Here’s why Netflix’s latest Adam Sandler film tips its hat to Temple’s basketball team
We spoke with executive producers and writers of Hustle to learn more about why they chose to include Temple in their story. Hint: They are huge fans of John Chaney.
On its face, Adam Sandler’s newest movie, Hustle, is a heartwarming homage to the city of Philadelphia and its passionate sports fans. But, if you listen closely, you’ll also hear Sandler and his fellow actors pay frequent, though subtle, respect to another Philadelphia institution: Temple University. In fact, Temple plays a foundational role in the backstory of Sandler’s character, Stanley Sugerman, whose experience competing on Temple’s basketball team sets the course of his career.
Sugerman, now a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers, discovers Bo Cruz, a street basketball player with incredible talent, while on a scouting trip in Spain. The pair team up with the hopes of getting Cruz, played by the Utah Jazz’s Juancho Hernangomez, a spot on an NBA team. Helping Cruz is about more than just helping the young player follow his dreams though. Sugerman sees it as an opportunity to rectify his own past mistakes. In his younger years, while playing on Temple University’s basketball team, Sugerman was in a car accident that destroyed his hand—and his dreams of playing basketball competitively.
So with Temple references happening throughout the film (we’ve counted eight so far), we decided to talk to Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, the writers and executive producers of this newly released Netflix film, about their experience producing Hustle and their decision to incorporate Temple into their story.
Hustle, now Sandler’s highest-rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes, is available for streaming on Netflix.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo credit: Scott Yamano/Netflix
Temple Now: Let’s take it from the top. First off, why was the city of Philadelphia chosen as the backdrop to your movie?
Taylor Materne: Philly is a basketball town and Philly basketball always represents a kind of grit and hustle, like that message of “Philly Tough” and all that. Playing Philly basketball is brutal and difficult and I always felt that that was a reflection of the resilience of the city. So I think channeling that energy was vital to making the story feel authentic and lived in. Hopefully it’s a story that feels relatable and a little bit more grounded than most. And I think that’s probably why the movie works as well as it has because it doesn’t feel as sanitized as it would have if it had been based in another city.
TN: So being authentic to Philly’s grit and energy was essential to how you told this story. Aside from using Temple in the backstory, what other ways did you try to make the movie more authentic?
Will Fetters: Having NBA players in the world was definitely something that made it real and authentic. Adam [Sandler] was the driving force behind wanting to get a director who could work with nonactors because he wanted to populate the world of Hustle with people from the NBA. Like the NBA combine, for example, Khris Middleton really would be there. So there was a push to have that authenticity. And then I think the big decision was to have Bo be played by an NBA guy who could act.
Photo credit: Netflix
TN: Tell us more about that. How did that translate into choosing Juancho Hernangomez and Anthony Edwards, in particular, as the protagonist and antagonist in the movie?
WF: I remember Jeremiah [the movie’s director] wanted me to watch Juancho’s [casting] tape immediately. This was before he was officially cast, but Jeremiah and Adam loved him. I watched his tape and I was like, this guy’s so good. You could see it in his first tape. He just had this passion and emotion and fearlessness that you don’t see from amateur actors. His tape just stood out above all the rest.
And then Anthony Edwards, that came from Juancho. Juancho sent a text message to Jeremiah about Anthony because they had played together on the Timberwolves and had a natural kind of chemistry and banter. And I mean, Anthony was another very impressive acting performance because he had to walk this line where he’s an antagonist, but he’s not a villain. And he did it perfectly. He has a natural charm that you just can’t teach.
TN: Now let’s get to the big question. Of all the schools in and around the Philadelphia area, why was Temple ultimately chosen to play such a vital role in Hustle’s backstory?
WF: So for Leon Rich’s character [Stanley’s best friend], I was trying to think of a college basketball team that would be believable to have an NBA player come from. And Temple has that history, a few NBA players have come from there. For me, choosing Temple was about being authentic to basketball as a sport. And then, obviously there is John Chaney and his story with Temple’s basketball team. When I think about Philadelphia basketball, I always think of Temple, and that's why I chose it for Hustle.
TM: It’s only natural that, as a storyteller, you want to tap into what Temple represents as a university in Philly and also as a basketball school, especially during the John Chaney years. My formative years playing basketball was during the time of Mark Macon, Eddie Jones, Aaron McKie and Pepe Sanchez. And, in particular, I found Mark Macon to be this heroic figure probably because I was like 8 or 9 when he made his historic run. I remember him making the Elite 8 [with Temple].
So that history is pretty ingrained in me because I’m just a big basketball fan. You cannot separate Temple basketball from Philadelphia. So to not utilize a school from the Philly college basketball scene for this movie would’ve been a disservice and, honestly, would’ve reeked of inauthenticity to people from Philly.
Photo credit: Scott Yamano/Netflix
TN: You’ve both mentioned John Chaney. I’m curious to know if his career influenced how you developed Hustle’s backstory at all? And did you consider including reference to him in the movie?
WF: If you took a basketball coach out of central casting, it would be John Chaney. I just remember he coached with such passion. He was always really sweaty and disheveled and just seemed like the kind of coach you wanted to have. I just loved his coaching, so he’s the guy I thought of more than anybody [while writing the script].
TM: John Chaney represented a true brotherhood and he developed that on Temple’s campus. They were so tough and they played such obscene defense that it was intimidating to face Temple—you knew it was gonna be a dog fight. I think that carried through the team’s history to today. And that’s rare to have a culture like that, that has sustained for so long. You just don’t see that in most college programs. And I think John’s fingerprints are all over that. He’s a Titan within Philadelphia basketball culture and we tried to utilize that wealth of Philly’s basketball culture more generally [for the film].
WF: There was actually dialogue in the first draft of Hustle’s script that referenced Chaney in order to frame the context of Stanley and Leon’s friendship. I made Chaney more of a presence in the lives of Stanley and Leon’s characters at first. As a little kid, I heard Chaney in press conferences and he just seemed like the kind of guy that cared a lot about his team and had a lot of wisdom. So I included dialogue that referenced Chaney and some wisdom that he had imparted on Leon and Stanley. I did that because I thought we were gonna need to create more authenticity around Leon’s character. But Kenny [who plays Leon’s character] was incredible [so the extra dialogue wasn’t needed].
TN: It sounds like you both know a lot about Temple’s basketball history. Did you need to do any additional research on our basketball program for the film?
WF: I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t do a ton of research because I didn’t need to. I already knew so much about Temple’s basketball program. But there is one thing I did some digging on. There is a scene that references a Temple basketball player named Marlon Daley. And for that, I actually did go back and look at the game log from a specific season years ago. When I was imagining that Leon and Stanley were on Temple’s team, I wanted them to use a real player’s name that used to play for Temple.