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, the young Lew Alcindor was beginning to assume a throne that could not avoid implications off the floor at a time when those implications were under particular scrutiny.

That’s a ridiculous amount of pressure to confront at a young age. This soft spoken and reflective character would not simply fall into patterns set by the men who had come before him, but something else that was entirely unique and neccessary to his generation.

The film gives an illuminating insight into Abdul-Jabbar’s career, his competitive spirit and resilience, and his complicated relationship with the spotlight. Abdul-Jabbar himself opens up, discussing his embrace of Islam, his activism, and his post-hoops endeavors. ‘Kareem: Minority of One’ provides a unique look at one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Chasing Greatness: Coach K x LeBron

Very quickly after LeBron took down Kareem’s all-time scoring record in 2023, they managed to pull together this long form interview between Duke’s legendary Coach K and LeBron. The rapport is there. Krzyzewski led a US team in the 06′ world championship as well as the 08′ ‘Redeem Team’, both with LeBron onboard.

And the interview is fascinating, offering insight on superstardom and greatness in basketball. For someone like me who certainly appreciates LeBron for his incredible abilities, I’ve found myself a little annoyed at times by his behavior on the court. He brings a gravity to a game and a team that can make it feel like you’re not so much watching a game as one player, incredible though he may be.

But with this interview and maybe a few episodes of The Shop, you gain a lot more appreciation for just how much this man has accomplished and what he’s been up against. And to crush through those obstacles and continue to pursue greatness so doggedly, and still manage to display some form of humility, that’s truly impressive.

City Dump: The Story of the 1951 CCNY Basketball Scandal (1998)

Yeah, this is a scandal story, but that’s not really the point. See, the CCNY Beavers were a big deal in the 50’s, a really big deal. In the capitol of basketball, this was the hometown team.

So the city was bought-in. Sure, different boroughs subscribed to different teams, but the Beavers were champs. This team of local kids, brought up on New York City courts, consistently punched above their weight, taking down revered teams across the nation on the biggest stage.

As deep as basketball culture ran in New York City at the time, betting culture was right there with it. Before long, it was starting to look pretty obvious. Major odds upsets and uncharacteristic fumbles were bringing attention from the authority.

This 1998 HBO documentary covers the sports betting scandal that rocked the New York basketball scene and Nat Holman’s CCNY Beavers. The effects that these events had on New York City basketball are still felt today.

You should come away from this one with a renewed appreciation for the importance of basketball to New York City culture and MSG as the basketball Mecca. The roots run deep here and if you’ve ever been confused about the relationship between New york and basketball, this film goes a long way towards setting things straight.

The Scheme (2020)

Oh man, if you’re into crime docs or even procedurals, this one is for you. 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.

Fact is, college sports is absolutely a massive industry. College coaches are the highest paid public officials in most states. The NCAA continuously insists that college players are amateurs. That’s beginning to change in certain cases, but this is clearly a situation where a massive capitalist entity is pretending a moral high ground and taking advantage of athletes who are at an obvious disadvantage.

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.

Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (2010)

Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals takes you on a journey through the defining moments of two of the greatest players in NBA history – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

From the 1979 NCAA Championship Game to their Hall of Fame careers in the NBA, this documentary examines the rivalry and their unlikely friendship, as well as the deep racial issues that were part of the Lakers and Celtics dynamic.

With interviews from family, sportscasters, and players, this film is sure to provide an entertaining and informative look into the lives and careers of two of the greatest basketball stars of all time!

Women of Troy (2020)

Get schooled on the mid-1980s USC Trojans women’s basketball team, and their legendary leader, Cheryl Miller. From her electric and ineffable playmaking abilities to her physically-imposing style, Miller changed the game and the nation’s first prominent college women’s basketball team.

Miller wasn’t afraid to show off her confidence and charisma on the court. From the way opponents described her to the way teammates adored her, it’s clear that Miller was an incredible force.

