White Men Can’t Jump begins with a 19-minute sequence that features a version of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” by the Venice Beach Boys, more rat-a-tat “yo momma” jokes than a season’s worth of BET’s ComicView and, of course, some pickup basketball. Director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Tin Cup) wanted to establish that his actors — a ragtag cast that included a burgeoning movie star, a fifth-lead sitcom actor, former NBA players, Division-I washouts, weekend warriors, and Kadeem Hardison in a goofy hat — really had game. So when the film’s stars, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, step to the top of the key for a best-of-five shooting contest, Shelton doesn’t cut away to the basket. No camera tricks, no editing, no ringers. There was just one problem: His actors couldn’t stop chucking up bricks.
“We were looking at our watches like, ‘When are these guys gonna make one?'” says actor Ernest Harden Jr., who looked on during the six-hour shoot. One day on set, Harden uttered what became the film’s mantra: That word action is a motherfucker. “You could be prepared,” Harden says. “And then you hear ‘action’ and everything goes wrong.”
In that opening scene, Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle wins the shooting contest and the accompanying $62 purse. Snipes’s Sidney Deane and Hardison’s Junior would not go to Sizzler that night. Instead, the sequence ends on a close-up of Snipes, a sly grin painted on his face — though he lost a little cash to a goofy white guy, he gained a new running mate.
White Men Can’t Jump is an unconventional sports movie — vulgar, funny, a real shaggy-dog tale. There’s a climactic big game at the end, but there are also unflinching takes on race, relationships, and surviving in America. Twenty years after its release, Grantland spoke to the cast and crew of the funniest basketball movie ever made.
I. “There is a democracy on the playground.”
From college to summer leagues to the playground, Ron Shelton played basketball his entire life. In 1991, he was a regular at an outdoor court in Hollywood. One day, he arrived for a game to find the entrance chained shut.
Ron Shelton (writer, director): I asked someone, “What happened?” This guy goes, “Jesse went to his glove compartment.” I didn’t know that “Going to your glove compartment” meant going to get a gun to settle a dispute. There was an argument about whether something was a block or a charge and he went to his glove compartment and shot a guy dead. I then moved my game indoors to the Hollywood Y.
Cylk Cozart (Robert): Ron and I both played in the Hollywood Y league. Our two teams wound up playing in the championship and I had no idea who he was.
Shelton: There is a democracy on the playground. If you got game, no one cares what you look like. Nobody knows where you are from. It could be successful guys, homeless guys, guys out of jobs, presidents of companies, and on the playground everyone is equal. Not until I announced I was making this movie did the guys I was playing with for years know that I was the guy who made Bull Durham. I was just a guy who had a lot of game for a white guy.
David Lester (producer): The Hollywood YMCA was an old, venerable institution where guys would get together and play at lunchtime. Ron was fascinated by the interpersonal dynamics on the basketball court — how little basketball got played and how much arguing went on between the teams.
Shelton: I didn’t have an outline. I just started writing. I knew the shape of it — a white guy hustles a black guy on the playground. Then, the black guy hustles the white guy. Then, they team up to hustle the bad guys. I wrote the first 37 pages in a day, which is not normal. I had a deal with Fox so I faxed the first 37 pages to Joe Roth, who was the head of Fox [at the time], and I said, “Joe, I don’t know where I’m going with this. What do you think?”
Joe Roth (former chairman of 20th Century Fox): I thought it was a movie. I’ve known Ron a long time and thought he could make a really fun movie out of it.
II. “Keanu almost broke my neck going up for a layup.”
Casting the movie was tricky. Ideally, the actors playing the leads, Sidney Deane and Billy Hoyle, could sell tickets and be convincing ballplayers. Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves were initially discussed for the parts but it didn’t work out — Denzel was committed to Malcolm X and Reeves was about as graceful on the court as Reggie Evans on bath salts.
Victoria Thomas (casting director): We talked about Denzel [Washington], but I don’t think he thought the part was big enough. I don’t think he saw it as enough of a two-hander — a two-hander is if you have a buddy movie, you want the parts to be equal. I think he might have felt like the other character had a little more to do than he did.
Cozart: Denzel told me about it [on the] Ricochet set. He said, “A script came down the pipe called White Men Can’t Jump. But I’m not doing that. I’m playing Malcolm next. It’s perfect for you, though.” He told Ron about me. We had the audition process and all of a sudden, I see my name go up the ladder. There was [Laurence] Fishburne and this guy named Wesley Snipes.
