‘Hustle’ Director Jeremiah Zagar Tells Local Love Story

Bo Cruz crouches to a sitting Stanley Sugarman at the side of the basketball court.
HUSTLE. (L-R) Juancho Hernangomez as Bo Cruz and Adam Sandler as Stanley Sugerman in Hustle. Cr. Scott Yamano/Netflix © 2022.

In “Hustle,” the summer feel-good sports film now streaming on Netflix, a luckless basketball scout Stanley Sugarman, played by Adam Sandler, meanders down the streets of South Philadelphia’s Italian Market with his wife Teresa Sugarman (Queen Latifah). The neon animal silhouettes in the window of Cannuli’s Quality Meats and Poultry gently light their faces.

As Stanley refines his scrappy Spanish protege Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) after bringing back the amateur sportsman from Mallorca, they play pick-up games at the court in the Capitolo Playground, with Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak shops providing an apt backdrop.

The film — loaded with Philadelphia grit and blink-and-you-miss-it cameos — is the latest project of locally-born Jewish director Jeremiah Zagar.

For Sandler and writers Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, the film is a love letter to basketball; for Zagar, it’s a love letter to his home and his childhood.

Zagar’s name carries the weight of a dynasty. His parents were artists who shaped the landscape of South Street. His father, Isaiah Zagar, is the mosaicist behind Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. 

Raised on John’s Water Ice and his parents’ hippie values, Zagar developed his parents’ same loyalties.

“My father writes all over his walls: ‘Philadelphia is the center of the art world, and art is the center of the real world,’” Zagar said. “So … this idea that Philly was the center of the world was sort of my parents’ ethos, and I subscribed.”

Zagar frequented the Landmark’s Ritz 5 at the Bourse and the Theatre of the Living Arts, where he “found refuge” from the noise of being a teenager.

He also inherited a love of Philadelphia sports. Sixers player Allen Iverson was Zagar’s hero; he still remembers the outfit Iverson’s mother wore to a finals game against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2001.

“That’s how much I loved Allen Iverson; I thought about what his mother was wearing,” Zagar said. “I also loved him because he loved his mother so much, and I love my mother so much.”

Inevitably, Zagar devoured sports films — “Blue Crush,” “Remember the Titans,” “Hoosiers” — finding that sports stories and filmmaking had a lot in common.

“It seems like an insurmountable thing, making a film; it seems like an impossible dream to achieve a career in sports, but you try anyway,” Zagar said. “I love that process of willing yourself to achieve something impossible. That that’s what sports films are about, and that’s what they instill in the audience.”

Jeremiah Zagar watches Hernangomez and Edwards crouch and look at the camera.
HUSTLE. (L-R) BTS – Director Jeremiah Zagar, Juancho Hernangomez as Bo Cruz and Anthony Edwards as Kermet Wilts in Hustle. Cr. Scott Yamano/Netflix © 2022.

Zagar has his Jewish upbringing to thank in part for the start of his film career. He met producer Jeremy Yaches in the seventh grade at what is now Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. The two were in the lower levels of Hebrew classes (Zagar was self-admittedly a “poor” Hebrew speaker) and began making films together, eventually starting Public Record, a Brooklyn production company.

The duo’s 2008 documentary “In a Dream” about Isaiah Zagar and his art was Emmy-nominated. In 2018, Zagar wrote and directed “We the Animals,” a coming-of-age story. Sandler found and viewed the film, even with the film’s small-audience, indie status.

Sandler approached Zagar about directing “Hustle,” but Zagar, despite his love for the script, initially turned the project down, feeling like it didn’t fit into where his film career was heading.

“Then I couldn’t get the script out of my mind, and so I called him back,” Zagar said.

Zagar figured he could pair Sandler’s vision of dropping real-life NBA players into a Philadelphia film set with his documentary-style direction. The film’s clean and snappy cuts during intense scrimmage scenes are evidence of this.

Zagar’s influence has a lighter touch in the film, too. Inspired by his relationship with his wife, who is Black, Zagar filled the Sugarman household with a mingling of Judaica and African American history. Looking closely, audience members can find a framed photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

It’s a detail that encompasses what Zagar wanted to do with “Hustle” and what he believes a director has the power to do with a film: make it one’s own.

“You have to be able to give yourself over the project, and the project has to be able to give to you,” Zagar said. “And so you use what’s familiar and comfortable and true.

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