How exactly did Ray Allen become Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game’?
Two decades ago in a wild casting that involved everyone from Kobe Bryant to Tracy McGrady to Coney Island’s own Stephon Marbury, a star was born
This is the second of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The first covers the pair of Air Jordan 13s the film made famous. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, it hit theaters on May 1, 1998.
“Once,” says Stephon Marbury, matter-of-factly.
That’s how many times, in two decades, the former NBA All-Star and three-time Chinese Basketball Association champion has seen He Got Game. But he may know the story of Spike Lee’s 1998 film, the greatest hoops saga to ever grace the silver screen, better than anyone.
An 18-year-old basketball player comes of age in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York. This player attends Abraham Lincoln High School, where he wins a state championship and emerges as the No. 1 prospect in the nation. This teenager is confronted with a man’s decision: attend college or make the jump straight to the NBA. This was in the era before the one-and-done rule, established in 2006, which requires players to be 19 years old, or one year out of high school, to join the league.
In 1995, Stephon Marbury led Lincoln to a win in the Public Schools Athletic League (P.S.A.L.) title game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and was named Mr. New York Basketball. He was a Parade magazine and McDonald’s All-American and the consensus National Player of the Year. On Coney Island, Marbury’s family was basketball royalty. Don and Mabel Marbury’s three eldest sons — Eric, Donnie and Norman — all played Division I, and during son Stephon’s college recruitment, his home flooded with trophies, medals, plaques and offer letters, the New York Daily News wrote that Marbury had been “touted by some as the greatest point guard to ever come out of New York City.”
He also became the subject of Darcy Frey’s 1994 The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, as well as a Nightline special, for which ABC camera crews followed him around his neighborhood for a year and a half. Marbury could’ve gone to any college in the universe, but he accepted a scholarship from Georgia Tech and played in Atlanta for one season before declaring for the NBA. Two years after Marbury was selected with the fourth overall pick in the ’96 draft, He Got Game premiered.
On May 1, 1998, the world met Jesus Shuttlesworth, the fictional phenom from Coney Island’s Lincoln High, portrayed on screen by Ray Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Spoiler alert: In the end, like Marbury, Jesus picks college over the NBA. “It’s pretty obvious who they were doing the movie on,” said Marbury via phone from China. He’s 41 now, and recently retired from basketball. “It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that one out. Who else are you doing it on? What other player …?”
In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Spike Lee, born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn, addressed the eerie similarities between Marbury and Shuttlesworth. “Even though Stephon, and his father, and his brothers, might think this is the Marbury story, it’s not about them,” Lee said. “Coney Island has been basketball crazy for a long time. And the story is not unique. It happens to a lot of these kids.”
The idea for He Got Game came to Lee at the request of his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, who challenged Lee to craft, without co-writers, an original screenplay for the first time since his 1991 Jungle Fever. Once he finished writing, Lee knew he wanted Denzel Washington for the role of Jake Shuttlesworth, the protagonist’s father who was imprisoned for killing Jesus’ mother. Jake is granted a temporary release from Attica Correctional Facility so he can persuade his son to attend the governor of New York’s alma mater, Big State University. If Jake delivers, the governor will do everything in his power to trim his sentence. Lee sent the script by FedEx to Washington, who called two days later and signed on. Washington, fresh off Courage Under Fire and The Preacher’s Wife, who had worked with Lee on Malcolm X and Mo’ Betta Blues, even lowered his skyrocketing salary to star in the movie, which cost $23 million to make.
In Washington, Lee had a bona fide movie star to put butts in the seats at the theater. But Lee agonized over casting. “I kept thinking … who am I gonna cast to play Jesus?” Lee told PBS’s Charlie Rose in May 1998, after He Got Game became the director’s first film to open No. 1 at the box office. “I knew I had to get a ballplayer from the NBA to play Jesus … it would’ve been a riskier move getting an actor to show those skills that we needed on the court … you can get away with that in boxing films, baseball films and football films. But for basketball, you need somebody who can play. And there’s no actor today — that I know — that [has] skills like … they’re pro material.”