Thomas: We liked Cylk. He kind of was an inspiration for [the role] in a way. [But] we needed a little bit more of a name.1
1. Cozart: The first day of rehearsal, Wesley Snipes took me to lunch in Venice. He said to me, “I know what happened. Realize this, you’re going to have your shot. One day you’re going to be in the position I’m in and you’re going to be playing a character someone else was up for.” It made me feel good. Come press day, he said, “I’m going to bring you in because I’m going to get more press but I want everyone to know who you are. I’m not going to do to you what Denzel did to me.” He didn’t know that Denzel and I are good friends. “We did a movie with Spike and I was supposed to play the lead and then Denzel called Spike, said he wanted to play the lead role and I took a secondary role. Denzel promised to introduce me to the national press on press day, though. Press day came and Denzel didn’t even look at me.” Guess what happened? Press day came and I was sitting off to the side while everyone was with Wesley, Woody, and Rosie. I’m thinking Wesley is going to come get me and introduce me. One by one the press was leaving. I got really angry. Wow, he did to me what he said Denzel did to him. That’s kind of cold.
Shelton: No one knew who Wesley was. He was basically known as the other guy in Mo’ Better Blues, and no one had seen Mo’ Better Blues. Jungle Fever and New Jack City came out after I cast him. We had a basketball court at the casting office, an old abandoned factory in Culver City; you had to start shooting baskets before you could read. Wesley came in talking trash and was in character and had the attitude and the cockiness. I thought, He’s got what it takes. I just got to figure out, Can he play basketball? He didn’t pretend he could play basketball as much as he showed off his athleticism. And he was very coachable.
Thomas: CAA was pushing Keanu Reeves.
Lester: The studio was very enthusiastic about that prospect.
Shelton: He wasn’t athletic enough. We worked with him for days. He worked hard. He was a really nice guy. I think he wouldn’t have been convincing on the court because we had a lot of real basketball players out there.
Cozart: Keanu almost broke my neck going up for a layup. He was so wild. He was throwing the ball hard and throwing elbows. He didn’t know what he was doing. Ron stopped it, like, “OK, I’ve seen enough.” I thought, Wow, what was he doing growing up? He didn’t play ball? Ron also went to Chicago to meet with John Cusack.
Thomas: John Cusack wasn’t really a basketball player. He wanted to do it, but I don’t think athletically John was as … He was into kickboxing at the time.
Woody Harrelson (Billy Hoyle): I had gone six years without being able to get a movie. I was almost in the place in my mind like, Well, Woody Boyd is a terrific role. So it was incredible to get that opportunity. I got lucky to get cast because I think if Keanu had been playing since he was a kid, he would have gotten the part.
Shelton: In those days, you got to test different actors and have them go in together. Now, you kind of have to go in blind. I put Woody and a couple of people he was up against — whose names I won’t mention — each in a room with Wesley, and Wesley blew the other guys off the map. Woody didn’t try to out-Wesley Wesley. He just countered. I was convinced immediately that it was a perfect piece of casting, and it was.
Wesley Snipes (Sidney Deane): [Keanu] would improvise and say something where there would be a natural response from me, and I just left him out there like dirty laundry.2
2. Wesley Snipes is currently serving a three-year prison sentence. Though Grantland attempted to contact him through friends and family for this story, he declined to be interviewed. This quote was originally published in Entertainment Weekly‘s April 10, 1992, issue.
Harrelson: I just remember being so happy to see Wesley and feeling, This could work. I think it helped a lot that we knew each other already. [Wesley and I] really got along good during Wildcats. The guy who shared the trailer with me [on Wildcats] was, I don’t know if you would call him a Five Percenter, or whatever, but I guess he followed Elijah Muhammad. He thought white people were evil. He would back it up with chapter and verse from something he was reading out of. I agree white people have done a lot of evil stuff, but you really don’t have to say that carte blanche we’re all evil. And I tell you, there was some friction from a lot of the other people in that movie, but the one guy who was always cool as shit to me was Wes. He was, at the time, a kind of devout Muslim, which changed by the time he did White Men Can’t Jump. But instead of treating me distantly, he explained to me what that was all about. I remember we would have great philosophical conversations.
