Adam Sandler’s ‘Hustle’ characters are just like Philly sports stars

Former 76ers general manager Billy King had a starring role in
Former 76ers general manager Billy King had a starring role in “Hustle” … as the 76ers general manager.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

On Wednesday, I spent a warm and sunny afternoon inside my home watching hustle, Adam Sandler’s new film about a 76ers scout who, by finding and mentoring a promising young player from Spain, hopes to save his career in the NBA. That’s right. I couldn’t enjoy a beautiful day because I had to watch a basketball movie. Such are the heavy burdens of a sports columnist.

hustle it was worth being cooped up for two hours. It hits all the right notes of a good sports movie: an underdog figure overcoming adversity, enough authenticity to make the plot and the action plausible, enough humor and snappy dialogue to keep the whole thing moving. And for those fond of Philadelphia, it has plenty of local touches that gave it a warm familiarity.

Among those touches were the similarities between several of the main characters and some real-life Philly sports figures. At times, the similarities were so strong that it seemed director Jeremiah Zagar and screenwriters Will Fetters and Taylor Materne had created the characters by drawing from the city’s sports scene and history. For instance…

♦ Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, the film’s protagonist, a former star guard at Temple who becomes a super-scout for the Sixers, the consummate basketball lifer. There are plenty of people who would fit that broad description, but Jack McMahon probably comes closest to matching it.

» READ MORE: The best — and worst — Philly sports movies of all time

McMahon was a guard for and the captain of the 1952 St. John’s University team that reached the NCAA championship game. From 1972 to 1986, he was the director of player personnel and an assistant coach for the Sixers — Pat Williams’ right-hand man as the two rebuilt the team. McMahon found Maurice Cheeks at West Texas State and Andrew Toney at Southwestern Louisiana. From 1977 to 1983, the Sixers reached the NBA Finals four times and won the ’83 championship, and they wouldn’t have accomplished that without McMahon’s acumen.

♦ Robert Duvall plays Rex Merrick, the longtime owner of the Sixers, beloved for his ties to and connection with the city, his loyalty to his employees, and his desire to keep the team in contention at all times. In other words, Merrick sounds very much like a composite of David Montgomery and ed snidertwo local owners who embodied those qualities.

♦ Juancho Hernangómez plays Bo Cruz, the phenom who is dominating a pickup game in Spain — and playing in work boots — when Sugerman spots him. Joel Embid grew up in Cameroon, not Spain, but his life parallels Cruz’s. Embiid didn’t touch a basketball until he was 15 years old. Within three years of that moment, he came to be regarded as the top prospect in the world. He became a multimillionaire when the Sixers drafted him in 2014, and he has become a superstar since. If he ever wins a championship, it’s not outlandish to think his story about him could be the stuff of a movie, too.

♦ Ben Foster plays Vince Merrick, Rex’s son, and from his wide collars to his bad basketball decisions, from his obnoxious egotism to his nepotistic rise within the organization, Vince is so obviously modeled after Bryan Colangelo that the filmmakers barely bothered to hide it.

An early scene inside the Sixers’ executive offices has Vince lobbying to have the team draft a German player, Haas, who will need at least three years to develop. Though he hasn’t seen Haas play in person, Vince argues that the analytics — “His true-shooting percentage was the same as Steph’s [Curry] at Davidson”—demand that the Sixers take a chance on him. At another point, Sugerman laments Vince’s desire to trade Embiid. I picture Sandler, Zagar, Fetters, and Materne hanging Colangelo’s photo on a wall and firing darts at it as they wrote and shot the movie.

♦ Heidi Gardner plays Kat Merrick, Rex’s daughter, who is smart, appreciative of Sugerman’s contributions, and has been around the franchise long enough to understand how it ought to be run. It’s too soon to say how julian lurie — the prospective heir to his father, Jeffrey, as the Eagles’ chairman — might fare in a similar role. But it is to his credit that, like Kat, he apparently is willing to learn the ins and outs of the family business from the ground up.

♦ Kenny Smith plays Leon, Sugerman’s best friend and backcourt mate at Temple, now a prominent NBA agent. The character bears a resemblance to and shares a first name with Cherry Hill native Leon Roseonce a power-broking agent himself, now the president of the New York Knicks.

» READ MORE: Julian Lurie named to formal role in Eagles front office as job training continues

♦ Finally, former Sixers general manager Billy King plays … Sixers general manager Billy King, who, in a brief exchange with Vince Merrick, disagrees with the idea of ​​drafting Haas. King isn’t in the film much, but he is as good at playing the Sixers’ GM as he was at being the Sixers’ GM. Interpret that criticize as you wish.

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