The Best Basketball Documentaries of All Time

The best basketball documentaries inspire and tell great stories about Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O'Neal, and the game's evolution.

Best Basketball Docs
Complex Original

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Best Basketball Docs

Basketball is fun to watch and all, but for many, the sport is merely the backdrop to a much bigger, more personal issue. With Netflix's The Redeem Team documentary just releasing, we were all reminded how much more goes into these runs at greatness. We saw firsthand how much dedication Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James put into redeeming USA basketball. This documentary told a story that we all thought we knew. That's the beauty of digging deeper and behind the curtain.

From the many all-black teams who met adversity when playing the game during times of segregation to the story of Ben "Benji" Wilson who had his NBA dream cut short by violence, these docs have taught us a life lesson and have inspired us to keep striving. From modern marvels Allen Iverson, Shaquille O'Neal, and LeBron James to the GOATs like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Julius Irving, these incredible stories are eye-opening films that help us understand the game and the players who we loved to watch ball better. Here are the Best Basketball Documentaries of All Time.

21. On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Team You Have Never Heard Of

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Year: 2011

Director(s): Deborah Morales

Synopsis: The story of the greatest basketball team you've never heard of in this Jamie Foxx and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar co-narrated documentary.

There was a time when the game of basketball featured all-white and all-black teams. But thanks to the success and chemistry of the rather unknown Harlem Rens, the team opened people's eyes and paved the way for what the NBA is today.

While most of the all-white teams focused on a more fundamental approach, the Harlem Rens played an incredibly fast game, which you can see in the doc. But, aside from the sports angel of it all, the Rens found success, amassing a 2,588-529 overall record even with plenty of adversity standing in their way. This came in the form of trying to find time to play at the often busy Harlem Renaissance Casino and Ballroom and the away games which involved fans who threw objects at the players or tried tripping them. In the end, you'll grow to appreciate the Harlem Rens' importance to the game of basketball.

20. Without Bias

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Year: 2009

Director(s): Kirk Fraser

Synopsis: The story of college star Len Bias before tragedy struck after he was drafted by the Boston Celtics.

Anyone who has followed basketball at all from mid '80s to the present day know who Michael Jordan is. Chances are, if it weren't for the fateful early morning hours of June 19, 1986, everyone would know who Len Bias is, too. Unfortunately, basketball fans never got to find out just how good Len Bias could've been, because just hours after being selected No. 2 overall in the 1986 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, Bias died of a cocaine overdose.

The film tracks Bias' rise to stardom at the University of Maryland, his untimely death, and the impact his passing had on sports culture, with commentary from coaches, friends, and his parents. The most chilling moment? The 911 recording of his friend, Brian Tribble, pleading, "This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There's no way he can die."

19. Iverson

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Year: 2014

Director(s): Zatella Beatty

Synopsis: A biographical movie about Allen Iverson’s life.

From his legendary step over Tyronn Lue in the NBA Finals to the iconic “We’re talking about practice” episode, A.I. left his mark on the league.

Before the fame, glitz, and crafty ball-handling, Iverson grew up in poverty and faced the harsh realities of a town struggling with racial tensions. His wrongful incarceration almost derailed his athletic ambitions, but with help from his family, friends, coaches, and the Virginia governor A.I. was able to attend Georgetown for two years before he was selected as the first overall draft pick in the 1996 NBA Draft.

Once in the league, it didn’t take long for his talent to transcend, but Iverson’s professional career was full of controversy. The documentary shows A.I., as well as the meaningful people in his life, revisit the pivotal moments in time when he needed them, and basketball the most.

18. Whatever Happened to Micheal Ray?

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Year: 2000

Director(s): Larry Weitzman, Jim Podhoretz

Synopsis: Micheal Ray Richardson debuted in the NBA with so much potential and became an instant star, but his career fell apart due to drug abuse. What happened after that?

After being selected by the New York Knicks with the fourth overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft, Micheal Ray Richardson went from being dubbed "the next Walt Frazier" to the first player banned from the NBA after violating the league's drug policy three times. Chris Rock narrates the story of a man who had everything going for him, only to have it all taken away after the '80s NYC party lifestyle changed the path of Michael Ray Richardson's career and life.