Before filming the project in the summer of 1997, Lee put together a long list of NBA players — from Ray Allen to Kobe Bryant to Kevin Garnett, to Tracy McGrady and more — that he’d consider for the role. But only one could be Jesus.
“I was one of the players who was asked to audition,” Marbury said with an abrupt pause, “… to play me.”
Big Time Willie: “A lot of great ballplayers came out of Coney Island, but most of them didn’t amount to s—.”
Jesus Shuttlesworth: “What about Stephon Marbury? He made it. … If he can make it out of here, so can I.
It’s March 4, 1997. The Milwaukee Bucks are visiting the Garden. A lifelong New York Knicks superfan, Lee, as expected, is in the building, perched in his usual courtside seat. After a first half of eyeing sharpshooting rookie Allen, 22, whom Milwaukee traded to get the night of the ’96 draft (in exchange for Marbury), Lee approaches the shooting guard. In this moment, the director doesn’t play his normal heckling role. He’s a recruiter.
“Spike says, ‘Hey, I’m doing a movie. I’d love for you to audition for it,’ ” said the now-retired Allen, 42, a 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. “I gave him my information … but didn’t know if it was going to amount to anything.” A month later, when the Bucks failed to advance to the playoffs, Allen took up Lee on his offer and met with him in New York.
“He told me, ‘I want you to audition for the lead role, but if you don’t get it, you may possibly get [another] role in the movie.’ ” Allen had never acted a single day in his life. “I told him I’d love to try my hand.”
Meanwhile, Lee was courting players from all over — a perk of being one of the NBA’s courtside fixtures. “My rookie season with the Knicks, in warm-ups or during the game, I’d run by Spike and say, ‘Put me in a movie! Put me in a movie!” said University of Evansville head basketball coach Walter McCarty, also a former assistant coach in the NBA. “I’d just be joking around, giving him a hard time. But I get a call after the season, like, ‘Hey, Spike wants you to come read.’ I didn’t get Jesus Shuttlesworth’s part but was good enough for him to say, ‘We got another part for you.’ ”
Lee ultimately cast McCarty (as Lincoln High player Mance) and a handful of NBA role players as secondary characters, from Travis Best of the Indiana Pacers (as Lincoln High player Sip) to Rick Fox of the Boston Celtics (as Chick Deagan, Jesus’ host on a recruiting visit) and John Wallace (as Lincoln player Lonnie), also of the Knicks.
But for Jesus, Lee envisioned a skilled, rising superstar who could pass as a teenager. “I was pretty aware who he was going after,” Allen said. “He wanted Kobe to audition. He wanted K.G. [Garnett] to audition. He wanted Steph to audition. And he wanted Felipe Lopez.” Then a hooper for St. John’s University in Queens, New York, Lopez’s name doesn’t appear in any reports from the late ’90s as a Shuttlesworth candidate. That shows just how far and wide Spike was searching — and it didn’t stop there.
According to a Washington Post story published the day He Got Game debuted, straight-outta-high school Toronto Raptors rookie McGrady, 18, then the NBA’s youngest player, auditioned but “was judged too reserved for the part.” Allen Iverson, 1996’s No. 1 pick and 1997’s Rookie of the Year, “wasn’t prepared when he came in for auditions and seemed distracted,” as the Post detailed.
In 1998, Allen told The Vancouver Sun that Derek Anderson, one of his fellow members on the original Team Jordan, read for the part.
“I wanna say Allan Houston too,” McCarty recalled from his round of auditions. USA Today also reported that Denver Nuggets big man Danny Fortson was brought in — and, even more intriguing, that sports agent Eric Fleisher, who repped Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Garnett and Marbury at the time, passed up on the opportunity for both of his clients. Garnett “respectfully declined” to be interviewed for this story. “Fleisher said, ‘Unless you guarantee a good part, they’re not coming in,’ ” Lee told USA Today. “I said, ‘Look, come on, I’m not a GM. This isn’t the NBA. This is the movies. There are no guaranteed contracts in cinema.’ ”
Marbury had a different reason for not coming in. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me,” he said, adding that he was unaware Garnett was also considered. “Because I knew the movie was about me.”
