‘An angel in my life’: How an unlikely coach brought Bo Cruz to life

Juancho Hernangomez has played for a lot of coaches in his professional basketball career. In the NBA alone he’s had seven in seven seasons, while suiting up for six teams.

But none of Michael Malone (Denver), Ryan Saunders (Minnesota), Chris Finch (Minnesota again), Brad Stevens (Boston), Gregg Popovich (San Antonio), Quinn Snyder (Utah) or Nick Nurse — his current coach with the Toronto Raptors — does the 27-year-old Spanish forward describe as “an angel in my life.”

That special praise is reserved for the only acting coach he’s ever had, Noelle Gentile, who would claim to know nothing about professional sports, barely stands five-feet tall, and had never met an NBA player before developing a deep and lasting bond with Hernangomez while filming the Adam Sandler movie Hustle.

The Netflix production was released last summer and features Hernangomez as Bo Cruz, the European underdog that Stanley Sugarman, the hard-luck NBA scout played by Sandler, discovers and stakes his career on bringing to North America. It also features Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards — who worked closely with Gentile as well — playing the role of Kermit, the brash American expected to be the No. 1 overall pick who embarrasses Cruz at the NBA draft combine and lets him know about it.

Minnesota Timberwolves forward and Hustle co-star Anthony Edwards also learned under tutelage of Noelle Gentile. (Photo courtesy Noelle Gentile)

Thursday night in Minneapolis marks the first on-court meeting between Bo and Kermit since Hustle came out and should be a fun reunion for the former Timberwolves teammates. The movie was shot over two off-seasons in the fall of 2020 and again in 2021.

Because of the pandemic, they had to leave the big basketball scenes until 2021 and they hadn’t cast Cruz’s on-court villain yet. It was Hernangomez who recommended Edwards for the role after they played together during Edwards’s rookie season.

“I kind of told Adam and everybody, he was perfect for the role,” Hernangomez said. “And after a year together I told him, he could be perfect in this role. We spent time together in Philly and he’s just a great kid. He’s going to be super great at basketball, I love him a lot. He works hard, he’s an all-star guy and I’m happy for his success.

Everything seemed to click. The movie got strong reviews and is rated at 93 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes by both fans and critics alike. 

The NBA players who played themselves, sprinkled liberally throughout the movie, gave it and Hernangomez two thumbs up as well.

“I was talking to Adam on set and Adam was just raving about him and how good a job he did,” said Brooklyn Nets guard Seth Curry, who spent two days on set doing the climactic basketball scenes. “So I was excited when it came out to check it out. Sometimes when you get that many cameos it can be kind of corny, but it was a real movie, and Juancho did some real acting.”

Or, as Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic – a childhood friend of Hernangomez’s who also made a brief cameo said: “[Acting] is a tough job. I try to act commercials for two minutes only and it’s hard, so Juancho, he did a great job.”

Personally, I really enjoyed it for the basketball verisimilitude it was able to capture while still working as a Hollywood drama, a threshold most sports movies fail to cross.  Between Sandler’s well-known basketball passion and the countless NBA cameos that dot the film, it manages to ring true.

As one long-time NBA executive and talent evaluator said to me: “My ex-wife watched it and she called and said ‘this is you’.”

So there you go.

But a big part of the movie’s success was due to Hernangomez being able to carry off his role convincingly. It was Hernangomez’s first acting gig and something he took on as a bit of a lark after the opportunity came to him when the NBA season was shut down during the pandemic in 2020.

On one level, it wasn’t much of a stretch: as a real-life Spanish basketball star who came to the NBA, playing a fictional Spanish hooper trying to make it to the NBA seems like it might be in his wheelhouse.

But the character he played did more than run and dunk – although there was plenty of that in the Spanish streetball scenes where Cruz is discovered, the all-star pick-up runs where he makes his mark, and in a variety of Rocky-style, basketball-training montages in between. Turns out Cruz is a single dad with some skeletons in his closet and in need of big break, but with a knack of getting in his own way.

There are a number of scenes where Hernangomez really has to act: such as when his mother is encouraging him not to let his past hold him back from his dream, as the camera closes in to capture him, head bowed, with very convincing tears trickling down his nose. Or his argument with Sandler/Sugarman, when it seems that both of them have taken a massive leap of faith and failed.

