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The Name of the Game: Grand Slam Sports Classics

By Kevin Nelson · February 7, 2022

These sports scripts really knocked it out of the park!

It was morning. The sun had yet to rise. 

The brownstones of Brooklyn still stood formidable behind the orange glow of the street lamps. Our breaths were visible in the frosty January air.

A dollar cab pulled up. We loaded the trunk with equipment, crammed into the back seat, and made our way to the music video shoot. The smell of bodega coffee filled the cab as the director, Terence Nance, broke the silence.

“Filmmaking is a lot like sports,” he said (paraphrasing here). “Same thing with music. You prepare as much as you can. Then it’s time to hit the field, the stage, the set. It’s game time.”

I’ve thought a lot about that cab ride over the years. You can learn a lot about life through sports. I’d argue that there’s a sports analogy for most situations in life. The industry is a lot like a sports league, as well. You have the major leagues, the minors, all the way down to kids tossing a ball around in the backyard on a crisp autumn day — dreaming of when it’ll be their time under the lights. 

In the film industry, production is game day. 

A team of professionals comes together to perform specific roles at the highest levels possible. An old coach used to bark at us, “You should leave it all on that field. You should crawl off that field!”

Often, that’s what film crews do. Although there needs to be a change in labor standards, they leave it all on set for long hours with fast turnarounds. 

Like athletes, filmmakers need a solid game plan to do their jobs successfully on game day. For sports, it’s practice. In filmmaking, it’s preproduction, and that all starts with the screenplay. The playbook.

Let’s take a look at some screenplays that look beyond the game. From underdogs to true stories to romantic comedies, I’ve got you covered like a cornerback.

Scripts from this Article

Any Given Sunday

It took an entire team effort to write the screenplay for Any Given Sunday. Director Oliver Stone combined a number of influences to create a satirical behind-the-sidelines look at professional football — flaws and all. 

Stone originally began developing Monday Night, a script written by Jamie Williams, a former football player, and sports journalist Richard Weiner. He then optioned a separate spec script titled On Any Given Sunday by John Logan. The director would also incorporate a third screenplay, Playing Hurt, by Daniel Pyne as well as the 1994 book It’s Just a Bruise: A Doctor’s Sideline Secrets by sports doctor Robert Huizenga.

The final title page credits read as follows:

Written by Jamie Williams & Richard Weiner, John Logan, Daniel Pyne with revisions by Gary Ross, Raynold Gideon & Bruce A. Evans, John Logan, Lisa Amsterdam & Robert Huizenga. 

However, the WGA gave credit to John Logan and Oliver Stone while Williams and Weiner received technical consultant credits. The film was raw and real, but felt a bit disjointed — maybe lending credence to the saying, “There are too many cooks in the kitchen.”

With that said, Al Pacino’s, “Game of Inches,” speech is one of the greatest sports monologues ever written.

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A League of Their Own

Screenwriters Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz moved separately to California from New York City in the early seventies with hopes of making names for themselves. Being in a new city on the opposite coast and being from the same hometown, the two quickly bonded and became longtime writing partners, penning such classics as City SlickersParenthood, and Michael Keaton’s first film Night Shift.

After reinventing her career as an actor in classics such as Laverne & Shirley into a successful directing career, Penny Marshall saw a documentary titled A League of Their Own on television, about the AAGPBL women’s baseball league that was formed during World War II. The comedy-drama provided plenty of sentimentality, light-hearted laughs, and lines of dialogue that would go down in film history.

“There’s no crying in baseball!”

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Rocky

Sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in. Sylvester Stallone was struggling to keep his head above water while living as an actor in New York City. He lived with his girlfriend in poverty, working odd jobs and small bit roles to pay the bills. He even reportedly had to sell his dog to stay afloat before buying him back with Rocky money. During this time, he’d visit libraries to work on his writing. He was the quintessential underdog.

That’s when he saw Muhammad Ali box Chuck Wepner on March 24th, 1975. Struck by inspiration, he wrote the script for Rocky in three days. His agents saw potential but had a hard time selling the film considering Stallone’s ultimatum. No deal unless he also starred in the film. He knew the script’s potential and he’d regret letting the role go to someone else. Eventually, the script found a home that accepted his singular demand, and the film was made at around a million dollars. He knew his worth and stuck with his guns.

