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30 Best Sports Movies of All Time

From ‘Rudy’ to ‘Rocky,’ counting down the greatest films to play the game and get in the ring

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An underdog team takes the field. A has-been suits up one final time for a last-gasp grab at glory. A never-was gets his or her shot to prove they have what it takes. Sports movies are never just sports movies — they’re tales of the human spirit triumphing over adversity, or metaphors for the little guy taking on the corporate Goliaths and grown-up rich kids and beating them at their own rigged game. Sometimes they smell like team spirit. Sometimes they inspire with examples of exceptional individualism. And other times, they prove that a well-timed explosion by a deranged groundskeeper trying to kill a gopher will help you go home a winner. But the great ones always make you want to stand up and do the wave in the theater.

So we’re counting down our choices for the 30 best sports films of all time — from boxing dramas to bowling comedies, surfing docs to slobs-versus-snobs battles on the links, trash-talking basketball showdowns to ninth-inning baseball stand-offs. All apologies to Jim Thorpe, Knute Rockne, the Rockford Peaches, the Z-Boys, Miguel “Sugar” Santos, Seabiscuit and every other screen athlete/coach/trainer that’s uplifted us over the years — we’ll catch you on the flip side when we do the Top 50 list.

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‘Rocky’ (1976)

Hey, remember when Rocky Balboa wasn’t considered an example of lunkheaded Reagan-era jingoism, but rather a soulful, working-class underdog? There's a reason the original Rocky won a Best Picture Oscar: It's a surprisingly lived-in, sensitive drama about a broken-down boxer who gets one last, very unlikely chance to prove himself against the World Heavyweight Champion, played by a wonderful Carl Weathers (just because you're a nemesis doesn’t mean you can't have a soul). Those hang-dog eyes, that sensuous mouth, that shrinking demeanor, even his characteristically slurred speech – there's something so noble about this very human bruiser, and the then-unknown Stallone, who also won an Oscar for the screenplay, must have seemed like such a revelation. And if you want sports-movie symbolism, you could not do better than the driven, determined Rocky going for round after round with the red-white-and-blue clad Creed – the American dream as Sisyphean beat-down. BE

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‘Hoop Dreams’ (1994)

Initially inspired by its makers' shared obsession with basketball, this story of inner-city dreams started as an idea for a 30-minute nonfiction short about playground hoopsters. It then evolved into a three-hour odyssey about high school kids William Gates and Arthur Agee as they try to make their way to the NBA. A landmark American documentary, this compassionate labor of love from filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx has plenty of on-court action and suspense. (It's possible no single free throw has ever been so nerve-wracking in the history of cinema.) But Hoop Dreams is even more powerful as a look at poverty, racial inequality and adolescence — the agonies of everyday life that sports only occasionally help us forget. TG

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