For those, Hernangomez says, he relied on the guidance provided by Gentile, who worked with him through the audition process and then throughout the preparation for the filming before they ever met in person on set. She encouraged him to draw on personal experiences where necessary – watching videos of himself speaking at his beloved grandfather’s funeral (“the hardest thing I’ve done in my life”) was part of his preparation for some of the more challenging scenes; using guided meditation – a technique Hernangomez has incorporated into his basketball life – was another.

Together they improvised Cruz’s back story, the details that weren’t reflected in the script but created the depth and context that Hernangomez could bring to the character.

“She prepares you for the role, for every scene,” says Hernangomez. “To be honest, I still don’t know how to act. I never dreamed to be an actor and I’m not an actor. I’m a basketball player. But she helped do the movie and it was a fantastic experience. She helped me through the emotions, she helped me go through the process and I told her: if I do another movie I’m going to need here to prepare me every single time.”

What was it like for Gentile to work with Hernangomez and so many other NBA players?

“I’m barely five-feet tall, so I definitely spend a lot of my time looking up,” says Gentile, who credits include working on the award-winning We the Animals (also directed by Hustle director Jeremiah Zagar) and the upcoming Sandler Netflix production You are SO not invited to my Bat Mitzvah!.

But the bond she developed with Hernangomez was special. They remain in touch even during the busy NBA season.

“I’m barely five feet tall, so I definitely spend a lot of my time looking up,” says Gentile (Courtesy: Noelle Gentile)

“We spent so much time together, preparing for the role and two years doing the movie,” says Hernangomez. “She had to go through a lot, she has two beautiful girls, a beautiful husband. She’s a fighter. She’s just a bright light in everybody’s life who’s met her.

“She’s another point of view for things. Sometimes we don’t realize how life goes and what’s important and what matters in his life. So I mean, she’s really important for me, we still talk.”

Gentile is based in Albany, New York and fits her coaching and directing aspirations around the needs of two busy daughters, but she was excited for the chance to speak via Zoom about her tallest client, why she treasured working on the movie so much, and whether or not Hernangomez has a future in acting when he retires from basketball.

Our conversation was edited for clarity and continuity:

Sportsnet.ca: So, first of all, Juancho really speaks highly of you. You’re his favourite coach

Noelle Gentille: First of all, Juancho is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. He just has this childlike enthusiasm, right? Like a huge heart, just a really dynamic, incredible person. … I supported him through the callback process of the audition. So Juancho had submitted a tape and maybe had done an audition, and then I worked with him where we do a more long-form audition that uses improvisation and just sort of exploring moments of the character’s life that aren’t necessarily scripted, but like, articulated in the script.

SN: How do you approach coaching?

NG: I talk a lot about creating a space where somebody can feel safe to be vulnerable, but I think a large part of creating that space is being vulnerable myself with someone. In the beginning, it’s a lot of getting to know someone and sharing stories … it’s a lot of building a relationship, you know?

And not so different, I would think too, to the way a coach builds a team with commitment and trust. Those are foundational to doing the work because it’s part of my practice. And my understanding of how people drop into the most authentic performances is when they feel, in this space, that they are really liberated and free and playful and can explore in a safe space to try something and have it not work and then try something else.

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SN: Why is all of that so important?

NG: It’s foundational to getting to the actual work. It’s creating an environment where we can explore, and then once that relationship is built, there’s so much freedom to go in and really work scenes and moments and emotional events that a character may have. So we use the script as a jumping off point or as a guide to go in deeper into moments that have transpired in this character’s life before: ‘what would it look like the moment your dad left?’ or ‘what happened when he went to play basketball in the United States when he was a teenager and had to go home? What was that conversation with your Mom like?’

We just act those moments out so that they’re almost embedded memories, so that when we get to set and something’s happening, he and I can reference these things that we have spent all of this time exploring together.

And some of his bigger, emotionally charged scenes, like the scene in the car with Adam when he talks about his daughter and is explaining what transpired in Spain, and referencing what happened with his ex-girlfriend, we use guided meditation in that moment. So I’ll sort of drop into that moment in time that he’s later referencing when he’s in the car with Adam.

SN: Did you have to do more ‘coaching’ because Juancho was an inexperienced actor?

NG: It’s kind of like finding a way to meet someone where they are at. Juancho really loved the guided meditation and he really latched onto that as a way to get into that space. So we’re seeing ‘what is it that you need?’ And I’ve worked with professional actors who love that, and I’ve worked with professional actors who want to work in a totally different way.

I think it’s really very dependent on the person, and trying to be really present with them, while also trying out a bunch of different things to see: ‘did that work, did you like that?’