Snipes: Most of the cats in [Wildcats] were black. Woody was only supposed to be in the movie early on, but Goldie [Hawn] liked him and he ended up with more and more scenes. We thought it was white favoritism. One of the football players, a Muslim from the Nation in Chicago, would whip on Woody every day. Woody couldn’t take it and came to me, “Look, man, what is all this black shit? Why’s he saying I’m the Devil? Do you think I’m the Devil?” We ended up with a friendship from that.3
3. This quote originally appeared in Movieline, August 1998.
Harrelson: A lot of phenomenal actresses came in to audition, like Rachel Griffiths, um, shit, I can’t think of her name, she was in, um, she was in that Jim Brooks movie, the one about the, uh, newscaster — Holly Hunter. [Editor’s note: Broadcast News.] We would try some stuff and improvise and really put the actress through the paces. I remember Ron kept putting Holly Hunter through these things. I pulled him aside and said, “Dude, it’s Holly Hunter, you got to use her.”
Lester: Gloria was supposed to be a Smithy, a Southern sisters college kind of bad girl. She was a wealthy girl running with the bad boy.
Shelton: It was written for an Anglo woman and not a Puerto Rican woman. Some very big names were finalists, but Rosie had a quality that was unique, to put it mildly.
Rosie Perez (Gloria Clemente): When I went in for the audition, there were three other girls there and they were all A-list actresses, and they looked at me and smiled. I knew one of these actresses, and she goes, “Hi, are you reading for Wesley Snipes’s wife?” I go, “No, I’m reading for Billy’s girlfriend.” The whole room went quiet and [everyone] just stared at me. I went into the bathroom and had this panic attack. I thought about it, and now I was full-blown pissed off. And then confidence just came over me. I came back out, sat there, and the girl started talking to me and I just turn to her and go, “Can you not speak right now because I just need to concentrate.” She goes, “Oh, well.” I go, “I don’t mean to be rude. I just want this part.” They called me in. Then I got a callback and then I met with Woody. I remember when Woody walked in the room, I was just like, “Oh my God, he’s so sexy in person.” That’s all I was thinking. I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I was just looking at him like “Oh my God.” There was instant chemistry between us.
Shelton: Studios in those days were much more adventurous and much less conservative. I could say, “I want Wesley, Woody, and Rosie Perez,” and Joe Roth would say, “I love that idea.” As opposed to, “Get me a bigger name.” He sensed that it worked.
Tyra Ferrell (Rhonda Deane): I know Halle [Berry] was up for [Rhonda], Angela [Bassett], everybody who was anybody at the time was up for it. I would see them go in and out of the room. I was a little insecure at the time, thinking, Will I be pretty enough? That was always the question with me as such a serious, heady actress.
Thomas: Some other people came in and read. I don’t remember either one of those names.
Ferrell: I got a callback and one of the things I said to [Shelton] before I left was, “Listen, you may not choose me for this role, but I’m going to ask you to do my people a favor. So many times in making movies, you never see black men loving black women onscreen together. You always see dark-skinned men and their love interests are light-skinned black women. I need little black girls with full lips and button noses and fuzzy hair onscreen loving on their ethnic-looking men. For so long, we’ve seen white black girls loving on our men, but I don’t see myself doing it. If you don’t choose me, take that into consideration, because that is what we want to see.” I said that and left the room.
Shelton: Is that what she said? She may have said it. I don’t recall. I try to cast the best people for the role.
III. “He went from a ballerina to someone who could shoot a jump shot.”
Tryouts were held for the remainder of the basketball-playing roles, and once finalized, the cast assembled for camp at Rancho Cienega Park next to Dorsey High School in South Central, Los Angeles. The biggest challenge: teaching Wesley Snipes how to play.
Rob Ryder (basketball consultant): We ran practices for several weeks before shooting. Everyone got to know each other and we learned strengths, limitations, and how to work around it.
John Marshall Jones (Walter): We were there from 9 a.m. to noon, five days a week practicing like we were on a team that had a game coming up. You had all these former D-I athletes and people who wished they were D-I athletes.4
4. These players included five-time NBA All-Star Marques Johnson; Kevin Benton, who played at Cal State Northridge; Nigel Miguel, who was drafted in the third round by the New Jersey Nets in 1985; Cozart, who played in the NBA Summer Pro League; Duane Martin, who played one season in the NBA; and Freeman Williams, who played eight seasons in the NBA.
Marques Johnson (Raymond): The whole purpose was to get in shape and work together. The first time I played against Woody he called a bogus foul and I was like, “That’s a bullshit call.” Woody got all up in my face and talked about how I was impugning his integrity and all that.
