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The 11-year-old version of me would waste little time anointing Roy Hobbs as the standard bearer for all sports movie characters. In wearing out “The Natural” on loop as a kid, I could think of no bigger hero than the guy who struck out the Whammer on three pitches, knocked the cover off a ball in his first big league at bat, and exploded the lights of a stadium with a pennant-clinching home run into the rafters. Hobbs, as played by Robert Redford, was a mythical figure: freakishly talented, admirably humble, but with enough big-city game to land Kim Basinger.
He was also, looking back, entirely unrealistic.
When we sat down recently to rank the best sports movie characters, we decided to disregard candidates like Hobbs who represented some athletic ideal, but who had no footing in the real sports world. Too many sports movies resort to cliche (yes, we’re looking at you, Rudy), which is why we wanted characters who, in the best and worst ways, smacked of authenticity. Comedy, eccentricity, and even caricatures were all fine as long as the essence of that character rang true.
Add it all up and The Loop’s ranking of the best sports movie characters is likely to elicit the type of “You guys are idiots” reactions that these subjective endeavors tend to inspire. You won’t agree with all of it, which, come to think of it, is kind of the point. —Sam Weinman
21. Kelly Leak (Jackie Early Haley), “The Bad News Bears,” 1976
There is a moment in “The Bad News Bears,” — the original, not the Billy Bob Thornton remake — when Kelly Leak (Jackie Early Haley) rounds the bases after his first home run as Bear, and his teammates in the dugout essentially lose it. The subtext is that this hapless team has finally stumbled on a solution, and if it happens to be a kid who drives his motorcycle across the infield, tries to pick up older women, and possibly dabbles in pre-game amphetamines, so be it. Every town has a Kelly Leak in some form or another — the kid who hit puberty way too early, lacks any adult supervision, and you normally would want your son or daughter to stay as far away from as possible. But if he’s on your kid’s team, it’s a different story, because Kelly Leak could also hit to all fields and swallow up fly balls with ease. As is often the case in sports, certain character flaws are willing to be overlooked if you can deliver the goods. —SW
20. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), “Moneyball,” 2011
Jonah Hill’s character is supposedly based off assistant GM Paul DePodesta. In actuality, it’s a composite of the new-age, Ivy-League-graduate, analytic-driven operatives that are now universal across front offices. Yes, the film drives home the nerd stereotype, suffocatingly at times. But the character is also the perfect fulcrum to showcase the revolution against baseball’s antiquated ideas. “Moneyball” is, at least cinematically, sold as an underdog tale. While Brad Pitt’s charisma is the star of the show, it’s Hill — who, despite an introverted demeanor, boasts an unwavering conviction in his unconventional approach — that gives the film it’s David-vs.-Goliath heart. —Joel Beall
19. Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), “The Karate Kid,” 1984
“The Karate Kid”‘s young antagonist is a classic schoolyard bully, but instead of a schoolyard, he takes most of his teenage angst out on opponents in the Cobra Kai Dojo. But what makes Johnny Lawrence so identifiable is a soft side obscured by the corrupting influence of an adult. Johnny didn’t want to sweep Daniel’s leg, but was reluctantly obeying the orders of his sensei John Kreese. Then, through the tears of losing the championship match, it’s Johnny who hands the trophy to his victorious opponent. Sportsmanship! That’s the most important lesson to teach your kids before sending them out into the real world. Unless, you happen to be a black belt. —Alex Myers
18. Jo Bob Priddy (Bo Svenson), “North Dallas Forty,” 1979
The North Dallas Bulls? Call them thinly veiled Dallas Cowboys of the 60’s and ’70s based on the novel by former Cowboys receiver Pete Gent. Svenson plays a menacing, misogynistic redneck—Svenson was born in Sweden? Acting!—but is mercilessly mocked by Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) for a Neanderthal disposition and questionable business acumen. (Elliott’s suggested slogan for his teammate’s restaurant: Jo Bob’s Fine Foods: Eat Here, or I’ll Kill Ya.) The locker room back then was often a cesspool of backward thinking, and the film is a reminder of how far we still have to go today. Truth is, for supporting roles we could have picked Mac Davis, John Matuszak, Charles Durning, Dabney Coleman or G.D. Spradlin, but as Elliott says, “Jo Bob is here to remind us that the biggest and the baddest get to make all the rules.” —Mike O’Malley
17. Bill Murray (Bill Murray), “Space Jam,” 1996
On paper, it’s ridiculous: a team comprised of Looney Tunes and Michael Jordan, battling a group of alien monsters who’ve stolen NBA players’ talent, are saved in the closing seconds of a basketball game by beloved comedian Bill Murray, who’s playing himself. But on screen…well, it’s still ridiculous, even in the context of the film’s premise. Murray breaks the fourth wall (Daffy: “Just how did you get here, anyway?” Murray: “Producer’s a friend of mine. He sent a Teamster to drop me off,”) and treats the role with the gravitas it warrants (which is little). Yet because it’s Murray, it works, and it’s inarguably one of the highlights of the movie. Some have even argued this is the moment that changed Murray from “actor and comedian” to “American folk hero.” The man is a photobomb come to life, a sentiment perfectly encapsulated by his “Space Jam” appearance. —J.B.
16. Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen), “Le Mans,” 1971
Filmed on location during the 24 Hours of Le Mans and featuring no dialogue until the 36th minute, “Le Mans” is widely regard as the purest racing film of all time and Steve McQueen—an actual racer himself—the most authentic, unfussy depiction of a driver in Hollywood history. The antithesis of Tom Cruise’s Cole Trickle, Chris Hemworth’s James Hunt, and, of course, Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby, McQueen’s Michael Delaney is stoic and focused, driving, as every racer does, with one eye on the track and the other in the rearview—replaying the one mistake he can’t take back with the ferocity of someone who, quite literally, puts their life on the line for sport.—Coleman Bentley
15. Dr. Harry Mandrake (James Woods), “Any Given Sunday,” 1999
Oliver Stone films are endlessly complicated, but at their core is usually an elemental clash between good and evil. Enter Dr. Harry Mandrake, the ethically-challenged team doctor of the Miami Sharks played to oily perfection by James Woods. Mandrake looks the other way at players’ injuries, pumps them up with enough pills to get them through Sundays, then justifies it all by saying he doesn’t want to stand in the way of their livelihoods. Great characters don’t have to be sympathetic characters, but in the way he embodies the ugly side of professional football, Mandrake strikes uncomfortably close to the bone. —S.W.
14. Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), “Kingpin,” 1996
Take a straw poll amongst your friends on their favorite bowler, and you’ll likely hear two things: 1) Why are you asking that? and 2) Ernie McCracken. That McCracken is fictional testifies to this character’s resonating performance (and perhaps the lack of reach of the Professional Bowlers Association). McCracken is sleazy, flamboyant, obnoxious, a showman in the same vein as Siegfried & Roy. There’s not a single redeeming quality about him, and yet Bill Murray is able to magnetize these attributes to the degree that the audience finds itself cheering when McCracken defeats protagonist Roy Munson at the end. Perhaps the biggest proof of McCracken’s influence? Pete Weber, arguably the most famous real bowler, has been doing a knock-off McCracken for two decades. —J.B.
13. Becky “Icebox” O’Shea (Shawna Waldron), “Little Giants,” 1994
On the surface, “Little Giants” is your family-friendly, Saturday-night-movie-of-the-week affair. But at its core is the undeniably heartbreaking — and unfortunately, two decades later, all too real — plight of the tomboy. How brutal did it get for Becky the Icebox? Even when your uncle is the coach of the town peewee football team, and you’re clearly the best player at tryouts, you get cut. Becky the Icebox, a menacing linebacker in “Little Giants,” had to start her own team of misfits coached by her dad—and it got so bad she tried to quit the team and become a cheerleader. But like any PG video in the 1990s, there was a lesson to be learned. Thankfully for us, Becky’s coming of age moment led her to rally her team and pull off a historic upset of the Cowboys against her cruel uncle (Ed O’Neill, a former Heisman Trophy winner). In doing so, Becky won over DJ the quarterback who she had a crush on, and made it cool to be a tomboy. And for countless ‘90s kids, that was an important lesson to learn. —Stephen Hennessey
12. Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), “Million Dollar Baby,” 2004
Maggie Fitzgerald is frustrating. Bullheaded, single-minded, one dimensional. Tough to like, easy to hate…just like almost every fighter in human history. You may not be able to stand her as a character, but you can’t argue that character’s authenticity. Made even more poignant by the rise and subsequent fall of Ronda Rousey—a hard-nosed woman who became the biggest name in her male-dominated sport—Fitzgerald is not a polished Hollywood archetype, nor should she be. Instead she’s a crooked-nosed thorn-in-the-side and the perfect embodiment of someone who punches other people in the face for a living. —C.B.
11. Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), “The Wrestler,” 2008
Beyond the spandex and tassels, beneath the spray tans and arena-detonating signature moves, wrestling entertainment has a dark side—a tragic history of addiction, mental illness, debilitating injury, and death that makes the NFL’s CTE crisis look like a fairy tale. And while most of the schlock that comes out of the WWE’s growing film resume tells the former story, Mickey Rourke’s hardened, heartbreaking turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler paints the true picture—one of a man who gave everything to the ring because the ring was the only place he ever mattered.—C.B.
Coming Soon: The Top 10 . . .
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