In Allen’s first audition, he rehearsed a love scene with Salli Richardson, who read for the part of Lala Bonilla, which was eventually given to Rosario Dawson. “It was like make-believe,” Allen remembered, placing himself back in that casting room. “We were all playing around, going through lines. But I didn’t know if I could act to their standards.” He was called back for a second audition. Then a third, his biggest test yet, as he sat across from Washington to read. “I was in awe,” Allen writes in his recently released biography From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love. “I felt chemistry between the two of us, as did Spike.”
On June 19, 1997, The Associated Press broke the news that Allen had been “tapped for a role in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie He Got Game.” Five days later, a contrary report surfaced. “While Kobe Bryant’s still working on making the transition from high school to NBA Star, he might try working on movie stardom, as well,” reads Daily Variety on June 24, 1997. “Spike Lee is eyeing the Los Angeles Lakers rookie for the lead role alongside Denzel Washington in his … He Got Game.”
Yet Bryant, still rocking his baby ’fro, had already committed his summer to basketball, and basketball only. Especially after Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz when he air-balled four times in the fourth quarter and overtime. He removed himself from contention for He Got Game. “Too much time,” Bryant told The Undefeated in March. “When you look at actors and what they have to go through, and the downtime that’s involved in that, it’s just too much. … I wanted to play ball. I wanted to go to Venice Beach and play, where actually I broke my wrist. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well … I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season. I [didn’t] really have time to do a film.”
So after a screening process of about a dozen reported players, and probably some we’ll never even know about, Lee, who declined to be interviewed for this story, got his guy.
“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no? It’s just something you don’t say no to.” On camera, Allen was Jesus. He’d spent eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight consecutive weeks with acting coach Susan Batson, an experience he likens in his book to “therapy.”
“Spike was wagering the success of this film on who he cast as the lead,” Allen said. “Because this guy is who the movie is really about.”
It’s Jan. 10, 2014, and Lee is sitting courtside at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For one night, the NBA relaxes its uniform guidelines and allows players to don nicknames on their jerseys.
Allen, then in his final NBA season as a member of the Miami Heat, doesn’t think twice about which moniker he’ll rock. “J. Shuttlesworth” sprawls across his back over the No. 34, which he wore on screen in Lincoln and Big State jerseys. “Best basketball movie ever made,” Lee tells a sideline reporter with a shrug. He ain’t lying, either.
He Got Game is the black man’s Hoosiers. A hoops movie about not just hoops but also family, faith and forgiveness. The film continues to stand the test of time. “Ray Allen’s in,” Lee responds about the prospect of a follow-up to the 1998 original. “It all depends on Denzel … and Rosario … the original Lala.”
A few years have passed, and those kinds of conversations persist. “Nothing etched in stone, but we’ve talked about a sequel,” Allen said. “We kind of toy around with it, because there are so many things we can talk about.”
The story of He Got Game is as relevant as ever in today’s world, especially if the NBA and National Basketball Players Association, as they’ve discussed, decide to eliminate the one-and-done rule and lower the minimum age requirement to enter the draft. By 2020, players could again face decisions as high school seniors to go to college or to the NBA.
This film allowed Allen to essentially make that judgment twice in his life — once as the real-life player out of Dalzell, South Carolina, and again as the mythical player from Coney Island. In 1997, many men in the NBA tried out, but only one became Jesus. “I want to thank Ray,” Lee writes in the foreword of From the Outside, “for making He Got Game look very good and for bringing Jesus Shuttlesworth to life.”
Twenty years later, Marbury has a perspective on the casting process. “I realize I really did have to audition for Spike to know if I could act or not, to see if I was fit for the role,” he said. “It’s not as easy as you would think.”
If he could turn back time, would he audition? “No,” he said, as matter-of-factly as ever. “But it was a really good movie, done really well. … It told the story of a person who had success at my high school.”
The film concludes with Jesus on a college court at Big State, although his father, Denzel Washington’s Jake, remains in prison. Marbury’s narrative is more redemptive, and he can claim real life — which no character can.
“I was the first,” Marbury said, “to make it to the NBA from Coney Island.”
Kelley L. Carter contributed to the reporting for this story.