Ryder: We ran drills, scrimmages, and started breaking it down as we got closer to production.
Johnson: We were doing these three-man weave drills, and Dick Baker, who was the old coach at Loyola and was running the camp along with Rob Ryder, declared that every time we messed up, we had to do it again. Wesley could never quite get it down. Whenever he got to the front of the line, I reached down and tied my shoe and got to the back of the line. Wesley Snipes was a great athlete but not a great basketball player.
Ernest Harden Jr. (George): Wesley Snipes wasn’t really a ballplayer, but he was a great athlete.
Shelton: Wesley wasn’t a very good basketball player. He was a wonderful athlete.
Ryder: Wesley Snipes is a brilliant athlete and a great actor, but he wasn’t a basketball player, so we had to work pretty hard to get him up to speed. The best thing we did was we got him releasing the ball on his shot with some pretty nice backspin. He worked at it really hard and developed the spin dribbles and behind-the-back stuff. We stayed within his limitations and I think we fooled a lot of people.
Shelton: We showed him these Tiny Archibald tapes for dribbling. He had to be able to dribble between his legs, do reverse layups. He worked very hard.
Kevin Benton (Zeke): Wes, for someone who couldn’t play at all, came a long way. By the end, you weren’t going to put him on your starting five, but he went from a ballerina to someone who could maybe make a layup or shoot a jump shot.
Kadeem Hardison (Junior): I was impressed with how much Wes had grown as a ballplayer. By the end of the day, he could take anybody on one-on-one. He wasn’t scared. He was like, “I’m calling teams for this three-on-three.” He didn’t shrink from it and got a lot better as a ballplayer. But we called him for a lot of walks and carries. It was like, “No, no, you can’t do that.”
Jones: Woody was the more skilled basketball player, even though Wesley was more athletic.
Harrelson: His shot wasn’t as good as mine, but I’d say in every other way he was better.
Snipes: Every time [Woody and I] played one-on-one, I won. But he can whip me at surfing.5
IV. “Everyone was betting on everything.”
5. This quote was originally published in Playboy, October 1993.
Wesley Snipes had a warning for Marques Johnson. “There is NBA basketball and then there is movie basketball,” Snipes told the five-time NBA All-Star. “You haven’t played movie ball.” In his scene, Johnson was to catch a lob and dunk it. He then did it again and again and again.
Johnson: I maybe had to do that 25 times. We had to do it from different angles. Catching that lob and dunking over and over on that hard concrete, and it was hot that day, so for me, I was tired. Later that night, I was sore and beat up and could barely move.
Russell Boyd (cinematographer): We shot most of the scenes high speed and normal speed. High speed being 100 frames per second, which is pretty slow, actually. It slows down the action part a lot. We also shot at the normal speed, which is 24 frames per second. A lot of it was mixed, but we also had a Steadicam.
Lester: It was a Steadicam unit in the middle of a two-on-two game. The blocking not only was about where you were supposed to go to get a pass and then move to the basket, but how you had to do that and avoid crashing into the camera. We put a fridge on a four-wheel dolly and had the cameraman push that fridge around in the middle of the basketball game. A guy had to brush up against that fridge once before he was real conscious of where the camera was going to be.
Ryder: There was a playbook, but there was a certain amount of freelancing going on.
Shelton: The playbook was just basic pick-and-rolls and backdoors, basic fundamental basketball, but they had to learn it from the left side of the court and the right side of the court so that at any time I could say, “Run play 16 from the left side.” Then after I had all that footage so I knew I had precise moments, I would let them play freelance for three magazines of film so I would have fumbles and things that wouldn’t have looked natural if you staged it. I could then cut that into the staged stuff.
The actors freelanced with the script as well. Improvisation was encouraged in rehearsals and some off-the-cuff dialogue made it into the film — as long as it didn’t have anything to do with STDs.
Harrelson: There was a lot of improv in the film. There was kind of a green light on every scene. Ron was great at overseeing that. One time when we were all out on the court, there was an insult thing and we were all yelling at each other. Ron gets out of his director’s chair, comes over and says, “You finally said a word from the script. Finally. You said ‘Motherfucker.'”
Shelton: I had a page of momma jokes in the script and told them to come back with momma jokes. They came out with computer printouts.