Just like his underdog protagonist, against all odds Rocky was nominated for ten Oscars at the 49th Academy Awards in 1977 and won for Best Picture, Best Directing, and Best Film Editing. Stallone proved everyone wrong. 

The film would launch a franchise that continues to expand with the help of a hard-hitting up-and-comer with the spirit of Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed combined.

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Creed

It wasn’t easy for Sylvester Stallone to hand over the reins of his beloved franchise. Stallone felt like 2006’s Rocky Balboa was a perfect send-off for the character and that the Italian Stallion’s journey was complete. That is until a young filmmaker named Ryan Coogler approached him with the idea to tell the story of Adonis Creed, the long-lost and wayward son of Apollo Creed.

Stallone balked at the idea because he didn’t want to tamper with something that was better off left alone, but Coogler was persistent. After the success of Fruitvale Station, the director approached Stallone again. Stallone noticed that despite Coogler winning awards and being offered dream jobs, he kept returning to the story of Adonis Creed. He was passionate about it. Stallone realized that he was operating on a different wavelength.

Stallone told Deadline:

“It is heartfelt, not monetary, not ego. It’s as though he has to finish a mission, which was a love letter to his father who had been very, very ill, and that stimulated the idea. There was just something about this kid, who was very, very physical in his manner, but sensitive and emotional. It kind of reminded me…of me, truth be told. So I finally said, ‘You know what? Someone took a chance on me, once. I’m just going to throw caution to the wind and let him run with it.’”

It paid off and not only rocketed Coogler into the director’s chair of Black Panther, but also helped revitalize a franchise known to get back up just when you think it’s down for the count.

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I, Tonya

After watching a documentary on Tonya Harding, screenwriter Steven Rogers was inspired to write a film about the infamous crime. He interviewed Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly separately, and their retelling of the events differed wildly. Rogers found his way into the story. 

By relying on a cast of seedy and unreliable narrators, Rogers is able to layer the script with dark humor over the framework of the 1994 bungled criminal attempt to cripple Nancy Kerrigan. In real life, they were the antagonists of the story — especially in the eyes of the media. Rogers does a great job of flipping this narrative by telling the story from their point of view. As they say, every great antagonist is the protagonist of their own story. 

Rogers approaches his characters honestly and respectfully — bringing a new perspective to an often one-sided narrative.

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The Wrestler

I’ve heard people say that wrestling isn’t a sport — and they’re dead wrong. Professional wrestling requires just as much training and practice as other sports, and no one would dare say that if they caught a No Ring Death Match in a cramped Brooklyn Bar and saw blood flowing from thumbtack body slams and garden weasels being used as weapons. 

Written by Robert Spiegel, The Wrestler focuses on the seedy underbelly of the world of wrestling that most people are unaware of. The semi-pro and amateur matches are a right of passage for wrestlers trying to make the big show, or just trying to make a buck because their glory days are over. Approaching a popular concept or subject from a different angle can be a great narrative exercise. The themes of Spiegel’s script grapple with the physical and psychological trauma, as well as the sacrifice the protagonist must endure for his craft. After all, wrestling is his art.

Spiegel worked as a writer and editor for The Onion until the company moved to New York. He quit and dedicated himself to screenwriting full time, churning out comedic scripts without much luck. He wrote a darker spec called Big Fan that caught the attention of director Darren Aronofsky, who thought Spiegel’s writing style was perfect for an idea he had about a down and out wrestler. 

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Million Dollar Baby

Paul Haggis made a name for himself in the 1980s and 1990s working his way up writing for television shows. He went from writing episodes to producing them, and even helped create shows such as Walker, Texas Ranger and Family Law.

When he left Family Law, he read a collection of short stories by F.X. Toole called Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner. Toole was the pen name of former boxing trainer Jerry Boyd. Haggis bought the rights to the stories and wrote Million Dollar Baby on spec. It took four years to sell the script and ended up in development hell. It even had a hard time after Clint Eastwood became attached as director and co-star. The fight isn’t over until you stop swinging.

