White Men Can't Jump: Behind the auditions, hustling, and dunks
Standing in a nearly empty Venice Beach parking lot, memories are suddenly flooding back for Ron Shelton. At the location for the first time in over 25 years, the 71-year-old director looks around at one of the defining landscapes of his career. Not much has changed, other than the absent basketball courts and charming actors who were there with him as they took the leap to big-screen superstardom.
Sports movies are hard to get right, with many either coming off as too earnest or not original enough, but Shelton has made a career on creating a different kind of sports film, whether it be Bull Durham, Tin Cup, or White Men Can’t Jump, the anti-Hoosiers.
“I had the title before I had written a word,” says Shelton. “The foreign translation was even funnier. ‘Can’t Jump’ was translated in many foreign languages as ‘Can’t Score,’ like can’t score a goal. And to score a goal was [to] put it in, so it’s White Men Can’t Put It In in many countries. Oh, you’re upset with jumping?!”
On the 25th anniversary of White Men Can’t Jump, EW chatted with Shelton and star Wesley Snipes, who led the 1992 sports comedy alongside Woody Harrelson as Sidney Deane and Billy Hoyle, respectively, part-time streetballers and full-time hustlers. Read on for all the scoop on the movie’s unique audition process, why Keanu Reeves didn’t score the lead role, and who will lace up for the planned remake.
“I was just the white guy who could shoot.”
In his directing debut, former minor league baseball player Shelton hit a home run with Bull Durham. The film propelled Tim Robbins, Kevin Costner, and Susan Sarandon to new levels and even scored an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay for Shelton. After a foray away from sports with Blaze, Shelton was inspired to return to what he knew best.
“Even after making Bull Durham, I was just the white guy who could shoot,” the filmmaker tells EW of his place in his neighborhood following his breakout success. A regular in the local pickup games, Shelton drew inspiration from his time on the court. “I went one Friday and [the park] was chained up,” he remembers. “I said, ‘What happened?’ They said, ‘So-and-so got shot. Somebody went to the glove box.’ When someone says that, everyone goes running. He came back and shot the guy dead. I said, ‘What was the issue?’ He said, ‘Block or charge.'”
That story would make its way into the film, with Raymond (former NBA player Marques Johnson) not taking lightly to being scammed by Sidney and Billy. Armed with similar anecdotes and a personal interest in how players perceive one another, Shelton felt he had a movie.
“It was written very fast,” he explains, noting he wrote the first 37 pages in one night until things came to a complete halt. “I was trying to figure out what Gloria’s [Billy’s girlfriend] thing was. It had to be so unconnected from the guys. Because that’s big for me, to make sure that the women aren’t defined in terms of the guy business.” After he heard someone discussing their friend’s aspiration to get on Jeopardy, the final piece was in place. “There’s no logic to it — it’s sort of the Hollywood dream.”
“Every time I shot it, even if it didn’t go in, I talked like it did.”
Of the many lessons Shelton learned from his time making Bull Durham, the biggest may have been, “You’ve got to play.” Yearning for credibility, he knew that he needed to find actors who could pass for ballplayers, so before he would let actors read for the project, weeks of pick-up games were set up. “I just threw a ball out there,” he says. “That sort of weeded it out. Agents would call asking about their clients and I’d say, ‘He can’t play. He can’t beat me, never mind these guys.’”
It even meant ruling out high-profile up-and-comers like Keanu Reeves, as Shelton describes the Point Break star as a hard worker, but “not a basketball player.”
“Everybody who was anybody at the time and [everybody who] wanted to be somebody were all there for this audition,” adds Snipes. With credits as a football player in Wildcats and a baseball player in Major League to his name, the actor was looking for the trifecta with a basketball role, his lack of jump shot be damned.
“Wesley is not a great basketball player, but he is a great athlete — big distinction,” explains Shelton. “When he showed up to audition, he just had more attitude than anybody. He walked on the court trash-talking and it didn’t matter if he had any game [laughs]. He showed up with more attitude and less jump shot than anybody.”
While Snipes doesn’t dispute the assessment of his game, it’s clear that from day one, he personified the cocky, confident Sidney. “I had great handles, great passing, great defense, but every shot I took was a brick,” he laughs. “Every time I shot it, even if it didn’t go in, I talked like it did. I made you believe that you were lucky it didn’t go in.”
