Sports Movies

Ranking the Believability of 10 'True' Sports Movies of All Time

Scott JanovitzFeatured ColumnistMay 6, 2014

Ranking the Believability of 10 'True' Sports Movies of All Time

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    Randy "The Ram" Robinson takes flight in The Wrestler
    Randy "The Ram" Robinson takes flight in The WrestlerThe Wrestler (Director Darren Aronofsky)

    Sometimes real-life events are too good to experience just once.

    Hollywood filmmakers agree (see the thousands of "Based On A True Story" movies that have been made)—especially as it relates to sports movies.

    When done right, sports stories can lead to big-screen magic. Unbelievable and inspirational all at once.

    But the perfect story, those pre-wrapped and ready-made for cinematic exploitation, can be hard to come by. However, few movie executives have let such scarcity bother production. 

    If the real story isn’t quite good enough, producers and directors will change it until it is.

    This slideshow explores 10 sports movies based on true stories that stick perfectly to the script, as well as ones that were spiced up in the most absurd, entertaining fashions possible—ranking them from most to least believable.

10. The Blind Side (2009)

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    The Blind Side (2009) is a great movie that isn't too far-fetched.

    Michael Oher overcame poverty and a general lack of guidance to get a full football scholarship to the University of...stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

    It may be a sad truth, but if you look around the SEC, Oher's story isn’t exactly one-of-a-kind. What was unique about Oher was his 6'6", 300-pound high school frame.

    Of course, that very same frame is all the more reason to believe this legendary tale.

9. Rudy (1993)

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    Rudy (1993) is the story of a die-hard Notre Dame football fan who, despite both average athleticism and intellect, finds a way to enroll at the school and walk onto the football team.

    The movie teaches lessons of persistence and fortitude—especially if you’re an underdog looking to dream big or happen to have a friend killed in an explosion at a local steel mill.

    However, it really isn’t that remarkable of a movie.

    If you’re asking me to believe that a 5'10", 170-pound unathletic nobody managed to become a walk-on with Notre Dame’s football team and basically never play, well...I’m right there with you.

8. Moneyball (2011)

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    A true story about Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane who helped revolutionize the game of baseball—from the way players are analyzed to the method by which teams are constructed.

    Moneyball (2011) is a fascinating and dramatic look at the advent and implementation of sabermetrics, yet one that capitalized on numerous divergences from reality when the story becomes a bit more ordinary.

    For starters, there’s no way a real-life business (the Athletics) was paying manager Art Howe millions of dollars to be that miserable of a person.

    Secondly, Paul DePodesta (played by Jonah Hill) was supposedly just a recent Harvard graduate and prodigy in the movie.

    In reality, DePodesta spent two years as a scout and another as a special assistant to Cleveland GM John Hart. He also didn’t single-handedly create sabermetrics.

    In a way, the movie lied to us.

    Advanced analytics matter, but the 2002 Athletics didn’t simply find a way to manufacture runs and win as the film depicts.

    In reality, Oakland found success by letting three dominant pitchers—Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder—go to work on the rest of the American League.

7. Remember the Titans (2000)

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    As we make our way down the list, the movies become increasingly unbelievable.

    Remember the Titans (2000) asks us to believe that, in 1971, it took a Virginia high school and its football team mere weeks to overcome racial integration and all its surrounding prejudices.

    In fact, for these Titans, the process was so seamless that they managed to change the racial climate of an entire town en route to a football state championship.

    In a big, dark movie theater, it played as a truly remarkable story. In truth, it was a bit less so.

    T.C. Williams was actually integrated six years prior to their championship season and was far from an underdog (ranked No. 2 nationally at the time).

    Their situation wasn't all that unique either—every team in its league had been integrated by then, too.

6. Hoosiers (1986)

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    Hoosiers (1986), one of the all-time great sports movies, always seemed too good to be true.

    It tells one of the quintessential underdog stories, focusing on the overwhelmed and undermanned 1954 Milan High School basketball team that is eventually led to a state title by a down-and-out former college coach.

