Adam Sandler Talks Bringing His Passion For Hoops And His Heart To Basketball Drama Hustle

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Adam Sandler play a different game in Hustle. It’s no Happy Gilmore for basketball: The Netflix film stars the comedian – and sometimes popular drama actor – in an emotionally charged story set in the context of the NBA.

“I knew this movie was a different feeling for me,” admits Sandler, 55, “but it’s kind of a combination of things I’ve done in the past and a new version of who I am.”

Directed by Jeremiah Zagar (who Sandler recruited for the project after watching his acclaimed independent film in 2018 We the animals), produced by james lebronand filled with cameos from NBA players and coaches, Hustle marks Sandler’s return to dramatic territory and a basketball milieu, following the unnerving 2019 thriller Uncut Gems. The actor plays Stanley Sugerman, an unlucky Philadelphia 76ers scout who stumbles upon an unknown talent, Bo Cruz (played by Utah Jazz forward Juancho Hernangómez), while overseas in Spain. Without his team’s approval, Stanley decides to help the untested player try his luck at turning pro, hoping to revive his own career in the process. In basketball terms, he tries to land a shot on the half court as the clock ticks down.

Hustle

Scott Yamano/Netflix

“It really is a Rocky story,” Sandler says. “And I’m not Mickey in it — there’ll never be another Mickey — but I like being that kind of guy, talking to a young guy and getting him fired.

Before HustleDuring his June 8 debut on Netflix, Sandler spoke exclusively with EW about bringing his love of basketball to the project, hanging out (and shooting hoops) with pro athletes on set, and why he can no longer publicly support any NBA team.

WEEKLY ENTERTAINMENT: You’re obviously very passionate about basketball, and your movies have already incorporated that, but this is the first time you’ve made a real movie about basketball. Why was this the right project to finally do this?

ADAM SANDLER: LeBron’s company and [producer] Joe Roth sent the script over, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s definitely something I could get excited about.’ I liked the feeling, the father-son relationship that came out of it, and I just connected to a lot of things in it, [like how] having to go on the road and miss your family hurts. And some of the advice my character gives to Bo Cruz in the movie is, “If you want to go, it has to be the thing you think about the most. You can’t stop thinking about it.” When I was younger and getting into the acting world, that was kind of my thought process back then. If you’re dying to do something, that should become the goal, and you probably shouldn’t think about too many other things.

How did Juancho end up acting in the film?

The whole search process for Bo Cruz was done during quarantine. Me and Jeremy and [writer Will Fetters] would be on Zoom, working on the script and getting these videotapes of basketball players auditioning. We saw a lot of great players and a lot of guys who were good at playing too. Juancho, I don’t think it’s one of his dreams [to act]; I just think he had time for himself when he was hanging out like everyone else, and he made a tape. We were like, “Boy, this guy is a natural.” And the fact that he was a great player, and a young man, and still passionate about making a name for himself – it was all connected.

I really got closer to Juancho and I really feel like family with this guy. I couldn’t believe what a good actor this guy was, how easy it was, and how little it meant to him. At the end of the day, I was like, “Man, that was good!” He was like, “Oh, was that it? OK, great, thanks, man.” And then he would move on. He wouldn’t talk about it. It wasn’t his first love, you know? He’s just kind of like, “I gotta go practice my basketball, man. I gotta get out of here.” I think it helps a lot not to have that part of your brain that says, “Oh my God, I hope I’m doing this right.” [Acting] isn’t his life, so it makes him more comfortable.

Hustle

Hustle

Scott Yamano/Netflix

How does this role compare to some of the other dramatic work you’ve done in the past?

There were a lot of deep scenes that touched me, playing a guy who just worked hard his whole life and didn’t exactly achieve his goal, being neglected and people at work getting in his way. Many people have experienced this in their life. I knew this movie was a different feeling for me, but it’s kind of a combination of things I’ve done in the past and a new version of who I am.

How many hoops did you shoot with Juancho and the other NBA players on set?

Oh my god, those were such good times for a guy like me watching these guys. I played around a bit – they slowed down the game to 90% so I could play with them. But I just loved talking to guys. I got to meet a lot of coaches and talk a lot about hoop. I know the hoop, but I don’t know it like those guys. They know every historical moment and everything that happens. And now when I watch games, I literally have like 15 teams I can shoot for, because we’ve all become friends.

The cameos in Hustle are crazy – it’s a treat for fans, both in terms of current and legendary players. Were there any players who worked on the film that you were particularly looking forward to meeting?

All the guys have done us such favors so I don’t want to point fingers at anyone but I’m sure they would all agree that [working with] Julius Erving, with what he did for the game and what he did for all of us, was truly an honor. Shaking the guy’s hand, talking to him and laughing with him, was something that would have confused my dad. We talked a lot about Dr. J in my house, and I had a poster of him in my room growing up. He was a sweetheart, and I can’t thank him enough.

And honestly, I can’t thank everyone who was in the movie enough. They did these long days, and there was no part of them that said, “Let’s hurry up and get this over with. We all hung out together and had a great time talking. A lot of them were talking about how to make movies, and then a lot of the guys who helped put the movie together were big hoop fans, so we talked about hoop with them. It was just a massive blow. It will be difficult to have a set that looks like this in my life.

Who are you rooting for in the NBA playoffs right now?

It’s a good question. I can’t tell you who I’m shooting for. Now that I’m friends with everyone, I’m happy for them all. I text all the guys after games, and if I said one team, there would be 14 guys who would kick my ass. So I can’t say anything. [Laughs]

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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