Hardison: I called back to New York and told everyone to send me all of their “Yo momma” jokes. I made a rhyme book for momma jokes. I called Biz Markie. I called everybody. Ron didn’t let me keep my favorite one, which I had gotten from Biz Markie. I tried. I did it again and again. It was, “Your momma so nasty, she keeps ice in her panties to keep her crabs fresh.”
Shelton: We shot ’em, but most of them would have given me an NC-17 rating.
Harden: When that movie came out, the whole country was talking about, “Your momma this. Your momma that.” We made it into a fashionable thing. Me and Kadeem, we started that.
Ferrell: They’re like, “Your momma’s so black … ” or “Your lips are so big … ” I am cringing. I go over to the guys, “What’s wrong with being so black?” I looked at one of the brothers who was really dark-skinned. “What’s so wrong with being dark? I’m dark. What’s wrong with big lips? White women are plumping up their lips to be big. Big lips are sexy.” I said, “If you guys can really act, why don’t you come up with ways to do it without dogging your race?” Tears were in my eyes at the screening because I didn’t hear the N-word once and didn’t hear how ugly being black was or how ugly full lips were. I only heard the N-word once. It’s when Wesley is in the car with Woody, and it worked in that scene.
While making a film about a bunch of degenerate gambling basketball hustlers, the actors on the set behaved like a bunch of degenerate gambling basketball hustlers. Woody Harrelson was the ringleader.
Harrelson: We were constantly betting each other. We were rolling dice against the curb. We’d also bet on shots, too, like 3-point shooting.
Eloy Casados (Tony Stucci): I stopped taking my wallet to the set. Woody was so good at conning you and tempting you. He’d place himself someplace and say, “Twenty bucks I make this shot.”
Cozart: Woody would bet on foul shots, hook shots, everything. It was like, top of the key, $100 on this shot. He would keep betting until he won something. I said, “I’m going to take all your Cheers money.” I probably made $5,000 off of Woody.
Frank Rossi (Frank Stucci): I think Cylk’s money was double [that]. One day we went to Spago’s and had the best dinner we ever had, thanks to Woody.
Shelton: A lot of it was completely corrupt. Everyone was betting on everything. The place had gotten a little dirty, and I was part of it. The scene at the used-car lot where they stop in the night and Woody says he could dunk? Woody actually bet Wesley that he could dunk it. Wesley kept going off to his trailer and we kept lowering the basket. By the time the bet got high enough, Woody slammed it. Wesley didn’t realize that we lowered the basket a foot.
Harrelson: It was a 9-½-foot rim and I just couldn’t quite get it and it was killing me. It was actually my first introduction to yoga. Wes went to his trailer after we’d been doing this and I’d been losing money to him. I was just so frustrated. The sound girl goes to me, “Woody, why don’t you stretch a little bit? Well, your legs are a little tight, maybe if you stretch, it might help you.” I stretch for a few minutes, grabbed a ball, went out and slammed it.
Cozart: They lowered it a few inches when Woody was in his trailer. He dunked it easily when he came out of the trailer. Stretching doesn’t give you another four, five inches in hops.
Harrelson: I was pretty psyched because I knew I could do that. I did it again just by stretching a little bit.
Shelton: Of course Woody would say that.
Harrelson: A few minutes later, Wes comes out of the trailer and we started again with the betting and of course, I can’t slam it and I get frustrated and say, “I’ll bet you $1,000.” And of course he did bet me, knowing I couldn’t do it, and I just slammed it. The look on his face was one of the most priceless things.
Snipes: [He] put enough stickum on his palm that [he] could walk up the Empire State Building like Spider-Man.6
6. Originally published in Entertainment Weekly‘s April 10, 1992, issue.
Shelton: I got in a shooting contest with a studio executive because we were a half-day behind and he was giving me some grief. I was like, “Let’s shoot for 15 grand. If I beat you best out of five, you give us the 15 grand and we’re back on schedule. If you beat me, I’ll shorten a half a day someplace to catch up.” I hit the last shot for the win.
Harrelson: We were always playing games in between shooting. I can remember the first AD having to grab us and say, “Hey, we got to shoot. Stop playing.”
Harden: One day Woody brought the cast of Cheers and we played a half-court game with them. Ted Danson was there and the heavy one, the fat one — George [Wendt] — and another guy. They were playing me, Woody, and someone else. George Wendt hit a jumper on me. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute, let me get to work on this guy.” But they stopped the game so we could go film. I never got the chance to redeem myself. He hit a long jumper on me. That’s unbelievable — he couldn’t even get off the ground.
