For every movie based on a true story, there’s another regaling us with the fictional exploits of a top-tier fictional athlete. Even when a sports story isn’t real, it can still move and inspire us. That’s why today, the Gaming Today team is exploring the best fictional athletes of all time.
Rocky Balboa, “Rocky” Series
A mob heavy by day and club fighter by night, Rocky Balboa was handpicked by heavyweight champ Apollo Creed as the perfect opponent for the bi-centennial. In the 1977 Best Picture, Rocky lost that fight in a split decision, but in the second of what is now an eight-film franchise (“Creed III” hits theaters on March 3), he claimed the title in the rematch.
The fame that followed the win over Apollo may have softened Rocky, but he regained the “Eye of the Tiger” ahead of his rematch against Clubber Lang in “Rocky III”. Retirement followed, but Rocky wasn’t letting the death of his archrival-turned-best friend Apollo go unavenged, as he took down Russian giant Ivan Drago in IV.
And that takes us only about halfway through Rocky’s movie life.
Although he’s a fictional character, Rocky is Philadelphia’s greatest sports hero, and nothing that happened on Super Bowl Sunday in Glendale changed that.
Monica Wright, “Love and Basketball”
Monica Wright, the star of the romantic sports drama “Love and Basketball,” quickly became a part of the sports cultural landscape after the award-winning movie hit theaters in 2000. From superstar Candace Parker to young girls on junior-high teams, the star of the cult classic is the favorite movie character of countless female athletes and even some men’s players.
Set in the affluent African American enclave of Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles, Monica moves into the neighborhood as a young girl. She quickly shows her skills, outplaying the boys on the block, including next-door neighbor Quincy. He becomes her basketball rival and later her boyfriend as they enter college as student-athletes at USC.
Monica is headstrong, not afraid of being labeled a tomboy, and indifferent to stereotypical ideas about girls. As a cultural icon, she is a role model who helps solidify the confidence of girl’s basketball players as they drown out naysayers who question their skills and ambition. As an adult post-college, she looks beyond the court to realize that there are more important things in life than the game. This makes her one of the greatest fictional athletes of all time.
Air Bud, “Air Bud”
How can you stretch an athlete beyond the limits of human accomplishment? Make the athlete an adorable doggo, of course. Air Bud first took to the basketball court in his eponymous 1997 film. The 1998 follow-up, subtitled “Golden Receiver,” put the good boy on the gridiron. In 2000, we saw the release of “World Pup” and 2002 beckoned “Seventh Inning Fetch.” Since then, Air Bud has appeared in numerous other franchise films, including the puppy-laden spinoff “Air Buddies” series.
Due to a convenient rules loophole, Air Bud is allowed to join the basketball team in the first movie bearing the dog’s name, leading Josh Framm and his underdog squad to a championship victory. Only Air Bud could catapult his success on the court to a variety of other sports. Even Michael Jordan couldn’t make it on the baseball diamond. Air Bud could, and he even saw success on the volleyball court, soccer pitch, and football field. The canine deserves a slot among the best fictional athletes in movies.
Roy Hobbs, “The Natural”
As a young player on a barnstorming trip across the Heartland, Roy Hobbs struck out a fictional Babe Ruth on three-straight pitches at a county fair. He planned on becoming the greatest baseball player ever, the Shohei Ohtani of his time. But a zealot, for dubious reasons due to plot holes in the movie, decided to shoot him in a hotel room.
Decades later, he reappears to log one of the greatest baseball performances of all time after playing time opens following the death of a teammate who died chasing down a flyball.
Steve Nebraska, “The Scout”
Steve Nebraska may have gotten a bit of a late start to his career, but when scout Al Percolo discovered him in Mexico, it was clear he was destined to be a star. After a fantastic tryout, the Yankees signed Nebraska to a $55 million contract.
Nebraska made his debut for New York in Game 1 of the World Series. After a slight delay involving Nebraska standing on the roof of Yankee Stadium, a helicopter delivered him to the mound. That was not even close to the most impressive moment of the night.
Nebraska threw an immaculate game that evening, striking out all 27 batters on 81 consecutive strikes while hitting 109 mph on the radar gun. That’s a feat that will likely never be accomplished again, even in the movies.
Oh yeah, he also hit two solo home runs to lead the Yankees to a 2-0 victory.
While we never see what happens to Nebraska after that night, Red Leg Nation documented his unlikely career which included an arm injury and a memorable career for the Colorado Rockies.
Ling Ling, “Mr. Go”
Sure, there are dangers to starting a gorilla in a baseball game, but for the Doosan Bears, it was a winning decision. Ling Ling, who is nicknamed “Mr. Go,” is limited to pinch-hitting duties, but he still clobbers any baseball thrown his way, making him the most impactful player in the Korean Baseball Organization.