Juancho also loved improv, so exploring in character the arc of the character through improv was something that worked really well for him. When he was a child, like I’ve heard him talk about, he and his siblings would do a lot of imaginative plays. So that was something that felt really comfortable to him and was familiar to him.

SN: What did he bring to the job as an athlete? Did his background help him?

NG: He’s incredibly dedicated to the rigour of the work, I’m sure in large part due to his work as a professional athlete. But he’s also able to put that work in and release when he’s on set. So he was very comfortable and had an ease to him. That combination of that work ethic and that ease, he was able to craft a really natural performance.

SN: Was it hard to get him to express himself?

NG: We really built Bo Cruz as a character, and there’s crossover to his own experiences and wanting something and but obstacles preventing it from happening. Those are things that we can all bring our own experiences to, but I do think that the amount of vulnerability required for moments like in the hotel room with his mom, or in the car with Adam, I think that there had to be a lot of trust-building.

I feel really proud of those moments, because I think it’s important representation on screen to see an NBA player, a professional elite athlete, being vulnerable in that way. I think is really powerful and important. And I think it took a certain amount of bravery from Juancho to open up in a way that’s really truthful.

We made really specific choices about what happened on set those days to create an environment so that work could happen, and I’m so proud of him for leaning into that, for doing it in a way that’s authentic and believable. I think that that says a lot about who he is as a person.

SN: There were a lot of basketball scenes and a lot of training scenes, did he need coaching for those?

NG: No, I mean, look, he’s so charismatic. It’s funny in some ways, I think it’s harder to get people natural in that sort of stuff than it is with the super-emotional work.

But those scenes were hard work. It was physically really taxing — the sweat was real — and how you film is not necessarily how an athlete does that stuff (in reality). I learned a lot about warming up and cooling down, and the stuff he needed in that regard was a lot of new information to me. But yeah, he’s an incredibly hard worker.

SN: There was a lot of trash-talking in the scenes with ANT that was pretty intense. How did you work through that?

NG: I worked with ANT and he’s also just an incredibly dynamic, charismatic, wonderful person to work with. I worked with them separately. We didn’t rehearse together until we were on set, but they have a relationship, they used to play together and there was a real love there.

I think (their) love and mutual respect is part of why the dynamic and the energy you see play out between them feels so authentic and realistic, because they’re really comfortable with each other.

Gentile worked closely alongisde Minnesota Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards for his role as Kermit, Bo Cruz’s adversary (Photo courtesy: Noelle Gentile)

SN: Sounds like it was a very close set?

NG: The day that was ANT’s last day of filming, it was super emotional to say goodbye to him because you work so closely with people. It was really hard for Juancho to say goodbye too because — I think you know, this is one of the things about the business of being in the NBA — you’re saying goodbye to people a lot and so there are real heartfelt connections there.

I guess part of why those scenes are so fun is that there was a lot of trust there from being teammates, so when Juancho was on the floor on top of ANT and is about to slam him on the floor, it works. It’s so much easier to do something authentic with somebody when you’ve been through some stuff together with and you feel really comfortable with them.

SN: Did you enjoy working with athletes compared with professional actors?

NG: Yes! It’s an incredibly magical experience, I think in large part because of the athletes that we worked with. They just brought this completely different energy to set. They’re people that are highly successful in their own field, and so they brought this joy with them. It wasn’t stressful for them to be there, it was just so playful, and I have to say that I really feel changed as a person from the experience of working with them. Just from just the amount of positive energy they brought. It kind of made me want to grab my own life a little bit more and lean into like my own path. It was very inspiring to be around them. I grew a lot. I can rarely talk Juancho and ANT for a long period of time without crying because I felt so impacted by both of by them.

SN: Do you think it was fun because they weren’t actors? Like if it didn’t work, they still get to back to their day jobs?

NG: Exactly. There’s this liberation to make the art in a way that we all always want.  They were committed to it, they were enjoying it, but they also felt liberated to do it in this really authentic way because there wasn’t the same type of pressure of somebody who’s pursuing that full time may feel. So the I think because of that there was like an element of magic. And they were also doing it on a set with people who were also very successful in their careers in film, so it was this (collision) of these two worlds. Somebody that I worked with on the movie just texted me the other day was like, “I wish we were making Hustle II, because it was just, it was just fun. Like it was really, really fun.

SN: Could Juancho do more acting if he chose to?

NG: I think he has range well beyond what we saw. In fact, it’s not I think, it’s ‘I know’.

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