Woody Harrelson and Rosie Perez’s characters have a memorably steamy sex scene that begins in a convertible and then spills into a shower before they both wind up on a motel room floor. Perez was leery about it.
Perez: My first [nude] scene was my first movie, and that did not go well. With Do the Right Thing, I felt a bit exploited, so I was really concerned if that was going to happen again.
Shelton: I just turned them loose. It was all scripted and rehearsed. I think it feels real because from beginning to end, we don’t stop.
Perez: I spoke to Ron about it and he said, “You will not do anything that you are uncomfortable with. As you know, as we discussed before you signed the contract, there is going to be nudity.” We choreographed the scene and then he goes, “Let us know when you’re ready.” I stayed in that bathroom forever. I just couldn’t come out. Woody knocked on the door and was like, “Are you OK?” I said, “Yeah, I just need a second.” He said, “Well, you know, you’ve been in there for 30 minutes.” I was like, “I’m going to feel weird because you’re going to see my body.” He said, “I have the utmost respect for you and love working with you and there is nothing but respect for you from the whole cast and crew and we’re going to take it slow.” I open the door and I’m standing there half-naked and he goes, “Oh my God, look at your tits. They’re beautiful.” I slammed the door. I started cracking up. I go, “You’re such a pig, Woody.” He goes, “I’m sorry, they’re huge and you’re so tiny.” I go, “Oh my God, let’s just fucking do this.” It was great. He took the edge off because he was so goddamn silly and he made it fun. I give all the credit to Woody and the director for that. The chemistry between us was there already.
Harrelson: You hear a lot of actors say that it’s really not fun and difficult and there is all the crew around.
Shelton: We filmed it with Steadicam or a little handheld and they got a little frisky.
Harrelson: I remember it being fun. It was really fun.
Perez had more nerves while shooting the Jeopardy! scene: Her outfit was frightful and Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek left her starstruck.
Perez: There were two issues with that scene: One, I did not want to wear that dress. Ron was like, “What’s wrong with the dress?” I said, “It looks like a hoochie-mama dress.” He goes, “A what?” “A hoochie-mama dress.” “What the hell does that mean?” “A ho dress.” “You’re wearing the dress.” He was a really cool director. He added that to the movie in the scene when Woody brings me the dress. He told me to add it in somewhere. When I put on the dress, I was like, “I hate this dress.” Once I got over that, I was having fun and I was really into it. I got so nervous because it was Alex Trebek. I was acting like I was really on that show. Because I was so nervous as a contestant, not as an actress, I mispronounced Mount Vesuvius. I worked really hard and I got those lines like crazy. I did not want to refer to the script at all. I was so caught up in the moment that I said “Mount Suvius.” Everyone paused and was looking around and then Alex Trebek goes, “I believe it’s Mount Vesuvius, let me check with the judges.” He went off the script and started ad-libbing the scene and he said, “The judges said it’s OK.” When they yelled cut, everyone died laughing. I said, “Let’s do it again.” Ron goes, “Oh no, that’s a print. That’s in the can.”
Shelton: Those were the real judges. I did a quick shot of them conversing and they accepted it. Even though in real life, they wouldn’t have.
We used the real Jeopardy! crew, stage, set. It was actually on the television set of Jeopardy! I just gave the questions to the staff and said, if it’s inappropriate, change them. I wrote a few that were inappropriate.
V. “Besides Hoosiers, it’s the best basketball movie ever made.”
Ron Shelton dislikes screening his movies, but the response to early cuts of White Men Can’t Jump was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.
Lester: When we showed our rough cut to the studio executives, they didn’t have anything to say other than, “Finish it up,” which is very rare. I remember the marketing people really wanted attitude in all the advertising for it.
Tom Sherak (former executive vice-president of Twentieth Century Fox): It was easy to market because we knew how it played and the audience it played to — young males, both African American and white. We were a little worried about the title: White Men Can’t Jump. It was a phrase that was in the lexicon7 before Ron put it in the movie. It concerned us for a while, but we believed that the title fit the movie and weren’t afraid to use it.
7. Johnson: “They called it White Man’s Disease back when I played. If there was a black guy who didn’t have a lot of athleticism, we called it White Man’s Disease. Even the white guys would joke about it.”
Roth: I think the title was controversial and fun. If you didn’t get the title, you probably weren’t interested. If you got the title, you thought, It’s hip and appealing to me.