Million Dollar Baby was nominated for the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 77th Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture. The film helped solidify Haggis as a powerful feature writer and gave him creative control over his follow-up, Crash.

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Bull Durham

To keep with the theme of having a personal connection to your story, writer and director Ron Shelton played minor league baseball for five years after college. He started in the Baltimore Orioles’ farm system before relocating several times across the country. While playing AAA baseball (the highest minor league rank before the major league), he realized that he’d never make the big leagues. He was already 25, middle-aged in baseball years, so he went back to school before moving out to Los Angeles to join the art scene. 

One of his earlier scripts reflected on his time as a minor league player. It was about a pitcher and catcher. He scrapped the rest and approached that singular idea from the point of view of a woman caught in a love triangle between the two. She was named Annie after the nickname minor league baseball players gave their groupies (Annies), yet her character had agency and a strict moral code. On a road trip around North Carolina, Shelton recited the opening pages on a voice recorder. When he got back to Los Angeles, he wrote the script in about twelve weeks. 

This screenplay is a hilarious look at what it takes to make it to the major leagues and is the perfect allegory for that strange gray area.

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Jerry Maguire

If you’ve ever seen Almost Famous, you’ve gotten a glimpse of the type of life led by Cameron Crowe. He began writing articles for his school newspaper at the age of 13 and quickly started contributing music reviews to local underground publications. 

After graduating from high school at the ripe age of 15, he embarked on a trip to Los Angeles. Along the way, he met the editor of Rolling Stone magazine, Ben Fong-Torres, who hired him. He became the youngest contributor to Rolling Stone and wrote profiles and conducted interviews with The Allman Brothers Band, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Neil Young, and more. When Rolling Stone moved to New York in 1977, he stayed behind and started working on an idea for a book. He went undercover as a senior at Clairemont High School and wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, which he adapted into his breakout film.

In developing Jerry Maguire, Crowe was coming off a lackluster release of his film Singles and decided that he wanted to make a classic film like the black and white ones he’d see late at night on television. He gravitated towards Billy Wilder, specifically The Apartment’s portrayal of a then-contemporary working man who falls in love with an elevator operator.

It wasn’t until Crowe read an article about sports attorney Leigh Steinberg that Crowe decided to set the script within the money-hungry world of sports agents as the backdrop for the romance. Once again, here’s a script that focuses on a side of professional sports that we seldom see.

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Raging Bull

Robert De Niro read Jake LaMotta’s autobiography Raging Bull: My Story while filming The Godfather: Part II and spent years championing the book’s potential to be made into a film. He approached Martin Scorsese, who rejected the idea. He just found sports, and particularly boxing, to be boring. After the success of Taxi Driver, Scorsese entered a dark period of partying and drug abuse, which ultimately landed him in the hospital. 

De Niro visited him in the hospital and asked the director if he wanted to live or die. 

De Niro said, “If you want to live, let’s make this picture.”

To save his life and his career — they made the picture, initially hiring Mardik Martin (Mean Streets) to write the script. Upon completion, not many people were happy. United Artists, the production company footing the bill would in no uncertain terms not finance the film as is, so they turned to Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader, who brought the film closer. Still, United Artists was afraid it would receive an X rating and never be distributed. Scorsese and De Niro spent some time on the island of Saint Martin to rebuild the script but ultimately didn’t receive credit from the Writers Guild of America.

Scorsese says that his filmmaking style was kamikaze, and the writing reflects the frenetic energy of mind suffered by the main character, who was likely dealing with the symptoms of CTE.

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The Karate Kid

Surprisingly, The Karate Kid and all the aftermath of the LaRusso and Lawrence feud is somewhat based on true events. Screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen was beaten up by a gang of bullies at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. You know the rest. He joined a dojo and studied martial arts to defend himself from future run-ins. Pretty badass if you ask me. He was from the Bronx, after all. Sensing that his teacher taught martial arts to inflict pain and violence, Kamen left and found the practice of Okinawan Gōjū-ryū under a Japanese teacher who didn’t speak English but studied under Chōjun Miyagi.

