It’s safe to assume that just about every fan of the game of basketball knows that former NBA star Ray Allen starred opposite Academy Award winner Denzel Washington as Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s cult classic, He Got Game, which was released on May 1, 1998. But what some may not know is that Spike first offered the role to none other than Kobe Bryant.
Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen weren’t the only NBA players Spike Lee had in mind to play Jesus Shuttleworth
Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen were just two of a number of players that auditioned for the role of Jesus Shuttlesworth, a high school phenom from Coney Island that was under the national spotlight and being forced to choose between college and the NBA. Yeah, that kinda sounds like Kobe Bryant, doesn’t it? Well, outside of the Coney Island part. Stephon Marbury, who still believes the film was based on him as he’s from Coney Island and faced a similar decision, was asked to audition as well.
Spike Lee knew he wanted an NBA player for the part, as the actor playing Jesus had to be an elite-level player to make the film work. He wanted Kevin Garnett to audition. He wanted Allen Iverson to audition. He thought about Tracy McGrady. The person needed to be able to pass as a teenager so youth was certainly a factor.
In the end, numerous NBA players were cast in secondary roles, including Rick Fox, Travis Best, and Walter McCarty. But the role of Jesus Shuttlesworth needed to be filled and Spike Lee really wanted Kobe Bryant.
Kobe commits to shooting jumpers, not ‘He Got Game’
In 1997, Kobe Bryant was in his rookie year in the NBA and hadn’t yet become a starter for the Los Angeles Lakers, still coming off the bench behind Eddie Jones. But his production went up in the postseason. After averaging just 7.6 points per game in the regular season, Bryant averaged 17.6 in the playoffs. However, a career-defining moment came for Kobe in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz.
With the Lakers down 3-1 in the series, LA needed a Game 5 win to save their season and called on Kobe to be the hero. At the end of regulation, with the game tied at 89, Kobe pulled up for a jumper to win the game as time expired and threw up an airball. In overtime, three more airballs followed and the Lakers lost 98-93. Naturally, Kobe was not pleased.
It wasn’t long after that Spike Lee came calling about He Got Game but Bryant wasn’t having any of it. Spike desperately wanted Kobe for the project but the 18-year-old was committed to improving his game after what happened in Utah, not shooting a movie. In a past interview with The Undefeated, Bryant explained his decision.
“I’m not the most patient of a person. When you look at actors and the downtime involved, it’s just too much for me…I wanted to play ball. I wanted to go to Venice Beach and play, where actually I broke my wrists. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well. So, I felt like I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season. I don’t really have time for a film.”Kobe Bryant on turning down Spike Lee for He Got Game
It’s safe to say it was the right decision. It’s hard to picture anyone other than Ray Allen in the Jesus Shuttleworth role and Kobe Bryant’s hard work would pay off with five NBA titles and a seemingly endless list of accolades.
Spike Lee and Kobe Bryant would later work together on a different project
Years later, Kobe Bryant and Spike Lee would finally collaborate on a project, Kobe Doin’ Work, a documentary in which Spike followed Kobe around for a day during the Lakers’ 2007-2008 season. It was released on ESPN in 2009.
Kobe Bryant also made his own film following his retirement. Considered his love letter to the game, Dear Basketball, a short film based on Bryant’s letter to The Players’ Tribune in November 2015 shortly after announcing his retirement, won Bryant an Academy Award in 2018.
Following Bryant’s untimely death in January 2020, Spike Lee wore a purple and gold tuxedo with the No. 24 on it to the Academy Awards to honor his friend.