Due to an unfortunate incident involving Ling Ling climbing the jumbotron, he’s only allowed to play home games for the Bears. That was still enough to get them to the KBO playoffs, though.
Playing with a severely injured knee, Mr. Go delivers in the clutch in the final game of the series against Leiting, a relief-pitching mountain gorilla (long story). Mr. Go hits the ball so hard that it literally explodes. According to the KBO rulebook (I guess?), the players can pick up all of the pieces of the ball and tag Mr. Go. It turns out to be pretty dramatic since he is basically running with one good leg, but Mr. Go scores the winning run.
What followed was something the papers called a “Gorilla Skirmish” between Mr. Go and Leiting (slight understatement). In the end, Mr. Go ends up returning to his circus roots while Leiting ends up learning to play football in a zoo. Seems legit.
Lola Bunny, “Space Jam”
“Standing a scintillating three-foot-two, the heartthrob of the hoops, Lola Bunnyyyyyy!!” She may be small, but her impact on the culture — and on the Tune Squad’s game — was immeasurable.
Our girl Lola has about five minutes of total screen time in the original “Space Jam,” but she’s easily one of the best — and most memorable — parts of the film. She’s got style, sass, and serious hops. Her signature move? A powerfully balletic slam dunk that had Michael Jordan himself admitting, “The girl’s got some skills!” Where would the Tune Squad be without her prodigious on-court talent? Trapped in outer space on Moron Mountain, that’s where!
Whoever you believe to be the NBA’s GOAT, Lola has balled with both, teaming up with MJ in ‘96 and LeBron James in 2021. If you ask me, it all adds up to GFOAT: Greatest Fictional Athlete of All Time.
But remember: Don’t ever call her doll.
Roy Kent, “Ted Lasso”
“Ted Lasso” graced our best sports TV show list, so it’s only fitting that one of the show’s greatest characters gets his time in the spotlight here. Roy Kent begins as an aging superstar with a curmudgeonly attitude. Frustrated by his team’s lack of unity and terrible management, he lashes out at everyone, hiding his soft interior beneath a pastiche of anger and insults.
But when he realizes Ted Lasso is here to support and uplift rather than tear down, Roy does a full 180, going so far as to bridge the gap between himself and Richmond’s breakout star, Jamie Tart. Through season one, we witness Roy’s victory lap as his long and storied career comes to an explosive end. He carries on in the following seasons, showing us how a former star can retire with grace while still appreciating the sport he loves. Roy Kent absolutely deserves a slot as one of the greatest fictional athletes in television history.
Dottie Hinson, “A League Of Their Own”
You have to show impact when it comes to debates surrounding the “Greatest of All Time”. Not just the impact on the game, but the impact on the sport itself, or even the culture at large. Readers, I give you: the MVP of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), star catcher, and acting manager of the Rockford Peaches, Dottie Hinson.
In “A League of Their Own,” arguably the best baseball movie ever made (fighting words!), Dottie builds an elite team where there once was chaos, and takes the Peaches all the way to the baseball championship. But Dottie’s impact goes beyond her sport and even beyond the realm of the greatest fictional athletes. Over the years, she’s become an icon for the queer community, despite not being an openly queer character. Her very existence showed young girls that it was okay for a woman to chart her own course — and paved the way for the 2022 remake that critics called “euphorically, unapologetically gay.”
We have Dottie to thank for her part in pushing the envelope for women in sports, and for that, I say she’s one of the big screen’s best fictional athletes of all time.
Happy Gilmore, “Happy Gilmore”
Prior to the LIV Golf tour launching, the PGA’s biggest enemy was arguably Happy Gilmore. Faced with a tough decision to earn money quickly to save his grandma’s home, he put aside his hockey dreams when he learned he could drive the golf ball insanely far. He transitioned from the ice to the golf course with his brash personality and iconic swing, which didn’t pair well with the Pro Tour’s clean and elegant image.
Despite his immature behavior and rowdy crowd following, the money poured into the Tour. It was in their best interest to keep him around. What follows is Happy Gilmore’s legendary tale and why he’s one of the best fictional athletes. The story really has it all, including a budding rivalry, romance, and a golf drive that millions have attempted to mimic themselves.
Troy Bolton, “High School Musical”
“High School Musical” gave us quite a lot: Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, namely. And a ton of certified bangers accompanied by iconic dance numbers.
But Troy Bolton’s basketball-playing, singing-and-dancing duality did a lot of heavy lifting, especially for kids like me. I grew up doing choir and musicals, and many classmates (and even some teachers) perpetuated the false dichotomy between music and sports. Turns out, it’s possible to like both (I’m living proof simply by writing this blurb). Troy Bolton broke down barriers. He could make the game-winning shot, then gallivant across the stage performing a show-stopping musical diddy. He may not be the best fictional athlete in terms of pure skill, but it’s what he represents that really matters.
Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, “Bull Durham”
What fun is it rooting for the protagonist or the nicest, most well-mannered character in a sports movie? In “Bull Durham” (1988, directed by Ron Shelton), Kevin Costner does his usual side-smile, soft-hearted, everyman-hunk thing, and frankly, it’s boring. Costner’s Crash Davis is the same as his turn in “For Love of the Game” and “Field of Dreams.” That is to say, he’s corny, insufferable, and forgettable.
But Tim Robbins gives a virtuoso performance as the wild, sex-crazed pitcher Nuke LaLoosh in “Bull Durham.” Based partially on Steve Dalkowski, whom Shelton played minor league baseball with, LaLoosh is a slow-witted man-child with a golden right shoulder. He predictably gains the physical attention of the hottest “baseball Annie” in town, and he “announces his presence with authority” every chance he can get. Robbins creates the most memorable simple-minded jock in cinema history.
Harry Potter, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”
Wizarding school Quidditch had been rocked by nepotism scandals and dogged by years of corruption allegations when a freshman named Harry Potter arrived. Discounted immediately because of a pair of enormous glasses that somehow didn’t need goggle straps while riding a Nimbus 2001 and more amazingly didn’t impede his skills in chasing the Golden Snitch, Potter established himself as a cornerstone of the Gryffindor team by becoming a dominant seeker.
Through it all, “The Boy Who Lived” proved himself one of the greatest fictional athletes, overcoming mid-game dementor invasions, interference by evil teachers, rogue bludgers, and any number of wrenches in the Quidditch gears. Turns out, Harry’s skills would prove worthy of a world-saving series climax involving the very first Golden Snitch he ever caught.
Willie Beamen, “Any Given Sunday”
Now over 23 years old, “Any Given Sunday” is a sports drama that covers the Miami Sharks’ race to the football playoffs. After losing their first two quarterbacks to injury in a Week 13 game, third-stringer Willie Beamen is called into action. While the team doesn’t pick up the victory, Beamen does show promise. Over the coming weeks, the team starts to collect wins and climbs back into playoff contention. While the team rises in the standings, so does the ego of the backup quarterback.
“Any Given Sunday” tells the story of a fictional team with real-world difficulties. Beamen’s story is a classic one that shows how fame can get in the way of success and building relationships. It’s the best story that revolves around a third-string QB until the inevitable Brock Purdy documentary gets released.
Maximus/The Spaniard, “Gladiator”
Rare is the combination of cunning field commander and workman utility player, but Roman-general-turned-gladiator Maximus, brought to life by Russell Crowe, stands as one of the greatest fictional athletes in movie history.
Winning on the road — three time zones from Rome while running the offense against the Germanic tribes — is enough to cement such a legacy.
But consider, at the Coliseum, Maximus, known theatrically as “The Spaniard,” went 300-0 against the spread against the Lions, Tigers, Bears, giraffes, wolves, Gauls, and kings. Incredibly impressive in a sport where glory comes fast, vanishes fast, and careers can be brutally short.
Mickey O’Neil, “Snatch”
The 2000 crime-comedy “Snatch” features one of the most surprising and memorable performances of Brad Pitt’s career. In this spiritual successor to 1998’s “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels,” Pitt plays an Irish traveler, Mickey O’Neil, who finds himself unexpectedly drawn into an organized crime plot.
“One-Punch Mickey” is a bare-knuckle boxing champion with the ability to render opponents unconscious with a single blow. The trouble is, he seems not to know his own strength. His tendency to give his opponents too much credit and hit them harder than he means to is both a running gag and central to the film’s plot.
Though “harder than a coffin nail,” as the film puts it, O’Neil is the character most viewers will find themselves rooting for. Pitt plays the role with quirky charisma and a rogueish smile. It’s an altogether enjoyable film, but O’Neil’s scenes are the ones that’ll stick with you.
Ricky Bobby, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”
If you ain’t first, you’re last! Okay, but how could you compile a list of the best fictional athletes without including Ricky Bobby somewhere on it? Probably because skeptics have always insisted that NASCAR drivers aren’t actually athletes. Pishaw.
Will Ferrell starred as the titular Ricky Bobby, and this 2006 comedy classic had horsepower aplenty. Ricky Bobby’s on top and has it all — fame, fortune, and a “smoking hot” wife (Leslie Bibb) — until his confidence is rocked after the arrival of French F1 driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen). Ricky, of course, gets his revenge in the end after an epic foot race to the finish.
Many of the movie’s scenes were filmed in Charlotte, North Carolina — home to a majority of NASCAR’s teams — and it was a treat to watch Ferrell’s unique comedic talent on the set as well as his interactions with director Adam McKay.