Celebrities Who Can Actually Hoop…
About twenty years ago, at the Hollywood YMCA, I was anchoring a ragtag team of five guys through some early morning pick-up runs when a familiar voice echoed through the halls announcing that “he had next". We all looked up and saw who the voice belonged to. It was the actor George Clooney. He apparently had been a regular on the very court we had been playing on before finding international success on the television show ER.
According to Hollywood YMCA lifer Randy Carter, a former First A.D. on Seinfeld whose credits went all the way back to Apocalypse Now, unknown actor Clooney was on the bench in between games one day in the mid-'90s when he announced that he had recently shot "another pilot that won’t go anywhere". Nearly six months later, Clooney was on the cover of TV Guide and his world has never been the same.
By the way, he played for ten minutes before a crowd gathered that was so big, he had to leave. I think he scored six points.
Celebrities Who Can Actually Hoop
The basketball community has always been fascinated with actors and musicians who actually have some game on the hardwood. Back in the day, it was well known that guys like the comedian Sinbad, Lil Romeo (played at USC – and may have had something to do with DeMar DeRozan committing to play there – don’t quote me), and actor Jaleel White were respected ballers amongst pros and celebrities alike. White has been a staple at the NBA Celebrity game during All-Star Weekend forever. And for those who thought young Urkel would be an easy assignment, think again.
In fact, there are more than a few celebrities who can actually hoop it up.
The E League
The NBA Entertainment League, or “E League'' was a popular “celebrities only” gathering of A-listers, former athletes, and ringers that featured, at one time, famous folks like Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dogg, Adam Levine, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Adam Sandler, Tobey Maguire, Chris Brown, Kevin Hart, Don Cheadle, Nick Carter, and Justin Bieber. I’m not saying that all of these guys could bring heat. But a few certainly stood out in the league games.
Kevin Hart (who has been a regular at NBA Celebrity All-Star games as well, with some MVP hardware to boot), JT, and even the Biebs (whose handles are NICE) have impressed their fellow performers. This league was harder to get into than the hottest nightclub in the city for years. Donald Faison apparently balled up against Vegas cast member James Lesure for some epic matches, resulting in Lesure winning league MVP in one of their final seasons.
Ultimately, the NBA E League disappeared because suddenly, coaches and film producers were hiring ex-Division I basketball players for day player roles on their TV shows JUST to get the athletes to come to play in their league games. One celebrity that I know who played in the E League for three seasons and has chosen to remain anonymous told me, “It was fun until suddenly a guy you recognized from last year’s Final Four was on the other team". When I asked him why he didn’t complain, my friend told me, “His coach produced a TV show, put him on the show in a bit part – so technically he was eligible". Ringers or not, the league remained Hollywood’s worst kept secret for years.
"Fight Club With Better Jokes"
Comedian and actor Garry Shandling was famous for hosting a Sunday afternoon pick-up game at his Los Angeles area home for over a decade. Actors like David Duchovny (varsity player in high school) posted up guys like Sacha Baron Cohen, while Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler traded jokes and called phantom fouls. Sure, this game became known as “Fight Club with Better Jokes". But out of all these players, only a few commanded respect beyond the backyard. One player, in particular, was Adam Sandler.
Sandler’s game is such that a year or so back, a no-look dime he delivered during a New York City pickup game promoting Uncut Gems made ESPN Sportscenter.
A Bevy of Celebrities
During my 20+ years living in Hollywood, I've played basketball with a bevy of celebrities. Not all of them have game. But then again, what is “game” when half the people on the court are hungover out-of-work writers with no ability to play inside the three-point line? Some of the guys I've played with on courts include Denzel Washington (crazy jump shot) and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (impossible to guard – so much energy and low center of gravity. Always dressed in head-to-toe Lakers gear). And at one point in the late ‘90s, Anakin Skywalker himself, Hayden Christensen. (I may have crossed over a Jedi… I’m just saying.) I’ve also seen Michael Rapaport talk more smack than anybody but always back it up. (He actually was a ranked high school player in NYC.) And actor Dylan Walsh – who was surprisingly quick – killed me at 21.
