It turns out Adam Sandler isn’t half bad in the role of Jonathan Givony. His new film, Hustle, follows Sandler in the starring role of a draft scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, grinding overseas scouting trips to discover his team’s next great prospect. Current Utah Jazz player Juancho Hernangomez stars opposite Sandler in his first ever acting role, as something like the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki if Dirk Nowitzki was found off the streets hustling pick-up runs for money. What follows is a delightful and deep-diving love letter to basketball and the NBA, with more cameos and appearances from around the association than can be easily kept track of. Tobias Harris and Julius Erving play significant roles in the film, for example, but Jose Calderon and Leandro Barbosa? I’m told that Emeka Okafor and Alex Abrines appear? These are caringly chosen deep cuts intended for even the most dedicated of Basketball-Reference heads.

Sandler, of course, cut his teeth in the realm of basketball movie-making as the degenerate sports gambler Howard Ratner, acting alongside Kevin Garnett in 2019’s Uncut Gems. His own pick-up games are internet legend, a fever dream of baggy shorts and no-look dimes. There’s a natural transition from that to watching Sandler step into a role where his character, Stanley Sugerman, scrawls away on 3-and-D prospects while rubbing shoulders with everyone from Julius Erving to Kyle Lowry. The same goes for Hernangomez, who plays prospect Bo Cruz with an earnestness that more than replaces the need for any real acting experience. With an honorable mention to Anthony Edwards’ Kermit Wilts, who is probably basketball’s greatest trash-talker since the last time Patrick Beverley was on First Take, these acting performances are the beating heart of the film, bringing what could easily have been just another sports story about the ethics of hard work to life.

“When we saw Juancho, we knew that he was the right guy and that we had a movie because of him,” said Hustle director Jeremiah Zagar. “Once you had Bo Cruz, the movie could come together.” Zagar, who is Philadelphia born and raised himself, also shines with the film’s setting in his hometown. Throughout Hustle, there are references to Rocky that range from the subtle to the overt, as well as a heartfelt focus on the sides and communities of Philadelphia that haven’t necessarily always been seen in film. Zagar joined The Shift to discuss working with Sandler and Hernangomez, the film’s Philadelphia ties and its many NBA cameos.


The Shift: Just to start, where did the idea for making a film so closely tied to basketball and specifically the NBA come from?

There’s a producer on this film, his name is Zack Roth, and I think it was his idea. One day, he was sitting there and he said, 'I would like to see a movie about a scout who finds a basketball player overseas.' From that idea, there was a script written, and from that, that script found its way to Adam Sandler. Another writer came on board, Will Fetters, and then I saw the script when it was almost done.

You’re from Philadelphia yourself, and I mean, this film feels like a bit of a love letter, not just to the 76ers or any basketball team, but to the city of Philly itself. You know, it had the location shots, the Rocky vibes, a straight up Rocky reference, so what was it like for you to include that love for where you’re from in the film?

I mean, it was heaven to make a film in my city. I was born there, my parents lived there. They’re artists and are very influential in the South Philly community, and it was exciting to have a chance to make a movie that brought my talents back to the city and to show locations that you hadn’t seen before in other Philly movies. That was fun and exciting for us, and to reference a lot of the stuff I grew up with. The chicken cheesesteaks I ate or the areas that you might not see on screen. It was beautiful.

One day, we blocked off the entire street in front of City Hall. I remember just lying down in the middle of the street, saying, “I can’t believe that I can do this!” I felt so privileged. It was really lovely.

Is it safe to say the 76ers are your favourite team?

Oh yeah. By far. And no one else compares.

How do you feel about the state of the team? Obviously, this year was a bit of a whirlwind season with everything leading up to the James Harden trade.

I’m excited, man! I think they were inches away from being in the [conference] championship. I mean, if [Joel] Embiid hadn’t gotten hurt, who knows, you know?

It was absolutely a good, competitive series, I mean...

Yeah, it was those people from Toronto that hit him in the face! [laughs]

Oh yeah, I know, I remember! Bit of pride and joy for us taking you guys to six games.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And, you know, hard-fought, and Toronto’s a great city.

Adam Sandler, I mean, we all know about his passion for basketball. The videos of his pick-up runs are honestly incredible. What was it like working with him on this film?

He loves basketball, so you know, it was thrilling to watch him play with these superstars and act with them. He’s a wonderful actor. And, to his credit, he wanted all real basketball players. He didn’t want to work with other actors. He wanted to work with people who really knew how to do the job, and I think they worked really well together. It was thrilling to watch.

His character being an NBA scout, in the preparation for that role, did you consult with any NBA front office members or scouts to research how that process usually works?

We had Dell Demps on set the entire time. He was the general manager for New Orleans and a scout himself, so he was always consulting with us. There were other scouts that we consulted with, and some of them are in the movie, which is cool, you know? The cool thing about scouts is that a lot of them are scouts, then they become coaches. Some of them stay scouts, you know, some of them find other jobs. We talked with scouts from the Sixers. Adam was dedicated to getting it right.

There was also [longtime basketball coach] Bobby Verdun, who [plays] Coach Bobby and was on set at all times giving us coaching lines, helping us with the realism of the part. That was really wonderful as well. So, we engaged with anybody we could that knew the real deal, and Adam was dedicated to getting it right.

One thing that stood out to me, though, was that this was also Juancho’s first acting role, and I thought he was, you know, really impressive. How did you go about the process of approaching and casting him for this role?

We saw a bunch of people. I work with an acting coach named Noelle Gentile. The original team, it was Adam’s team, and then I had Noelle and Jeremy Yaches who produces all of my films. We went through the same process in casting the basketball players that we did in casting [Zagar’s 2018 film] We the Animals and the young boys in that movie. They were also people who hadn’t acted before. Noelle has this uncanny ability to get the essence and the magic of a person to pop on screen in a way that I’ve never seen before.

When we saw Juancho, we knew that he was the right guy and that we had a movie because of him. It was like, once you had Bo Cruz, the movie could come together. Once we saw Juancho and his innate acting talent and what him and Noelle could do together, we were off to the races.

There were so many cameos or other NBA personnel appearances in this film. I was trying to keep note of them while I was watching, and that turned out to be pretty challenging with just how many they were, and some of them were deep cuts, like, not just superstars but scouts or front office personnel. Even your average fan might not recognize that flash to Jose Calderon or Dave Joerger coming out that tunnel. How did getting all those appearances come together?

Well, because of LeBron [James] and SpringHill [Entertainment], because of Adam, because of Dell, because of Joe Vecsey and Barry Bernardi and Zack Roth and Spencer [Beighley], we had these tentacles reaching in every direction. Kim Coleman, our casting director, trying to get all the basketball players that we could for the movie, and especially the Philly-centric ones, especially people like Allen Iverson and Dr. J. I mean, what a miracle it is that they’re in this movie.

In terms of having all these guys, all these NBA players and coaches and whatnot on set, who stood out as really fun to work with?

They were all cool. I mean, look, Boban [Marjanovic] is the coolest dude who has ever existed. He is the sweetest and funniest and most film-loving person I’ve ever met. Anthony Edwards is an incredible talent and a natural actor like I’ve never seen before. His innate charisma is just incredible. Dr. J was the most incredible gentleman you’ve ever met. Kenny Smith was wonderful. You know, they’re all just beautiful people. There wasn’t a single basketball player that I met that wasn’t the sweetest, and that was a really refreshing feeling.