(The film was released in select theaters and on Netflix on June 8th.)
Rocky. A League of Their Own. Jerry Maguire.
Some of the best sports films in the Hollywood canon have masterfully shown us the beauty of what the trainer/coach/agent-athlete relationship can be respectively. The wildly entertaining Hustle has elements of all three films in it – and mostly the best parts. The film stars Adam Sandler as NBA scout Stanley Sugarman, who finds a rough-around-the-edges Spanish basketball player (Hernangómez) with superstar potential on a Euro-scouting trip.
As a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, Sugarman has spent his career trying to make a name for himself in “The Association” at the expense of incessant travel and constant hustle. It’s a job he’s over, as he’s been at it for 30+ years and has missed his daughter’s last nine birthdays.
After a long day, Sugarman is looking to blow off some steam by shooting around on a playground when he comes across Bo Cruz (Hernangómez) in a street game that immediately sucks him in. The blacktop is buzzing and Sugarman proceeds to watch the skilled Spaniard take down the opposing team and their best player in a one-on-one challenge – in a set of construction boots, nonetheless. As he stands on the sidelines captivated by Cruz’s potential, Sugarman is instantly infatuated by the idea that he’s found the next Dirk, Pau or Luka.
After Sugarman follows Cruz on a city bus where he embarrasses himself using a translation app in order to connect with the Spaniard, he ends up at the basketball’s player home, where he validates who he is and what he’s hoping to do for Cruz in comical fashion in a FaceTime with Dirk Nowitzki. There, he meets a man with a loving mother and a young daughter – and this is when Sugarman convinces Cruz to give him a chance to help with a pro career back in the States.
The relationship between the two men, how they connect, and how Sugarman inspires Cruz once his situation gets even more desperate is where this movie shines. Throughout it all, Hernangómez’s screen presence and basketball acumen are evident from the opening tip. Most people won’t know him and will spend half the film wondering if this is an actor or an actual player, because what he does in this film far supersedes anything resembling an athelete cameo.
Hernangómez’s performance is more than serviceable, it’s excellent. There’s a heart in how he connects to the people around him, and we can’t help but cheer for his success – which we’re more than invested in thanks to Rocky-like training montages and the comedic repartee he develops with Sugarman who takes it upon himself to playfully insult the Spaniard in his native tongue.
In showing the bond that can form between talented people and those trying to extract, harness and showcase talent when stakes are high, the strengths of the performances in Hustle offer up an authentic and captivating portrayal that allow this one to enter the pantheon of “great sports films,” hallowed ground for sports guys like me. If it’s true that a rising tide raises all boats, one can expect Hernangómez’s basketball stock to fly higher as more and more people see Hustle.
It’s a rare day in Hollywood when a pro athlete in his prime can jump to the big screen with anything more than a token acting performance.
When I think of respectable athlete performances in film, my brain thinks of LeBron James’ cameo in Trainwreck (2015); Kevin Garnett alongside Sandler’s sports gambler in Uncut Gems (2019); and Kareem’s legendary performance as co-pilot Roger Murdock in Airplane! (1980).
But this is not that. The 26-year-old, Madrid-born Hernangómez is a lead in this film opposite Sandler and ironically, it’s a role he didn’t even want to play given his commitment to improving at his first job: pro basketball player.
As the story goes, Hernangómez said no to his agent with regards to the role “for like five months.” Then Covid hit, NBA basketball stopped (for a period) and pro athletes were stuck at home as we all were – left pondering what the future held. That’s when Hernangómez’s sister urged him revisit the role he’d previously said ‘no’ to for Hustle.
Hernangómez had a few auditions on Zoom that went well and eventually, he found himself reading with Sandler for the win. But Hernangómez’s performance didn’t just manifest itself. He was paired up with acting coach Noélle Gentile, who brought the best out of him. According to the Variety piece, Hernangómez says “She worked so much with me, all summer we were doing three or four zoom calls a week. Everything I did right was because of her.”
The result is a great basketball – and sports – film sure to endure the test of time.
What’s next for Hernangómez is anybody’s bet. But given the solid reviews of his performance in Hustle, it’s quite possible he’ll have a new fan base when he returns to the court for the Utah Jazz for the 2022-2023 NBA season this fall. Whether more acting is in his future is yet to be determined, but given Hustle’s success as a Netflix streamer, Hernangómez seems open to it.
“I don’t know. For now, I’m focused on basketball, but you never know. I’m never going to say I wouldn’t do something,” reveals Hernangómez.
I think I speak for many when I say we’d all be up for the next #BoChallenge.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.