Her arrival to USC meant a new uptempo era of women’s basketball and back-to-back national titles in 1983 and 1984 to prove it. But Miller and the Women of Troy weren’t just a revolutionary basketball team – they were a racially-significant one, too.

Women of Troy is a delightful documentary that features voices of women, the wisdom of the Women of Troy and a successful documentation of the daily challenges they encountered as female athletes of color at a primarily-white university.

38 at the Garden (2022)

This is a fascinating documentary covering the onset of Linsanity in the 2011-2012 Knicks season when unacknowledged Asian American talent Jeremy Lin exploded onto the NBA radar.

It’s February 10th, 2012, and Frank Chi is headed to the City That Never Sleeps. He’s got the same mission as hundreds of other basketball fanatics: catching a glimpse of the electrifying Jeremy Lin playing for the Knicks against the Lakers.

But when he gets there, he’s got a problem: scalpers want an arm and a leg for a ticket to the game. So instead, he heads to a karaoke bar in Koreatown, surrounded by people who look just like him. And together they witness a miracle as Lin drops 38 points on the Lakers in a 92-85 victory.

Fast forward a decade, and Frank Chi directs 38 At The Garden, a documentary commemorating that iconic basketball moment. Chi admits he had his doubts when he first came up with the idea for the film. After all, anti-Asian hate and violence was on the rise in 2020, and he wasn’t sure if anyone would care about a story from 8 years prior.

He went for it, and the end result is a masterpiece that looks at Lin’s story from a much deeper perspective. It’s a story about stereotypes and how Lin shattered them on the world stage. It’s about how sports and politics are intertwined and how athletes can inspire people to strive for more. 38 At The Garden is sure to resonate with anyone who’s had to battle doubt and stereotypes.

HBO Basketball Documentary Series’

The Shop: Uninterrupted (2018)

Here’s a unique one. LeBron and a long time business partner Maverick Carter host a talk show that takes place in a barber shop. Well, they don’t so much host it as they just also hang out in the shop. The conversation flows.

The Shop is more addicting than I expected. It flows something like a podcast. The environment serving to take some of the edge off of a performatory experience and allow guests to be themselves to some extent and share personal reflections in a social atmosphere.

Take episode 2 for example. We watch Ben Simmons get his ears lowered while discussing mindset in athletics. The conversation bounces fluidly from LeBron and Maverick to Ben, to Victor Oladipo, Elena Delle Donne and Mo Bamba, covering a range of topics. Drake shows up late and steers it into fatherhood, artistry and his beef with Ye.

So yeah, not every episode is completely about basketball, but it is a central theme. And with all of these pros getting comfortable and connecting you end up getting some crazy basketball insight. But you get more than that too. The Shop starts to feel like a great dinner conversation at times, digging through layers on emotional and relevant topics. And some of the guest lineups are pure gold.

Black Magic (2008)

Black Magic is a documentary series that focuses on the history and pride associated with black college basketball. It tells the stories of the hardworking players and coaches who faced segregation and a lack of resources, in order to pursue a better life.

The series highlights legends such as Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, and Avery Johnson. It also addresses difficulties that HBCUs face today with dwindling enrollment, lack of support and the impacts of integration.

Shaq (2022)

A 4-parter, this series recounts the legend of the iconic big man from humble beginnings up into the league. Through interviews with Shaq, his family, peers and fans, I don’t wanna say we gain insight because the man is quite public as it is, but we get some interesting background.

If you’re a fan of Shaq or the Lakers, this one is worth the commitment, and it stands out, as does Shaq.

The Inside Story (2021)

Centered around the cast of the Inside the NBA, each episode focuses on a specific member of the current roster: Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. This is a bit of a marketing gimmick, but the episodes are interesting enough.

Level Playing Field (2021) – ep 1. Midnight Basketball

Level Playing Field examines politics through the lens of sports. This, the first episode, takes a look at the 1994 crime bill as it brings a youth sports program into the spotlight.