Told through Rock's point-of-view, we're given the perspective of practically every Richardson fan of the late '70s and early '80s, who consistently rooted for Sugar's success and faced disappointment when he continuously returned to freebasing and put himself into one incredibly bad predicament after another, which included pretending to be kidnapped even though he was in a hotel only a block away from the Garden. 

17. The Other Dream Team

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Year: 2012

Director(s): Marius A. Markevicius

Synopsis: The 1992 Lithuanian Basketball Team becoming symbols of Lithuania's independence movement from USSR during the Olympics.

The 1992 Olympic Dream Team featuring such luminaries as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson usually captures everyone's attention. One of the lesser-known stories of that year's Olympics was the 1992 Lithuanian National Basketball team. Featuring stars and future NBA players Arvydas Sabonas and Šarūnas Marčiulionis, the documentary takes a look back at the basketball aspect and when Lithuania declared independence from the USSR.

While the doc tends to err on the more serious side, the film does have its own light-hearted and happier moments, especially when The Grateful Dead, a favorite of one of the participants in the film Bill Walton, gives the Lithuanian basketball team a much needed and unexpected assist. Oops, we may have said too much. 

16. More Than a Game

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Year: 2008

Director(s): Kristopher Belman

Synopsis: A story featuring LeBron James and four of his teammates through the trials and tribulations of high school basketball in Akron, Ohio and their rise to the cream of the high school basketball crop.

Director Kristopher Belman gives us an inside look at the highs and lows of the lives of LeBron James and his teammates Sian Cotton, Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee and Romeo Travis. The film follows them as they grow from a relative unknown squad to the talk of the entire nation.

The film gives viewers the rare chance to get inside the head of a teenager from humble beginnings in Akron, Ohio who would later become the greatest basketball player in the world. Even the biggest LeBron haters could appreciate this piece from Belman.

15. Black Magic

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Year: 2008

Director(s): Dan Klores

Synopsis: A tale of many players out of historically black colleges and universities during the Civil Rights Era.

Before the NBA became the fully integrated sport that we know today, the game needed to go through its own struggles and growing pains. This documentary by Dan Klores takes a look at those times when basketball looked to progress past the color line as the outside world still dealt with strict segregation and racism.

In one of the more shocking moments, the doc gives us a detailed perspective of the lengths at which the players from the North Carolina College for Negroes needed to go in order to just play the intramural squad of Duke University's medical school without encountering the cruel, racist outside world. The near four-hour documentary is an honest portrayal that just shows you how brave those black athletes were when all they wanted to do was play a game that was deemed illegal and life-threatening at the time. 

14. Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks

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Year: 2010

Director(s): Dan Klores

Synopsis: The classic '90s rivalry featuring the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks with some interesting moments featuring some clutch shots by Reggie Miller and a feud between he and Spike Lee.

Spike Lee has lost more games for the Knicks than he's won. During the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals, he fired up Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller which led to one of the most legendary comebacks in sports history. In Game One of that series, Miller scored eight points in 8.9 seconds to beat the Knicks while crushing Spike's ego. Winning the first game of the series gave Indiana an edge that they never lost and they beat New York in seven games.

This documentary features candid interviews with Reggie, Spike, and all those involved. Get ready to relive the trash talk, heartbreak (depending on which side you're on), and drama of one of the best series in NBA playoff history.

13. Shut Up and Dribble

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Year: 2018

Director(s): Gotham Chopra

Synopsis: The three-part documentary series named after the ever-so ridiculous phrase by a Fox News host directed at Kevin Durant and LeBron James follows the social and political climates among athletes in America.

Narrated by award-winning journalist Jemele Hill, Shut Up and Dribble highlights how far basketball players have come since the early days of the NBA to be at the forefront of social activism among professional athletes. One of the earliest tales features NBA legend Bill Russell who shared a tale about how it was considered unacceptable that an African American player could be the best in the game in the 1950s.

The series goes on to highlight further double standards many prominent players faced during their heydays. It also touches on controversial episodes like the Malice at the Palace, the implementation of the dress code, and how the NBA evolved into a progressive league led by voices like LeBron James.

12. Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals

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Year: 2010

Director(s): Ezra Edelman

Synopsis: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's rivalry helped propel the NBA's waning popularity and created classic drama, and developed a rivalry into a storied friensdhip.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson will forever be paired together. With both a part of the same NBA draft class, and a storied rivalry to follow after, HBO documents the story of their impact on the NBA during the '80s. While battling for championships the two formed an unbreakable bond that laid the foundation for today's NBA.

However, aside from focusing on their rivalry on the court, the documentary takes an incredibly in-depth look at how Bird and African Americans would garner a mutual respect for one another as a kid. As an adult, those same morals prevented him from getting sucked into discussions about his race, even though fellow NBA players like Dennis Rodman and Magic's good friend Isiah Thomas chimed in, saying Bird was considered great because of the color of his skin.

Towards the end, you will definitely shed some grown man tears when Magic discusses his womanizing days which led to contracting HIV and how he revealed the news to his good friend Bird.

11. Doin' It In The Park

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Year: 2013

Director(s): Kevin Couliau, Robert Garcia

Synopsis: Bobbito and his team visit 180 New York courts to document pick-up hoops in the Mecca of basketball.

Co-directors Kevin Couliau and Bobbito made a first-of-its-kind film documenting pick-up basketball where it started: New York City. They traveled to every borough and talked to numerous NYC blacktop legends such as Pee Wee Kirkland, Fly Williams, and Corey "Homicide" Williams, among others. They even took a trip to Riker's Island, showing that the game of basketball brings people from different backgrounds together. Doin' It in the Park screened over the 2012 summer to the chorus of rave reviews. Doin' It In The Park was made available to the masses back in May.

10. Basketball: A Love Story

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Year: 2018

Director(s): Dan Klores

Synopsis: Peabody winning director Dan Klores finds out why basketball legends like Shaq, Kobe, Bill Russell, and Magic Johnson fell in love with the game.

The 20-hour, 10-part ESPN special features all the greats. Klores and his team interviewed notorious basketball coaches, commissioners, WNBA players, NBA players, and retired NBA and WNBA players. The documentary aims to tell the stories of basketball and how legends of the game have put their heart and soul into the game. It also touches on the college game as and highlights specific topics that dominated basketball fans’ imaginations like  the 2000s Lakers and the turmoil between their two superstars. Critically, some have pointed out that it ignores a lot of the negatives that happened to basketball like The Malice at the Palace. Klores was able to get just about every major basketball personality on camera except Michael Jordan and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich making this series one for the ages.

9. The Fab Five

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Year: 2011

Director(s): Jason Hehir

Synopsis: Five freshmen changed college basketball forever. This is their story.

The Fab Five was a first for basketball. The five-man starting lineup featuring Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson became the first freshman starting five to make it to the NCAA National Championship game. The team brought swag before it ever existed. With bald heads, black socks, and baggy shorts, their impact on the game of basketball can still be seen today.

The Jason Hehir produced film is one of the best documentaries in ESPN's 30 For 30 series and a must-see for anyone who's a fan of basketball, hip-hop, and '90s pop culture. 

8. Untold: Malice at the Palace

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Year: 2021

Director(s): Floyd Russ

Synopsis: The story of one of the biggest brawls in sports history during a game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons on November 19, 2004. 

Everyone was waiting for a deep dive documentary of one of the biggest stories in sports history, the “Malice at the Palace.” Although it’s only one episode of a larger docuseries by Netflix, this documentary gives us never-before-seen footage and untold perspectives of the biggest brawl in sports history. A moment that not only changed basketball but how fans interact with players. With interviews from players involved like Ron Artest, Jeramine O’Neal and even fans that were involved in the fight, no one has ever had more in-depth coverage of the gruesome night. 

7. The Redeem Team

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Year: 2022

Director(s): LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Jon Weinbach

Synopsis: The documentary takes you through the rise of Team USA basketball from an embarrassing loss in the 2004 Olympics to the pinnacle of international basketball with a gold medal in 2008.

