(***WARNING: Spoilers for Hustle lie within this piece***)
Like many of you, I spent two hours recently watching Adam Sandler’s new Netflix film, Hustle, in large part because it was filmed mainly in Philadelphia and is centered around the franchise I so deeply love (and hate), the Sixers. In the film, Sandler plays Stanley Sugarman, a longtime, beleaguered scout for the Sixers who’s been beaten down by all the travel and the unrewarding nature of his job. For years, he’s wanted to find his way onto the bench as a coach. Soon into the film’s runtime he gets that opportunity, but then it’s stripped of him when his biggest champion, the team’s owner, dies, and the owner’s know-nothing son (more on that later) banishes him once again to the road to resume scouting. In Spain, he happens upon Bo Cruz, played by Juancho Hernangomez. In Cruz, Stanley sees not only a star for the Sixers, but his ticket back to a coaching job.
The movie is littered with NBA cameos of all shapes and sizes, and I’ll get into many of them below. Overall, the movie is well done and it’s good fun. I’m in on all of Sandler’s stuff, so I really didn’t need the Sixers angle or the 91 on Rotten Tomatoes to sway me. Punch Drunk Love, Uncut Gems, Big Daddy, Just Go With It, Funny People, I’m a Sandman devotee. Happy to see him getting his due, though.
So here are five takeaways from Hustle, which I am not in.
Juancho Hernangomez needs to be a Sixer
I mean, the guy looks great. First of all, the acting chops on Juancho are no joke. I thought he did great as a first-time actor to come off believably in both light and heavy moments with Sandler and the actors who played his mother and daughter. I was impressed.
But he looks great on the court! Fluid, knocking down shots, switchable on the perimeter, he looks like he can guard ‘up’ some as well. He’s 27, and has $6 million on the books this year in Utah. Make a deal, Daryl. Use some PTO at Sloan, pick up the phone and bring Juancho back to Philly where he belongs.
Sixers’ acting debuts
Active Sixers featured in the movie include: Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey, and Seth Curry when he was on the team. Harris had the most substantial piece of work out of the bunch — he faces off one-on-one versus Cruz at a local court with Curry present. Early in the film, with Mo Wagner, who inexplicably plays an ill-fated draft pick named Haas, guarding Harris, Maxey implores Haas to guard Harris “like Jrue Holiday,” another former Sixer. Haas, useless, gets roasted. I’m not sure why Wagner took this role, as he is maligned pretty much every second he’s on screen by Sandler for being a malcontent, a losing player, and destined to fail. And then the Sixers take him anyway (natch) and they seem to know within his first two weeks of practice that he was the wrong pick. Maybe he just wanted to meet Adam Sandler. I digress.
Matisse Thybulle had a couple funny lines in the film (SpringHill must not be checking vaccination statuses). First, Cruz says “big fan” in a group with he and Philly native Kyle Lowry, and Thybulle quite naturally quips, “how’d you know he was talking to you?” And then, after a Sandler meltdown, Thybulle is shuffling off to dinner with the Sixers’ owner and makes a snide remark at the protagonist’s expense. My only request is for more Maxey in the sequel, please.
The Bryan Colangelo analog
I can’t believe it’s taken me 600 words to get to it. You guys. Okay. In the movie, Ben Foster plays a character named Vince Merrick. Vince is the son of Rex (played by Robert Duvall) who owns the Sixers to start Hustle. Rex and Stanley have a close relationship — Rex champions Stanley so much that he appoints Stanley as an assistant coach to Doc Rivers’ bench (is he the thumbs up/thumbs down challenge guy?) Early in the movie, Rex, Stanley, Vince, the guy who played Urkel (Jaleel White), and Billy King (??) are having a boardroom meeting about Haas, whom Sandler had just got finished scouting. The room is divided: Sandler implores Rex not to draft him, citing character concerns and on/off splits. Vince, on the other hand, thinks he’s the bee’s knees and overpowers Stan in the meeting. Vince comes off like a real turd from the outset, to use a medical term.
Anyway, to trim some fat here, when Rex dies, the team gets handed to Vince, and he and his HUGE COLLARS take over the team, and immediately draft Haas, despite his father’s dying wishes. Then, at a poolside lunch with super-agent Leon Rich played delightfully by Kenny Smith, it’s revealed that Vince is pondering trading Joel Embiid in an effort to put his imprint on the Sixers! While it’s not a 1:1 comparison, and physically with his bald head and bushy beard, Vince looks more like present day Palo Alto Sam Hinkie than Bryan Colangelo, the comparisons to Bryan are abundant here, no? Daddy’s son takes over the team, proves incompetent at his job, alienates the star player, wears huge collars, seems insufferable to be around whilst running the Sixers into the ground, making terrible draft choices along the way. There is a scene where Stanley is trying to talk to Vince and Vince is spending an awful lot of time staring at his phone, not paying attention to him. Is he on one of his Twitter accounts? Or texting Barbara?
Other NBA appearances
The biggest standout in this regard was Anthony Edwards, who stole the show as top draft prospect and Bo’s biggest on-court rival, Kermit Wilts. Edwards looks great on the court but his charisma when going back and forth in scenes with Hernangomez was excellent. The viral clips of Edwards joking with reporters translates perfectly to this role, and the part of the villain is perfect for him to continuously needle Bo in a humorous way.
Elsewhere, we have drop-ins from Boban Marjanovic, Dr. J, Shaq, Charles Barkley, an onlooking Khris Middleton at the NBA Combine (?), Trae Young, Aaron Gordon, Jordan Clarkson, and more.
Too close to home
While true to life, I could’ve done without Hustle’s insistence on mirroring the Sixers’ pattern of failures and disruption over the years so accurately. Of course, there’s the aforementioned Colangelo-ian palace intrigue between Vince and the scouting department which led to the Haas pick, but then, at the very end of the movie, they banish Vince to a broom closet somewhere when his ever-capable sister, Kat, takes over the franchise. But even still, Sugarman’s pride and joy, Bo, ends up playing for the freaking Celtics! A heartbreaker. Painful because it’s true and echoes what’s happened in reality far too often, but couldn’t things have shaken out our way just this once?