'He Got Game' at 20: How Denzel Washington pissed everyone off by scoring on Ray Allen

Jon San
Supervising Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

On paper and on the court, a professional basketball player should demolish a professional actor. But when Ray Allen squared up against Denzel Washington for the iconic final scene in 1998’s He Got Game, fate, as it were, took over.

“It was supposed to be 11-0,” Allen recently told Yahoo Entertainment. The two-time NBA champ has a new autobiography out called From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love, and he recalled filming the Spike Lee classic, which turns 20 this year. “But when we started playing, [Denzel] started shooting the ball, and the ball was going in,” said Allen.

Lee, who also wrote the film, had scripted high school basketball phenom Jesus Shuttlesworth (Allen) handily beating his estranged and incarcerated father Jake (Washington) in a blowout game.

In the film, the stakes are high: If Jesus loses, he signs to play ball at the fictional Big State which, in turn, gets his dad out of prison early (the prison warden is a fanatical supporter of Big State). 

He Got Game, which turns 20 this year, stars then-NBA basketball player Ray Allen in his first-acting role, as the iconic high school phenom Jesus Shuttlesworth. Denzel Washington plays his estranged father, the incarcerated Jake Shuttlesworth. (Photo: Everett Collection)

But Washington, who played on the JV team at Fordham for two seasons, threw the script out the window.

“Funny story,” Lee told Yahoo Entertainment. “In the script, Jesus is supposed to beat his father 11-nothing. People don’t know that Denzel played junior varsity basketball at Fordham under [famed college and pro] coach P.J. Carlesimo. So no matter what I wrote, he was intent on scoring at least one basket. And Denzel threw up three or four lucky shots that went in” (Watch Lee recount his version of the story at 2:41, below).

In a 2006 interview with the Wilmington, N.C., Star-News, Washington said, “I just wanted to make some shots … You knew who was going to win. So let’s play the game and see who wins.”

Allen, who at the time of He Got Game played for the Milwaukee Bucks, said Denzel’s unscripted baskets upset the crew and his acting coach, Susan Batson. “Everybody on set, including my acting coach, was up in arms,” he told Yahoo. “They were mad at me because I let him score.”

He continued: “We cut at one point, and I went over to [my acting coach], and she’s like, ‘What are you doing? You’re not supposed to let him score.’ I was like, ‘Susan, basketball is unpredictable. I can’t zap my eyes and make the ball not go in. Once he shot it, I’m at the mercy of whether it goes in or not.’”

Lee recalled, with a chuckle, that it was Allen who paused the scene. “Ray Allen called time-out … ‘Time out, Spike!’ The script says Denzel wouldn’t score any baskets. I said, ‘That’s what the script said. It’s after that.'”

Jesus ends up beating his father 11-5. But if you have modest lip-reading skills and excellent zooming capabilities, check out the below video at :44. You can make out Jesus mouthing 11-0 even though he audibly says 11-5, meaning that the revised audio was probably later dubbed in. Point, Denzel.

Allen reflected on Washington’s unexpected scoring, saying, “Ultimately, it made for a good scene because it was truly organic.” But don’t mistake that for complacency over getting scored on. “I’m frustrated if anybody ever scores on me,” said Allen. “If my kids score on me when I’m shooting outside in the yard, I’m frustrated.”

Ray Allen’s autobiography From the Outside is available now.

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