After directly jumping from high school to the NBA, LeBron James never got to experience the college basketball ritual of March Madness, but if it were a condition rather than an event, I’d say his decision to star in the Universal comedy “Fantasy Basketball Camp” might just count for some sort of insanity. James is set to play the lead in the film, directed by “Soul Men” helmer Malcolm D. Lee, about a group of friends who head to Vegas and learn life lessons in addition to tips on how to set picks at the Cleveland Cavalier’s fantasy camp.
Of course, James already has some big screen experience under his belt with last year’s Spirit Award-nominated doc “More Than a Game” about his Ohio high school squad, as well as some small-screen experience on “Saturday Night Live” and multi-character Nike commercials. Still, the track record for basketball stars crossing over into movies is about as ugly as the Nets’ standing this season. With that in mind, somewhere between the steadily working former forward Rick Fox to the one-film wonder Michael Jordan (“Space Jam”), here’s our starting five for players who became Hollywood leading men.
As with all basketball stars, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s height made him enticing to movie studios, but as far as film careers go, his natural charisma and ability to pick parts is what made him tower above all others. He had bit parts and cameos as himself through the years, but his two most notable performances came in “Airplane!” where he spoofed himself as co-pilot Roger Murdock, whose strong resemblance to a certain Laker isn’t lost on one of the plane’s young passengers, and “Game of Death,” where he got to show off his Jeet Kune Do martial arts skills. Released after his death in 1978, Bruce Lee’s final film was Abdul-Jabbar’s first and came about after Abdul-Jabbar befriended and trained under Lee while he attended UCLA. Abdul-Jabbar told the L.A. Times, “Bruce, more or less, backed up what I had learned from John Wooden. The whole thing about being prepared and understanding your own skills. What you have to offer and what you don’t have to offer. Channeling to your approach to everything specific. It was just an echo of John Wooden, from Hong Kong as opposed to Indiana.”
When the Shaq Attack came to Los Angeles via free agency in 1996, he had his eye on winning a championship with the Lakers, but he also prized the opportunity to build upon a burgeoning rap career (believe it or not, 1993’s “Shaq Diesel” went platinum) and a supporting role in William Friedkin’s college basketball drama “Blue Chips,” which co-starred his then-Orlando Magic teammate Penny Hardaway. One could argue that his first attempt at leading man status as a larger-than-life genie in Disney’s “Kazaam” was due to the fact that the project was rushed from script to screen to accommodate O’Neal’s basketball schedule after writer/director/former Starsky Paul Michael Glaser dreamed up the idea after meeting him during the ’95 All-Star Game.
However, there was no such excuse for O’Neal’s ill-fated stab at the superhero Steel in 1997, which when coupled with that summer’s “Batman and Robin” marked a particular low point for the DC Comics universe. (Another fun fact: It was also Judd Nelson’s last major studio movie.) Long known for the Superman tattoo on his right arm, O’Neal proved to be no man of steel at the box office, grinding out $1.6 million at the box office, earning a Razzie nom for worst actor and all but ending his acting career, which has been limited to cameos in “Freddy Got Fingered,” “The Wash” and “Scary Movie 4.”
According to Entertainment Weekly, Columbia Pictures had to spring for a modified van to drive the 7’7″ Romanian star to the set of his lone big-screen appearance in the Billy Crystal comedy “My Giant.” (He would also play a ventriloquist in Eminem’s “My Name Is…” video.) Remembering his earlier work with Andre the Giant in “The Princess Bride,” Crystal wrote “My Giant” with Muresan in mind, crafting a story about a small-time Hollywood agent who traveled to Romania in search of someone he could turn into a star and Muresan spent the 1997 offseason back in his home country having Crystal help him pronounce his lines in English. Of course, Muresan never was as big in Hollywood as he was on the court, with “My Giant” grossing a mere $7.9 million when it was released the following year.