With the future star signed on, the search was still on for his deceptively talented and jumping-challenged partner. The prospect of reuniting with Harrelson — his Wildcats costar — was enticing for Snipes. “I can neither confirm nor deny,” he chuckles when asked about his past comments about leaving a hopeful Reeves out to dry during an audition in the hopes of helping Harrelson land the role.
“Woody and Wesley had magic instantly,” says Shelton. “Woody’s a great counterpuncher. Wesley could come up with a funny line and Woody could steal the moment with his reaction. That’s the key to chemistry and you don’t get it very often. You need two people who can’t do what the other one does.”
To round out the main trio, Rosie Perez came in and made Shelton completely reimagine the role of Gloria, originally written as a white, upper-class Southern woman. “You can’t invent that,” he recalls of watching the actress become Gloria. “That’s original.”
“Guys had computer printouts with ‘yo momma’ jokes.”
While Snipes and Harrelson had passed the basketball test to land the roles of Sidney and Billy, their training was just beginning. “We played all day, every day,” says Snipes, who studied Tiny Archibald tapes to up his game. Six days a week they were on the court, both learning new moves and becoming familiar with Shelton’s playbook. To ensure the basketball scenes didn’t look completely choreographed, once the scripted plays were shot, the director kept the cameras rolling and told everyone to play to win, leading to some fierce taped battles.
The sense of competition continued off-camera as well. In a movie about hustlers, betting and schemes were an everyday occurrence on set, whether it was a shooting contest or Harrelson proving that white men can jump — on a nine-foot rim, that is.
During filming of the scene in which Billy loses his winnings in an attempt to prove to Sidney that he can dunk, Harrelson had his own score to win, placing a wager with his costar that he could do what his character couldn’t. As Snipes would head back to his trailer between takes, the crew was slightly lowering the rim without his knowledge. Eventually, it was enough for Harrelson to slam it home.
“They lowered the rim and put stickum on his hands,” laughs Snipes. “I already had the money spent. I came out of the trailer and came back to set — he went up there and dunked it. Everyone was going crazy and I went, ‘Wait a minute, something is wrong here.’ So I dunked it, and immediately was like, ‘C’mon, you guys lowered the rim.’”
While Harrelson’s dunk needed some assistance, the stars’ trash-talking skills were pick-up-game ready. Over a decade before Wilmer Valderrama was trying to find the Yo Momma king, White Men mastered the art of the joke.
“We were rehearsing and everybody is complaining that everyone else has the best ‘yo mama’ jokes,” recalls Shelton. “I said, ‘Shut up, come back with your best ones tomorrow.’ Guys had computer printouts with ‘yo mama’ jokes. We were just roaring at all the jokes. The problem was most of them were rated NC-17, when I was an R and already had 170 motherf—ers in there.”
“Better believe though, no matter the age, we’ll take down those young cats.”
With its dunks and jokes solidly in place, the movie was a break out success — both critically and commercially — when it arrived in theaters in March 1992, helping catapult its lead actors to new heights. No longer “the other guy in Mo’ Better Blues and seventh lead on Cheers” as Shelton says they were before the film, Snipes would become one of the biggest action stars of the ’90s and Harrelson would later pick up Emmy and Oscar nominations.
After first bonding on Wildcats, the duo further established their strong friendship on White Men. As young actors on the rise, living and filming in L.A., they had a good time, maybe too good a time, according to Snipes. “It’s one of the fondest experiences of my professional life,” he said. “I made a life-long friend and a spiritual brother.”
For Shelton, the experience was bittersweet. He had a hit on his hands and would move on to Tin Cup and a reunion with Harrelson on Play It to the Bone, but in 1997, he reluctantly was forced to sue the studio over breach of contract for White Men Can’t Jump. Even though Shelton won the suit, it squashed his plans for a sequel and TV series.
Now, 25 years later, Fox is developing a remake currently without Shelton, this time from Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, who has dreams of a Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller collaboration. While Snipes is unsure of how a new film would work considering how much basketball has changed, he is certain of one thing.
“If Woody’s in, then I’m in,” he says, suggesting a match-up between the original and new characters. “Better believe though, no matter the age, we’ll take down those young cats.”