Washington portrays Jake Shuttlesworth, father of the top-ranked basketball prospect in the country, Jesus Shuttlesworth, played by NBA star Ray Allen. Jake, in prison for killing his wife, is released on parole for a week by the state's governor to persuade his son to play for the governor's alma mater, in exchange for a much reduced prison sentence.
Jesus Shuttlesworth, the top basketball player in the United States, is being pursued by the top college basketball programs in the nation. His father, Jake, is a convicted felon serving time at Attica Correctional Facility for accidentally killing his wife, Martha, (Jesus' mother) six years earlier. Jake was pushing her and knocking her down hard on the ground, while arguing with a then-12-year-old Jesus (in flashbacks). The father is temporarily released by the governor, an influential alumnus of "Big State," one of the colleges Jesus is considering, so that he might persuade his son to sign with the governor's college. If successful, he'll get an early release from prison.
While seemingly a sound plan, it turns haywire due to the strained relationship between Jesus and his father. Upon his first moments outside of prison, Jake contacts his daughter, Mary Shuttlesworth (Zelda Harris), who is happy to see him. Mary invites her father to the apartment where she and Jesus now live, having moved out of their Uncle Bubba's place. When Jesus returns home from school, he is unhappy to see his father. Refusing to look him in the eye, he tells his sister to get rid of the "stranger" in their living room. Jesus later agrees to meet with his father at an alternative location away from Mary. Throughout the movie, Jake tries to persuade Jesus to attend "Big State" with seemingly no success. Eventually, he divulges the deal set up by the governor. However, Jesus appears unsympathetic to his father's situation.
Intertwined with the story of the Shuttlesworth family is the sub-plot of Dakota Barns (Milla Jovovich), a prostitute who stays in the room next to Jake in the run-down hotel, which the warden has booked for him. Dakota is being abused by her procurer and companion, Sweetness. Jake overhears the violence through the thin walls. Throughout the film, Jake is seen helping clean Dakota's wounds, and Jake gives Dakota some of his money to be used for his expenses during his week out of prison. He also develops a romantic relationship with her. Dakota is seen in one of the final scenes of the movie taking a Greyhound bus away from New York City.
Jesus is tempted with offers of cash and women on recruiting visits to big time basketball programs. He also considers declaring the NBA in order to play professionally sooner and immediately lift himself and his sister out of poverty. Ultimately, Jesus decides to sign to play for "Big State." However, the governor reneges on his promise to release Jake early from his sentence. Jake ultimately finds freedom by casting away his dreams and burdens to his son, Jesus, symbolized by the throwing of his old basketball over the prison wall and magically onto the Big State court where Jesus is practicing alone. Jesus clutches the ball, knowing it is a message of hope from his father.Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth
Ray Allen as Jesus Shuttlesworth
Jade Yorker as Jesus Shuttlesworth (age 12 years)
Milla Jovovich as Dakota Barns
John Turturro as Coach Billy Sunday
Rosario Dawson as Lala Bonilla
Jim Brown as Spivey
Joseph Lyle Taylor as Crudup
Hill Harper as Coleman "Booger" Sykes
Shortee Reed as Coleman "Booger" Sykes (age 12)
Zelda Harris as Mary Shuttlesworth
Quinn Harris as Mary Shuttlesworth (age 6)
Ned Beatty as Warden Wyatt
Bill Nunn as Uncle Bubba
Thomas Jefferson Byrd as Sweetness
Roger Guenveur Smith as Big Time Willie
Lonette McKee as Martha Shuttlesworth
Travis Best as Sip
Walter McCarty as Mance
Kim Director as Lynn
John Wallace as Lonnie
Rick Fox as Chick Deagan
Leonard Roberts as D'Andre Mackey
Jennifer Esposito as Ms. Janus
Chasey Lain as Buffy (listed as Tiffany Jones)
Jill Kelly as Suzie
Al Palagonia as Dom Pagnotti
Filming took place between July and September 1997. Locations included Coney Island, Brooklyn, Cabrini–Green housing projects in Chicago, Illinois, Elon University, North Carolina, and Los Angeles, California.
For the role of Jesus, Lee had drawn up a list of every NBA player who could pass for a high school senior. Kobe Bryant was the original choice to portray Jesus Shuttlesworth, but after shooting several air balls that resulted in a brutal playoff loss to the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA Playoffs, he planned an extensive workout plan that would help maintain his strength throughout the duration of the longer NBA seasons. Lee found Tracy McGrady too reserved and was not impressed by Allen Iverson's performance. Management for Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury wanted a guarantee that one or the other would be offered the part. Travis Best, Walter McCarty, and Rick Fox also auditioned, and Lee cast them in supporting roles. Lee approached Allen during halftime of a Bucks-Knicks game, ultimately offering him the role of Jesus. Allen had never acted before, and he trained with an acting coach for eight weeks prior to filming.
NBA players Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller, Bill Walton, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley, Syracuse University coach Jim Boeheim, NBA coaches Rick Pitino and George Karl and broadcaster Dick Vitale made cameo appearances at one point early in the film. Former football legend Jim Brown also appears as one of Jake's parole officers, assigned to keep tabs on him while he's away from the prison.
He Got Game was produced on an estimated $25 million budget. In the opening weekend of its release, it was shown on 1,319 screens, and took in $7,610,663 at the U.S. box offices debuting at #1. It eventually grossed a total of $21,554,585.00, which was a box office flop considering it fell short of its $25 million budget.
Response to the film was largely favorable, with review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes showing it receiving 80% favorable reviews, praising Lee's artfulness, commentary, and honest connection to human characters. Negative reviews focused their criticism on the film's length and Lee's overindulgence, with Time Out London writing, "Most scenes play too long, with a surplus of ideas, textures, tones and characters, and after 134 minutes it's clear Lee's problem with closure hasn't gone away." Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half-stars, and called it Lee's best film since Malcolm X. He was particularly encouraged by Lee's determination not to adhere to typical conventions.
Both Ray Allen and Washington drew praise for their performances, with Roger Ebert writing that Allen "is that rarity, an athlete who can act," and Slate magazine writing that Washington's performance was "gorgeously underplayed".
ESPN's review pointed out factual flaws in the story: "...coaches aren't allowed to discuss potential recruits until after the signing period. Come on, Spike. (And while we're at it, players aren't allowed to visit a college one week before the signing deadline; Jesus couldn't live alone with his sister without both of them being thrown in a foster home; and there's NO WAY IN HELL that Jesus wouldn't have just turned pro if he was that good and that broke.)"
The soundtrack for He Got Game was composed of numerous orchestral pieces by Aaron Copland with songs created by Public Enemy. It was released by Def Jam on April 21, 1998.1999 Acapulco Black Film Festival
Best Actor — Denzel Washington (nominated)
Best Director — Spike Lee (nominated)
Best Screenplay — Spike Lee (nominated)
Best Film (nominated)
Best Soundtrack (nominated)
1999 NAACP Image Awards
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Motion Picture — Denzel Washington (nominated)
Outstanding Youth Actor/Actress — Zelda Harris (nominated)
Outstanding Motion Picture (nominated)
1999 MTV Movie Awards
MTV Movie Award Best Breakthrough Male Performance — Ray Allen (nominated)