Sherak: We were also like, “Would everybody understand Rosie Perez?” It was a concern at one point.
Perez: They had concerns about my accent. They had concerns about my nationality. They had concerns about my hair. They had concerns up the yin yang with me. It was constant and I paid it absolutely no mind. I had to deliver a certain performance because if you let that into your head, it gets into your soul, your body, and your spirit. When I was younger, I struggled with a speech impediment. If I had let all the ridicule I got in elementary school affect me past elementary [school], I wouldn’t be as fabulous a person as I am today. I learned that lesson early on. I really got upset over what I heard Ron Shelton say in a documentary about my accent, that I can’t speak any other way. That was really hurtful to my career. I have done other roles where my accent was lessened or not at all.
Roth: The first time we previewed the movie was in Pasadena or Burbank, and it was a racially mixed [audience]. You could feel the tension in the room for the first half an hour, people not quite knowing where the thing was going. [The film projector] broke about an hour in. It took a good 30 minutes to get it back together. [They were] wary going in and then the film broke. Some people went outside, but they all came back. That’s how I knew we had a hit.
Shelton: They put it on 2,000 screens — today it would be on 4,000 screens. We beat Basic Instinct, which was unbelievable. We did $75 million, which today is about $150 million. For as little as it cost, that was very successful. There was talk about a sequel and I was interested, but Joe Roth left for Disney, new people came in, and it kind of fell apart. Those were characters I could have kept revisiting.8
8. Cylk Cozart says the plan was for the characters to find their way to Europe.
In 1997, Shelton sued the studio for withheld net profits. A jury ruled in his favor, awarding him $9.8 million and setting a new precedent in studio accounting cases.
Shelton: I didn’t want to sue. It’s a very miserable, painful, lonely, expensive thing to sue. I was forced to sue by them. The management team that was in place when I made the movie was not there anymore. I felt that I was the only participant in the movie — I was the writer, director, and producer — and it was a very successful movie. I never thought it would end up in court, but it did end up in court. Other than that, I don’t like to say much about it. The jury decided I was right. Hopefully I never get involved in one of those again. In the court, their own accounting showed that their revenues were over $100 million and the movie cost, whatever, $16 million. It’s impossible.
The basketball, the trash-talking, and the humor were the big draws, but White Men Can’t Jump also captured a moment in time. With the country in the throes of a post–Gulf War recession, there were plenty of Sidney Deanes out there: blue-collar strivers eking out a living even though their day jobs — doing “the cable thing, the roof thing, and the paint thing” — were drying up.
Hardison: Basketball would buy formula for babies.
Johnson: A lot of it is reality. You see these guys who, basketball was gonna be their way out. It’s like that character Raymond — these guys had this loose screw where they were never able to assimilate and accept the current status of their condition in life. For me, it was a hard-hitting reality that a lot of the guys trying to hustle and get by were doing it not because they liked the lifestyle but [because] it was the path of least resistance.
Kenny “Bad Santa” Brunner (Los Angeles street ball legend): White Men Can’t Jump brought people together because race was a bit of an issue. At the time, there was high tension. It broke down a bit of the barriers. If you could get along on the court, then you can get along off the court, too.
Lester: For the ’92 riots to happen shortly after the picture came out was a heartbreaker. It was such a shock for me because, as far as I was concerned, upon the completion of shooting that movie and editing it, race relations couldn’t be better. That shows you how much I know.
White Men Can’t Jump was the apex of an incredible run for Wesley Snipes. He’d done comedy (Major League) and drama (Mo’ Better Blues, King of New York). He was a romantic lead (Jungle Fever). He was iconic heavy (New Jack City). Then he decided to be an action hero. After a string of bombs and a nasty lawsuit, Snipes became a Hollywood émigré and a fixture in low-budget direct-to-DVD thrillers typically filmed and financed in some Eastern European nation. The career slump was the least of his problems. On February 1, 2008, Snipes was convicted on three counts of failing to file federal income tax returns. He reported to federal prison on December 9, 2010. He’s scheduled for release on July 19, 2013.
Thomas: Wesley was great. I first heard about him in 1983, a friend of mine, an agent at William Morris, represented him. He was like, “You have to check this guy out.” I think he really has the acting chops. He’s a really good actor that hasn’t really even shown everything he can do. The action movies were his thing and he liked them, but he was a more universal actor than that.