    There are underdogs winning all over the place in this one. 

    Of course, Hollywood couldn’t let facts get in the way. 

    After all, how could Gene Hackman play the real coach (Marvin Wood)—a then-26-year-old former Butler basketball star?

    And would the movie have been half as good knowing that the actual Milan team made the state semifinals the previous year?

    Or that Coach Wood cut 48 players before settling on what was supposedly an undermanned 10-player rotation?

    But hey, who has time for details?

5. The Wrestler (2008)

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    Loosely based on the lives of a few different wrestlers (Jimmy Snuka, Lex Luger and Jake "The Snake" Roberts), The Wrestler (2008) was amazing in many ways.

    Its incredibly graphic depiction of what it takes to be a professional wrestler was one of those ways.

    In fact, this film was lauded for its visually and emotionally accurate portrayals. It’s this fact that makes it so mystifying.

    Plain and simple, it’s difficult to understand a man who readily takes staples and nails to the chest and back for nothing more than average pay—much less one who puts his life on the line in the process.

    That Hollywood needed to do so little to add intrigue is scary and rings all too true when you consider the recent death of Ultimate Warrior—may he rest in peace.

4. The Fighter (2010)

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    In the same vein as The Wrestler, The Fighter (2010) is unbelievable in its truth.

    From Micky Ward’s unlikely rise to boxing champion to his brother Dicky’s tragic fall from drug use, the film tells unbelievable stories of both crisis and redemption.

    That portions of it all were actually captured at the time by an HBO documentary titled “Crack in America” is all the more surreal.

    And let’s not forget Mark Wahlberg’s surprisingly better-than-passable performance which was pretty unbelievable too.

3. Miracle (2004)

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    Miracle (2004) is another movie that was unbelievable precisely because it didn’t stray too far from reality.

    By now, the impossible story of America’s hockey amateurs defeating the then-unbeatable Soviets in Lake Placid is well known. However, the way that head coach Herb Brooks manipulated the roster and his players’ emotions was not...that is, until the movie’s release.

    The legendary conclusion to the 1980 Olympic semifinal was improbable enough. The genius required to get there, which was captured so eloquently on the big screen, was nothing short of a miracle.

2. Cool Runnings (1993)

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    Cool Runnings (1993) has a ton going for it. It answers the age-old question—how is one to bobsled if there isn’t any snow—and finally gave Doug E. Doug (Sanka) the limelight he so clearly deserved.

    Fittingly, the film always seemed too good to be true—because it’s mostly not.

    A team from Jamaica did compete in the 1988 Winter Olympics, but that’s about all that reality and Cool Runnings have in common.

    In the movie, three of the team’s four members are world-class sprinters and are only there after falling over each other in a then-recent Olympic qualifying race.

    But in reality, none of them were sprinters.

    In fact, they were barely even fast: The team didn’t crash its bobsled while putting up a record-setting pace in the finals. It crashed due to user error during a mandatory qualifying race.

    And if you’re wondering whether the movie took creative liberty with its famous closing scene, the answer is of course it did.

1. Invincible (2006)

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    Next time you find yourself at the local watering hole, look around the place and find its most physically impressive bartender.

    Then, after you’ve squinted for long enough, ask yourself this question: in even the most favorable of scenarios possible, could you ever see this guy not only making an NFL team, but scoring a touchdown in a regular season game?

    I’ll bet a lot of money your answer is no.

    However, such is the story of Vince Papale—at least as it’s told in the film Invincible (2006).

    Not so shockingly, only part of the astonishing tale is true. 

    Papale was at one time or another a bartender and he did actually make the Philadelphia Eagles following a private workout.

    What the movie doesn’t tell you is this: Papale had been playing semi-professional football for several years prior to his stint with the Eagles.

    Additionally, Papale's epic touchdown against the New York Giants never actually happened; in reality, he  only recorded one reception with the Eagles and never scored a touchdown.

    Other than that, Invincible is almost 100 percent true.

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