The Most Underappreciated NBA Cameos in Film and TV

We celebrate the NBA playoffs with our own starting line-up of unlikely crossovers by basketball stars from the hardwood to the big screen.

by | May 12, 2022 | Comments

NBA star Larry Johnson and Jaleel White as Grandmama and Steve Urkel in an episode of Family Matters (1993)

(Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images)

As detailed in a recent episode of HBO’s Winning Time, the colorful retelling of the 1980s “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers dynasty, a young Magic Johnson buys his first tuxedo in anticipation of his first movie premiere. The audience sees stars forming in Magic’s eyes, the transformative and alluring hit of Hollywood taking hold. It’s a cool moment delivered by actor Quincy Isaiah, but it’s also a bit of metatheory for the viewers.

The premiere is for 1979’s The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, and the star of the movie is none other than Julius Erving. This was a real movie — it really happened! “Dr. J” enjoyed one of the most decorated careers in basketball history, but he was also something of a pioneer in reimagining basketball stardom. While he came off his teammates’ screens to thrown down dunks, he was also coming onto the screen for a lead acting role. You can dig why Magic was so enamored.

Dr. J walked so Baron Davis could run, and by run, we mean pop up to give relationship advice on an episode of The Mindy Project. These days, the NBA is a global phenomenon and a cultural multiverse. It’s certainly not uncommon to catch a basketball star doing something on your TV that isn’t playing basketball. And as the NBA Playoffs are fully underway, we want to celebrate a handful of crossovers that made us laugh or left us stunned.

There’s one caveat here: We’re not going to pick the obvious stuff. We’re talkin’ Playoffs, not practice, so let’s make this something of a challenge. Everyone knows that Space Jam is the biggest hardwood-to-Hollywood crossover, so you won’t see Michael Jordan on this list. Ray Allen’s role in He Got Game is so memorable that “Jesus Shuttlesworth” is listed as an official nickname for him. Same goes for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — err, Capt. Roger Murdock in Airplane!. Movies like Blue Chips, Uncle Drew, and Eddie were explicitly created to show off NBA stars, so they’re not included here either. We’re looking to celebrate the randomness, the brevity, and the wonder that comes with a truly delightful NBA cameo.

That buzzer you hear means it’s time for tip-off. Let’s get into it!

The Starters

Point Guard – Damian Lillard, Portlandia

What do you do when your circle of friends begins aging out, getting married, or moving away? If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you befriend Damian Lillard, arguably the greatest and smoothest player in Portland Trailblazers history. Spoiler alert: Dame and Carrie become friends. In a separate appearance, Lillard learns that the key to winning is dunking every single possession.

Wing – Kobe Bryant, Moesha

Kobe Bryant introduced himself to the world well before winning anything with the Lakers. Drafted fresh out of high school, the 18-year-old Kobe took R&B star Brandy to his prom at Lower Merion High after meeting her at the Essence Awards in 1996. Naturally, a young Mamba popped into the world of Moesha, playing an athlete named Terry who needs to pass his SATs to get his scholarship. Terry hits three free throws to win the game for Crenshaw, but when it comes to the pressure of the standardized test, he “chokes like the New York Knicks.”

Big 1 – James Worthy, Star Trek: The Next Generation

One of the central figures of the aforementioned Showtime Lakers, “Big Game James” was also the tallest Klingon ever pictured on screen, playing Koral, a space mercenary in 2370 who had acquired rare Vulcan artifacts. “May I inquire as to your destination?,” Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) asks aboard the USS Enterprise-D. “The NBA Finals,” Worthy was probably thinking.

Big 2 – Patrick Ewing, The Exorcist III

In the prime of a Hall-of-Fame career, the New York Knicks center made an astonishing career choice. No, he didn’t switch teams or hold out for a better contract. He just assumed his role as The Angel of Death. Take solace in knowing that your final spiritual destination comes with a vicious post-up game.

Big 3 – Bill Russell, Miami Vice

The winningest player in basketball history attributes much of his career success to those tireless, selfless teammates. You know, Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas, and Edward James Olmos. Bill Russell retired well before the Miami Heat came into existence, but he fit right in with the cast of Miami Vice, playing Judge Roger Ferguson. Bonus points for fathering Bernard King, an NBA scoring champ in his own right, who guested as Judge Ferguson’s son Matt.

The Bench

Larry Johnson, Family Matters

How else was Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) going to win the citywide two-on-two basketball tournament? When Eddie Winslow (Darius McCrary) drops out, Estelle (Rosetta LeNoire) recommends her friend who has been tearing up the senior center games. LJ’s iconic “Grandmama” character was thus born, and she later became the star of a Converse ad campaign that ran throughout the ’90s.

Blake Griffin, Broad City

Blake is a No. 1 overall pick, a former All-NBA player, and he won a Slam Dunk Contest by leaping over a car. What he did with Ilana Glazer was far wilder than all of that combined.

Cheryl Miller, Living Single

Cheryl Miller technically wasn’t an NBA star, true, but she is a basketball legend in her own right and still offers her expert opinions as an NBA analyst. Miller brought her A game as a bitter high school rival from Philly who had a four-inch height advantage over Queen Latifah’s Khadijah James. No matter, they still went one-on-one to settle an old score. Flavor Magazine’s sports page was Pulitzer-worthy.

Roy Hibbert and Detlef Schrempf, Parks and Recreation

According to financial documents disclosed by Entertainment 720, these Pacers were brought into Pawnee for an absolute bargain.

Rick Fox, Holes

The tribulations of one Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf) all begin with a pair of game-worn shoes donated by Rick Fox’s Clyde “Sweetfeet” Livingston. Livingston ends up endorsing a deodorizer made from peaches and onions called “Sploosh.”  He is the ultimate glue guy.

Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, The Bachelorette

Boston Celtic Jaylen Brown and then-teammate Terry Rozier played opposite each other when Season 15 Bachelorette Hannah Brown and her eventual beau Jed Wyatt paired up with them to play a friendly game of 2-on-2. Even if the Celtics aren’t the odds-on favorites to take the championship this year, at least we can count on Brown to deliver solid relationship advice (which Wyatt ultimately ignored to his own detriment).

Xavier McDaniel, Singles

“The X Man” gave some pointed and very thoughtful advice to Seattle bachelor Steve Dunne (Campbell Scott).

Carmelo Anthony, Nurse Jackie

Melo made his acting debut in the first two episodes of Season 4 of Nurse Jackie, portraying a baseball player in rehab for an addiction to pain meds. Definitive proof that group therapy can make you an all-time great, if that group therapy is being led by Edie Falco.

John Salley, Confessions of a Shopaholic

The four-time NBA champion has actually had something of a robust career in front of the camera, but the fact he appears in this film and says the line “My name is D-Freak and I am a shopaholic” reminds us that anything is possible.

Wilt Chamberlain, Conan the Destroyer

We’ll conclude with pro basketball’s first truly unstoppable force. “Wilt the Stilt” made just one film appearance, but he absolutely made the most of it. Bombaata vs. Conan the Barbarian? Wilt vs. Arnold Schwarzenegger?! It’s not the mismatch that you think it is. Yes, this is what the NBA Playoffs are all about.

Thumbnail images by ©Paramount Television, NBC/Getty Images, ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

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