The film opens with an alcoholic abusive clown, Norm Snively, and his Golden Retriever Old Blue, doing a show at a child's birthday party. Due to Old Blue causing trouble at the birthday party and tossed out of the house with Snively, the latter angrily takes him in a kennel to a dog pound, until the kennel falls out of his truck. Old Blue is homeless until he meets 12-year-old Josh Framm. After the death of his father, a pilot who died in a plane crash during a test flight, Josh relocates with his mom Jackie and 2-year-old sister Andrea from Virginia to Fernfield, Washington. Due to heartbreak over his father's death, he is too shy to try out for his middle school's basketball team and to make any friends. He instead becomes the basketball team's manager, an awkward offer by Coach Barker which he accepts. He practices basketball by himself in a makeshift court that he sets up in an abandoned allotment, where he first meets Old Blue and renames him Buddy. Josh soon discovers that Buddy has the uncanny ability to play basketball, and decides to let Buddy come home with him.
Jackie agrees to let him keep Buddy until Christmas and she plans to send him to the pound if his rightful owner is not located; however, she sees how much Josh loves Buddy and how loyal he is. When Josh wakes up on Christmas and does not find Buddy in his room, he goes downstairs and finds him with a bow secured on his head. She gives Buddy to Josh as a present.
Following Christmas, Josh finds a tryout invitation in his locker, although he does not know how it got there. Puzzled on what to do, he further discovers Buddy's talent when he discovers that he can actually shoot a hoop. These facts together prompt Josh to follow through and try out and he gets a place on the team. At his first game, he befriends teammate Tom Stewart but earns the disdain of star player and team bully Larry Willingham. Meanwhile, Buddy leaves the backyard, goes to the school and shows up while the game is underway. He runs into the court, disrupts the game, and causes mayhem, but the audience loves him after he scores a basket.
After the game and once Buddy is caught by Josh, the former sees Coach Barker abusing Tom by violently pelting him with basketballs in an attempt to make him catch better. He leads Josh, Jackie, and the school principal Ms. Pepper to the scene. As a result, Coach Barker is fired and replaced by the school's kind-hearted engineer, Arthur Chaney, at Josh's suggestion. Buddy becomes the mascot of Josh's school's basketball team and begins appearing in their halftime shows. After the Timberwolves lose one game, the team has subsequent success and qualifies for the State Final.
Just before the championship game, Snively appears after seeing Buddy on television. Hoping to profit off Buddy's newfound fame, he forces Jackie to hand over Buddy as he has papers proving that he is Buddy's legal owner. Knowing they do not have a choice, Jackie forces Josh to do the right thing and give Buddy back to Snively. After a period of feeling withdrawn and depressed, Josh then decides to rescue Buddy. He sneaks into Snively's backyard, which is muddy and where he finds Buddy chained up. Snively, who is on the phone scheduling performances, initially does not notice Josh in the yard due to a stack of empty beer cans on his windowsill until it falls and Josh is caught in the act. Josh gets the chain from Buddy and they escape. Snively gets into his dilapidated clown truck and pursues Josh and Buddy through a park where Snively scatters a small swing set, a couple's picnic, the sign of Fernfield, and hits a parked car. The pursuit rages on to a parking lot near a lake, during which Snively's truck falls apart and crashes into the water, with the latter surviving and swearing vengeance. A few minutes after the pursuit, Josh then decides to set Buddy free in the forest to find a new home. Initially, his team is losing at the next championship to the opposing team until Buddy shows up. When it is discovered that there is no rule that a dog could not play basketball, Buddy joins the roster to lead the team to a come from behind championship victory.
Snively reappears and attempts to sue the Framm family for custody of Buddy despite lack of ownership papers. Upon seeing Buddy, Judge Cranfield is disgusted and initially reluctant on a case over a dog but agrees only under a strict condition that the case be executed seriously. After numerous protests, Chaney arrives and suggests that Buddy chooses his owner. As a fan of Chaney himself, Judge Cranfield accepts his proposal and moves the court outside to the lawn. The rule is for both parties to call Buddy while staying put on their spots, and one single step towards the dog would result in a loss. During the calling, Snively takes his roll of newspaper, which he often used as a punishment to hit Buddy, and yells at him. Buddy angrily rushes at Snively, bites him, rips up the newspaper, and runs towards Josh. Judge Cranfield grants legal custody of Buddy to Josh's family while an angry Snively rushes toward Buddy and Josh in a last ditched effort to try to get Buddy to himself, but is led away by the police after the judge orders that Snively should be arrested for animal cruelty, while Josh and the rest of the citizens rejoice and gather around Buddy to welcome him home.Air Buddy as Old Blue/Buddy
Kevin Zegers as Joshua "Josh" Framm
Wendy Makkena as Jacqueline "Jackie" Framm
Bill Cobbs as Coach Arthur Chaney
Michael Jeter as Norman F. "Norm" Snively
Eric Christmas as Judge Cranfield
Nicola Cavendish as Ms. Pepper
Brendan Fletcher as Lawrence "Larry" Willingham
Norman Browning as Buck Willingham
Stephen E. Miller as Coach Joseph "Joe" Barker
Shayn Solberg as Thomas "Tom" Stewart
Jessibelle Mather and Kati Mather as Andrea Framm
Much of the on-set dog motivation (not training) were performed by Justin Sherbert (formally Justin Sherman) of Free Willy fame. The animals were pet and treated with respect by Sherbert who noted, "motivating these dogs is significantly easier than teaching a whale to flip." Sherbert remains the canine motivator at large for the Air Bud franchise.
Air Bud was released to VHS on December 23, 1997, and to DVD on February 3, 1998 (with an open matte aspect ratio). It was released again on March 3, 2009, in a special edition DVD set, featuring commentary from B-Dawg, Budderball, Rosebud, Buddha, Mudbud, Molly, and Buddy himself and presents the film in its Original Theatrical Aspect Ratio.
The film received mixed reviews. It holds a Rotten Tomatoes score of 43% based on 21 reviews.
The film generated one theater-released sequel and many direct-to-video sequels and a spin-off film series. In each film, Buddy learns to play a different sport while the spin off's focuses on the offspring of Buddy, the Buddies