Cozart: When Wesley first got in financial trouble, I saw him at this Jamie Foxx party. I see a guy in a corner in a hat and trench coat. I get closer and go, “That’s Wesley.” He looked horrible. He looked like 120 pounds. Wesley is usually built like an Adonis. I look in his eyes and go, “Wes, what’s going on? I’ve been hearing things.” “I’m OK. I’m OK.” Two days later, I read that he’s losing his house in Florida. I call him up and go, “I don’t have the kind of money that Woody has to help you, but Woody can help you.” Wesley is like, “I’m all right. Don’t worry about it.” That was his way of saying “I do need help.” I call Woody and tell him about Wes and Woody started crying. He was like, “Let’s give him a call.” And Wesley never called Woody back because of pride. I saw him years later when he was getting ready to go [to jail] for the tax thing. He realized he messed up. I talked to him the night he did the Larry King show. He said, “Pray for me, brother.” I think he’s one of the greatest actors we had. I hope he comes back.
During that scene in [Sidney’s] apartment, we were sitting on the couch. Wesley leaned over and said to me, “Ain’t nothing better than what we’re doing right now. Today, right now, this is the best time in my life.” He almost had tears in his eyes. I never told anyone that, but I think it’s important to know where his head was at at the time.
In addition to cementing Snipes as a bankable leading man and launching Harrelson and Perez’s movie careers, White Men Can’t Jump spotlighted a budding street ball scene — the AND1 apparel company9 is an indirect descendant of the film. It also impacted pop culture: LA Gear spoofed the film in a commercial starring Joe Montana, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Karl Malone; a White Men Can’t Jump video game was released for the Atari Jaguar in 1995; “Foods That Start With the Letter ‘Q'” was a category on a October 1997 episode of Jeopardy!; and in 2009, Nike released a pair of sneakers in their Hyperize line inspired by the film — “I’m in the F*#@!ng Zone” is inscribed on the tongues of the Billy Hoyle version. Most recently, on the eve of the film’s 20th anniversary, Houston Rockets forward Chase Budinger paid homage to Billy Hoyle at NBA All-Star Weekend.
9. In an e-mail to Grantland, AND1 co-founder Seth Berger denied that the film was an inspiration. “Not influenced by the film,” Berger wrote.
Chase Budinger (Minnesota Timberwolves): We tried to get Woody Harrelson to come down and for him to be the person I jumped over, but we couldn’t make it happen because he had a charity event that day. So the NBA got P. Diddy because they knew that he was going to be at the game and that he loved to get involved in these type of things. It was pretty lucky on my part that he wanted to be involved, and we executed it very well. It was a great movie, and anytime I see it on TV I have to stop and watch it.
Harrelson: [The movie] was the worst thing that ever happened to my basketball playing because I used to think I was pretty good, pretty confident, and a pretty strong player. And after that, it’s always been too much expectation.
Brunner: People knew about street ball because you played it and you were there and people would talk about it in the barbershop. But White Men Can’t Jump brought awareness to it. They put street ball in a movie.
Shelton: This movie did very well in a number of countries, and I am told that suddenly everyone started dressing like this with the baggy, goofy look. It had a fashion impact, believe it or not.
Roth: That movie wouldn’t get made today. Us moviemaking guys, the studios, have less courage to make a movie like that today with the kind of racial, sexual overtones.
Miguel: I was walking down the street in Paris, France, and this kid came up to me and said, “Hey, Flight, I’m gonna take you to Flight School.” I knew the movie was popular, but it was still shocking when stuff like that happened.
Hardison: I catch it every now and then and watch it. It holds up well — the jokes, the drama. That’s a good sign you got it right.
Harden: Every ballplayer — pro, high school, everybody — they just loved it. I think that besides Hoosiers, it’s the best basketball movie ever made.
Johnson: I remember speaking at the Wooden Awards. It was full of high school, college players and I [talked about] my career and was like, “You guys don’t remember a whole lot about that, but how many saw White Men Can’t Jump?” Some arms went up. “You remember the guy who robbed the liquor store?” And they were like, “Ohhh, that’s right.” I’m a five-time NBA All-Star, Wooden Award winner, national champ, All-American, blah, blah, blah, but I’ll ask, “How many have seen White Men Can’t Jump?” and people’s eyes will light up.
Thomas Golianopoulos (@golianopoulos) is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to the New York Times, Wired, the New York Observer, and Spin.