I’ve never seen him play basketball, but according to many local Hollywood pickup games, Tom Selleck had GAME back in the day. A little online research proved that The Mustachioed One once even played hoops at USC and would occasionally show up to play on courts around the city.
Rappers Who Ball On (and Off) the Court
Migos rapper Quavo is a notorious baller. He backed it up with 27 points and 9 rebounds in the 2019 NBA Celebrity Game. If you google Quavo highlight reels, he’s got a modern-day game, handles, and has scored against some current NBA players in pickup games. Common has mad game too, also having won a celebrity MVP award.
Other rappers who can chop it up on the hardwood include J. Cole (played high school and even attempted a plainclothes dunk at the 2019 NBA Dunk Contest. He missed, although this would have brought the crowd to its feet), 2 Chainz, who won a Georgia State Championship in high school and even had a scholarship to Alabama State before pursuing music, and one-time practice squad player Master P, who put in time with the Hornets and Raptors but never made either team officially. (Lil Romeo is Master P’s son.) The Game actually had some of his namesake as well, earning a scholarship to Washington State before becoming one of Compton’s finest emcees.
Actors With Game
Perhaps the best basketball player turned Saturday Night Live cast member – well, probably the only one – is Jason Sudeikis. He actually logged minutes alongside Brandon Rush and his brothers growing up in Kansas. And a community college in his home state recruited him to play. But once he caught that sketch comedy bug, however, it was over until an NBA Celebrity game appearance a few years back. I actually thought Jason might take MVP honors at that game. But he was outplayed by Win Butler, the lead singer of Arcade Fire. Butler dropped 22 and 11 and took home an MVP award for his efforts. Speaking of funnymen who can ball, actor Jason Segel played at Harvard-Westlake alongside future NBA player Jason Collins and became known as “Doctor Dunk".
Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali played over 90 games over four seasons for Division I St. Mary’s in the ‘90s. My guess is the dude can still play some ball. Here are some of his college highlights:
One of the best celebrity stories I used to hear at the Hollywood YMCA was about Denzel Washington on the morning of the 1990 Academy Awards when he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the film Glory. According to eyewitnesses, Denzel shot lights at the gym all morning, running other players ragged and never losing a game. At the end of his run, when his friends and fellow players were packing it in, he said something to the effect of “Well, if that’s the best thing that happens to me today, it’ll be a good one". Of course, he took home the Best Supporting Actor trophy that night.
Rock Stars Who Can Handle the Rock
Rock ‘n Roll singers aren’t as prolific on the court as say, rappers, but Win Butler is that dude. Timberlake can hold his own too. There was a time when the Beastie Boys were probably rock/rap’s greatest three-man weave. But your 50s catch up with you pretty quick after hammering your knees for that long of a time jumping off stages while holding guitars. (RIP MCA.) It’s just that the hoop game belongs to the rappers more than the rockers. You would never expect to see David Lee Roth post up Brandon Flowers of the Killers as Tame Impala called for the ball in the corner trying to hit a three.
In true entertainer fashion, all actors want to be rock stars and all rock stars want to be actors. And they all want to be paid like athletes. Of course, most of us can’t have everything we want. Still, if you put the best actor/rapper/musicians on the planet up against the last five guys on any NBA team, the celebrities are gonna lose.
Sure, watching Kevin Hart dribble around Justin Timberlake at an All-Star game is fun. But once he tries to take a guy like Detroit Pistons 12th man Saben Lee to the hole, it’s going to get ugly.
I know what you’re saying, “Who is Saben Lee?” He’s a guy who would bust the ass of any of the aforementioned celebrity players. Well, maybe not Mahershala Ali. That dude had game...