When his mentor Frank Price told Kamen that producer Jerry Weintraub optioned an article about a boy being raised by a single mother who earned a black belt to fight back against bullies, he knew he was perfect for the assignment. Kamen delivered a knockout flying kick (some would say was illegal) and the film went on to become a massive franchise. 

The film series has recently been adapted into a television series. Cobra Kai is yet another example of how writers can approach classic intellectual properties or stories from a different perspective, as Cobra Kai mainly tells the story from the POV of antagonist Johnny Lawrence. A shift in perspective can make all the difference to a story. In this case, it lets millennials bask in all its cheesy nostalgic glory and welcomes a new generation to a classic film series. 

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Whip It!

Written by Shauna Cross and adapted from her own 2007 novel Derby Girl, Cross achieved success as a screenwriter in a roundabout way. The story is a coming-of-age sports dramedy set in the world of a rural roller derby league but she was at first reluctant to tell this story.

After moving to Los Angeles and finding little traction, Cross’s friends finally convinced her to write a fictional account of her time as a derby girl in the early days of the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls league. After being introduced to a book agent who showed interest in the idea, she decided to put screenwriting on hold and wrote the novel. Suddenly, success came fast. She followed up the novel with a script adaptation.

With both script and manuscript in hand, she approached publishers and production companies alike. She pitched it to Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films and after reading the script, Drew Barrymore chose to make it her directorial debut. The appeal of Whip It! lies in Cross’s personal connection to the story as well as exploring and bringing attention to an uncommon and somewhat underground sport. The film helped revitalize interest in roller derby and provided a much-needed dose of woman empowerment.

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Ford v Ferrari

Ford v Ferrari spent years in development at 20th Century Fox. The original script by Jason Keller was named Go Like Hell after A.J. Baime’s book Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans. The project was scrapped until brothers and screenwriting partners Jez & John-Henry Butterworth were brought on with their take of the project. It’s a historical sports drama that tells the story of a lesser-known event from a sport often ignored beyond the Fast and Furious film series: auto racing.

When adapting real-life events, it can be hard to decide when to be factual and when you should use creative license. Sometimes you need to bend the facts a little bit to service the story.

While speaking with The Wrap, John-Henry Butterworth said, “You’ve got to try to stick to the truth rather than the facts…And sometimes that means the characters are amalgamations of real characters. We might take what happened to four people and put it on one actor — not because we’re trying to misrepresent anyone, but to give you access to the primary truth.”

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Foxcatcher

One day, screenwriter E. Max Frye got a call from his agent, who also represented director Bennett Miller. Miller had read one of Frye’s scripts and thought he might be a good fit for a story Miller had been obsessing over for months. They met casually and talked about the project. Dan Futterman was brought on by Miller to do rewrites. The entire process took six years.

Similarly, the events of the story take place over ten years, so it was up to the screenwriters to condense a decade of events into a span of two years to make a cohesive story. When writing true crime stories, writers need to navigate the difficult task of respecting the real-life people behind the characters, particularly those who were hurt. 

Subtle interactions between the brothers take place in the action lines rather than the dialogue lines. Drama isn’t always spoken. 

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Finding Forrester

Finding Forrester earned screenwriter Mike Rich a Nicholl Fellowship in 1998. It’s the story of a gifted black teen from the Bronx who befriends a reclusive writer that mentors his writing. This film was definitely an inspiration for me. 

It’s interesting to learn that Rich never even stepped foot in New York before writing Finding Forrester. He was nearly 40 years old and working as a radio DJ. He’d squeeze in writing time after his shift and before his kids came home from school. This was his first screenplay and first produced film. So how did he do it? He got the idea from an on-air discussion and just set out to, 

“Create great characters, within a great story.”

He told the Los Angeles Times, “There’s an old rule that you should write what you know, but I’ve never believed in it,” Rich said. “I think you should write what moves you.”

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Sports are a lot like life. You get hit hard, knocked down, but the play is still going. You gotta get up and get back in there. There’s always room for a glorious comeback. The more you practice, the better you’ll be. Proper technique is stronger than undisciplined force. The game is 90% mental and 10% physical. Don’t celebrate until you cross the goal line. If there’s time left, there’s still a chance. And once time runs out, that’s it. 

Hopefully, you left it all on the page.

Scripts from this Article