Making it to the top: A review of Jeremiah Zagar’s ‘Hustle’

Sept. 27, 2022, 7:17 p.m.

Picture this: it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals. You’re in the last minute of the game, down two points and it looks like your team is about to lose. The buzzer goes off right after you score, and all the players of your team surround you in utter jubilation. In the classic basketball movie, this would most likely be the last scene, running through your head after the credits roll. It’s typically a story about a player coming from poverty trains endlessly in an attempt to make the NBA. After overcoming obstacles, they become the star of their team and win the NBA Championship. 

However, Jeremiah Zagar’s blockbuster film “Hustle,” released on June 3, displays the coveted NBA dream in a completely different angle. The movie stars actor Adam Sandler as Stanley Sugerman — a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers — and real-life NBA player Juancho Hernangómez as Bo Cruz, a talented and young basketball player. 

Sugerman is a well-liked scout by 76ers owner Rex Merrick, who later promotes Sugerman to assistant coach shortly before his death. Merrick’s son Vincent takes charge of the team and subsequently demotes Sugerman to scout in order to find a breakthrough star. Sugerman scouts Cruz at a local pickup game in Spain and notices his potential, so he brings him to the United States. After the 76ers refuse to sign him, Sugerman resigns as a scout in order to prepare Cruz for the NBA Draft Combine, which proves a tough challenge after the latter is detained for an assault conviction he received in Spain.

However, through Sugerman’s impressive coaching ability, Cruz improves his basketball skills, and people take note of his talent. 

A unique aspect of “Hustle” is in its dual focus on a coach and a player trying to achieve their dreams. In the case of Sugerman, he explains how he practically wasted his dream as a player when he was involved in a drunk driving accident when playing college basketball. The accident had a devastating impact on the team, and his broken hand abruptly ended his career as a basketball player. As a result, Sugerman pursued his interest in basketball by being a scout who looks for talented players across the globe. 

When Sugerman came across Bo, he knew right away that Cruz has the potential to be in the NBA. The reason why Sugerman sacrifices a lot for Cruz is because he views Bo’s struggle as his own redemption story. Sugerman wants to make a name for himself in the NBA, and he helps get Cruz drafted into the NBA.

The movie, however, fails to fully develop Sugerman’s relationship with his own family. From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem as if Sugerman is only putting effort into training Bo instead of spending time with his family. As a father, Sugerman should have done better in order to be there for his wife and daughter. Even though his daughter Alex is shown throughout the movie during the filming of Cruz for the NBA draft, their relationship is never really touched upon nor did Sugerman grow as a parent. 

His wife or daughter must have certainly felt upset because Sugerman travels a lot for his work. Sugerman, unfortunately, got so carried away with excelling in his career that he unintentionally disregarded what he truly values. This theme is brought up multiple times throughout the movie, especially in a car ride where he was going to drop his daughter off to see a movie with her friends.

It’s clear from the beginning that Cruz prioritizes his family over his dream to play in the NBA. He comes from a tough home life, which is a past that is familiar to many athletes, especially basketball players. He has his mother and daughter to take care of, which is the reason why he prioritizes his job as a construction worker in order to make enough money. 

When Sugerman offers him the opportunity to play in the NBA, initially with the guise of playing for the 76ers, Cruz takes up the chance. However, gambling with a player’s life is very risky, especially if pursuing the NBA is the only option. In the later stages of the movie, Sugerman reveals how the 76ers never wanted Bo Cruz, which brings tension between the two. The tension between Sugerman and Cruz actually works in their favor and brings the pair closer together as they reveal their true past to each other. This helps the pair stay motivated toward their goal of reaching the NBA.

One important aspect of this film that has separated it from standard sports movies is that real-life basketball players make appearances: from NBA players such as Trae Young and Luka Dončić, to NBA legends such as Julius Erving and Shaquille O’Neal, to famous street ballers such as Grayson “The Professor” Boucher and Larry “Bone Collector” Williams. Nevertheless, “Hustle” does an excellent job, from incorporating antagonists, such as 76ers co-owner Vince Merrick and rival basketball player Kermit Wilts, to motivational and calming music choices.

The cinematography in “Hustle” is brilliant, especially noticeable during montage scenes such as Cruz’s training throughout different places. The basketball scenes were shot in a very precise manner, with much praise to cinematographer Zak Mulligan. As for the acting and dialogue scenes in the movie, there were times where the film felt lackluster and the emotions from the characters were missing. The only two characters that we really get to know are Sugerman and Cruz, and the film could have been more developed if there was more active dialogue between characters that followed a specific theme or purpose. 

Though Sugerman and Cruz have their own separate paths to success, they both make their mark on the NBA.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Shafiul Haque is a high school student writing for The Daily's journalism workshop.

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