Juancho Hernangomez is now a movie star. When the basketball star signed on for a part in Netflix’s basketball flick Hustle, he thought he was doing some sort of cameo—but he had no idea he was taking on the lead role. Like his character Bo Cruz, Hernangomez is also from Spain and moved to the United States to play for the NBA. While the team behind Hustle and Netflix could have easily hired a tall, athletic actor for the role—like Morris Chestnut in 2002’s Like Mike—they tapped a real-life professional athlete whose story was similar to the character instead, making the LeBron James-produced film feel significantly more authentic.
Hernangomez’s professional basketball career began in 2012 with Madrid’s CB Estudiantes. He was on the international early entry candidates list for the 2016 NBA draft and was selected by the Denver Nuggets. He has since played for other teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics, the San Antonio Spurs and is currently with the Utah Jazz. The power forward says he and his character have a lot in common. In the film, a talent scout Philadelphia 76ers named Stanley Sugarman, played by the one and only Adam Sandler, finds Bo playing basketball at a local park in Spain and convinces him to move to the U.S. to pursue a professional career. Bo is down on his luck working in construction after he gave up on his dream to play ball after having a daughter as a teenager and being financially responsible for her and his mother.
“A lot of what he’s been through, I’ve been through. Going to another country by yourself, trying to not give up on yourself, not give up on the people who trust you, pursue the dreams, chase the dreams no matter what, and just prove them wrong,” Hernangomez tells Complex in an interview. “It was the same for me. When I came to the NBA, I came with my team, drafted. I didn’t speak English. So I didn’t understand anything, just how to play basketball, the sport I love, the game I love. And that’s the reason I keep going because I love basketball too much. And that’s the reason Bo did it because he loves basketball and because he loves his family and he knows he got to do it for his daughter.”
Stanley put all of his hopes and dreams on Bo, too, risking his job and putting himself on the line. They both needed each other to succeed, and the desire to not disappoint the one person who believed in him is another reason Bo keeps fighting to make it into the NBA. That level of mutual respect and dedication is at the core of the film, and as the story progresses, their relationship deepens and so does their trust in one another. All a person needs sometimes is just one person to believe in them, and who better to have on your side than Sandler? The actor is known for his iconic movies, but one thing most people know about him outside of that is how deeply he loves basketball, and that reflects in the film. “He loves basketball. I play with a lot of basketball players, real basketball players, who love basketball [less than] him. For real, he watches basketball. He watches all my games. He texts me after the games,” the NBA star shares, adding that they’d sometimes hoop together after a long day on set. “He loves it, even if he cannot walk, he’s still playing. He’s unbelievable. And he’s really good.”
Hustle has all the makings of a sports movie—it’s inspiring, exciting, uplifting, and makes you believe that all things are possible. Hernangomez delivers a subtle yet powerful performance, as a 6’9 guy who is quiet, thoughtful, and most of all, teachable. Sandler shines in this role as well. Stanley is a lot calmer than his role as Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems, but they both share the same anxiousness and internal struggle of wanting to make something happen for themselves. Stanley’s future is riding on Bo, but he shields the athlete from feeling that pressure. Instead, he coaches Bo and supports him, showing him the kind of grace, patience, and appreciation that makes people rise to the occasion. And he does, every single time.
The film also stars Queen Latifah, Robert Duvall, and Ben Foster, with appearances from real Sixers like Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey, and head coach Doc Rivers. Complex caught up with Juancho Hernangomez ahead of the Netflix film’s release, and he talked all about his first acting role, working with Adam Sandler, what his favorite basketball movie was growing up and what it meant to have basketball legends like Julius Erving, Allen Iverson, and Shaquille O’Neal be part of the film.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.