If you’re a basketball fan especially a Kobe Bryant fan, The Redeem Team documentary is a must-watch.  Jon Weinbach, the director of The Last Dance,  joined LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to produce a film giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the journey of the United States men’s national basketball return to glory and dominance. The story is told from the perspective of the players including untold anecdotes and nuggets of information. While the story focuses on the overall development of USA basketball, a significant focus in the documentary is the personality and legacy of Kobe Bryant. Through stories told by players like LeBron, Wade, Pau Gasol, Carmelo Anthony, and Carlos Boozer, the documentary portrayed sides of the late great Kobe Bryant that the public didn’t get to see. 

While the documentary is still fresh, it will go down as on the best basketball documentaries over time and the nostalgia will only grow as time passes on. This was a classic. 


6. Through The Fire

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Year: 2005

Director(s): Alistair Christopher, Jonathan Hock

Synopsis: Adidas follows Sebastian Telfair's senior year at Brooklyn's Lincoln High School as he prepares to go straight to the league.

Preps-to-pros athletes were always a big discussion among sports fans throughout the '90s and early 2000s. Through the Fire, which follows the senior year of high school phenom Sebastian Telfair hits that topic head on. The documentary takes an inside look at Telfair as he struggles with the decision to either go to college or jump straight to the L. While his career hasn't turned out to be the big success that everyone was hoping for, Bassy has carved out a nice role in the NBA after eight seasons and counting.

5. Soul In The Hole

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Year: 1997

Director(s): Danielle Gardner

Synopsis: Booger Smith and his team gear up to play in the championship tournament "Soul In The Hole."

During the summer of 1994, then-18-year-old Ed "Booger" Smith and his team "Kenny's Kings" were followed as the prepped for the "Soul in the Hole" tournament. The filmmakers track their game on the concrete and their lives off of it with additional perspective from the players' family and friends.

The film also is also complemented by a stellar soundtrack with features from Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan, Common, Big Pun, and more of '90s hip hop royalty.

4. Benji

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Year: 2012

Director(s): Coodie and Chike

Synopsis: The story of Chicago basketball legend Benji Wilson and how his untimely death still resonates in the Windy City.

Benji is about the life and death of Ben Wilson, a resident of Chicago's South Side. In 1984, his senior year of high school and the year of his murder, he was regarded as the best basketball prospect in the country. And then he was shot to death during an altercation near his school, the Simeon Career Academy. Chike and Coodie's film paints a picture of the rise, untimely death, and legacy that the fallen Simeon player has left on Chi-Town ballers such as Derrick Rose.

3. The Last Dance

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Year: 2020

Director: Jason Hehir

Synopsis: The story of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty as told through the lens of never before seen footage from their final season together in 1998. 

What a ride The Last Dance was. Since the day this documentary was announced in 2018, fans were clamoring for it to drop. The need for the tell-all story about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls became even more rampant with the Coronavirus pandemic, which put all sports on hold and left fans needing their fix. Well, MJ and company gave everyone exactly what they were looking for. The Last Dance is a raw and unfiltered look at one of the greatest teams of all-time.

The pure scope of this documentary is pretty unreal to think about and the access that it showed further proved that Michael Jordan is the best to ever do it. All the stories that we thought we knew were told from the inside and the the truth was even crazier than imagined. With epic co-stars like Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, The Last Dance showed just how tough it was for the Bulls, even though they made it look so easy. This 10-part documentary is a must-watch for any basketball fan, especially if you were too young to remember the Bulls glory days. 

2. Hoop Dreams

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Year: 1994

Director(s): Steve James

Synopsis: Two inner-city basketball players try to overcome the obstacles of the hood in hopes of making it to the NBA.

You don't have to be a fan of basketball to appreciate Hoop Dreams. The powerful documentary says just as much about race, education, and class as it does about basketball. The lives of two black, up-and-coming ballers, William Gates and Arthur Agee is shown as they deal with the common struggles of growing up in lower income neighborhoods of Chicago. 

A running time of 170 minutes may be a little intimidating but Steve James does a great job of making every one of those minutes worth your while. There's a bit of everything from gut-wrenching scenes like Arthur's father, "Bo" Agee Sr., buying crack on the same playground his son is hooping on to joyous clips like Gates finally scoring a high enough ACT score to get accepted to Marquette University. 

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