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An ‘Above the Rim’ Roundtable

Twenty years later, we talk Tupac, Kyle Watson, rap soundtracks, and Nutso

In the year 1994, the movies were great. Greater than usual. Blockbuster or indie, rom-com or action thriller, there was something indelible about so many of them. Throughout 2014, Grantland will look back at some of the most memorable, beloved, and baffling releases of that magical time around their 20th anniversaries. Today: Bill Simmons, Rafe Bartholomew, and Andrew Sharp on Above the Rim, released March 23, 1994.


Here at the Grantland headquarters, we couldn’t decide how to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Above the Rim’s release. Stage an “everyone in the office has to dress like an Above the Rim character” day? Hold a streetball tournament outside our office that ends with the losing team trying to shoot the winning team? Storm the L.A. SportsCenter set wearing bandannas, point guns at Neil Everett and Stan Verrett, and force them to show highlights of Duane Martin dunking on 9-foot rims? We settled on a gimmick tentatively called “Simmons, Sharp, and Rafe answer every single question you’d ever have about an American classic that isn’t shown on cable TV nearly enough.” Without further ado …

Q: Above the Rim starts with a flashback of Shep’s buddy Nutso falling to his death. Why? Because their neighborhood built a basketball court with baskets placed directly in front of giant windows so that, if anyone didn’t stop in time and crashed through the windows, that person immediately fell five stories to his death. Were you OK with this moment from a realism standpoint?

SIMMONS: Absolutely. I’d like to see the NBA add this wrinkle to all D-League games.

RAFE: That’s what the D-League is all about, right? Experimenting with ways to help players get better and improve the on-court product? Why not let each franchise decide what kind of death trap it would like to install in the area directly behind the baskets? There could be the Nutso plummet, a Mortal Kombat–inspired field of spikes, a tank of piranhas … Then, we could watch as Daryl Morey’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers devised a defense that funneled opposing players into attacking the basket in ways that killed them 7 percent more often than the Vipers players died.

SHARP: What if we made the NBA’s bottom four teams play this way? It could (1) be an effective tanking deterrent, and (2) eventually lead to some much-needed contraction when the entire Orlando Magic team goes the way of Nutso.

SIMMONS: And also, at least 50 of the greatest moments of Kevin Harlan’s career. Back to Nutso — even if his tragic death was a little unrealistic, we needed it to establish the movie’s crucial premise: “Nobody in the history of mankind ever took a buddy’s accidental death harder than Shep took Nutso’s accidental death.”

SHARP: Tommy Sheppard was Maverick after Goose died for a solid two decades, yes. But that’s one of the best parts of Above the Rim. You could’ve made the exact same movie without the completely ridiculous first scene and Tommy Sheppard’s lifelong guilt. Shep could’ve just been a failed basketball player who never made it out of New York City, and he’d still have all the same wisdom to offer Kyle Watson. But the Nutso subplot makes a good 40 percent of this movie completely insane, so every time stone-faced Shep pops up for the first hour, I end up laughing out loud. And then by the final 30 minutes and the Uptown Shootout, I forget how insane it is, get hooked anyway, and start rooting for Shep to conquer his demons. Like Ricky Roe’s tractor or Joe Kane’s midseason trip to rehab, the stupidest parts of sports movies are always what we remember most fondly.

SIMMONS: I always loved that they didn’t name the character “Clyde” or “Frankie” or “DeAndre” or anything else that could have made the character more endearing and mournable. You can’t end up with the nickname “Nutso” for any other reason than being nuts. There’s no way he could have been named “John Nutman” or “Leroy Nutson,” right? That means this guy acted so irrationally/insanely/maniacally that, at some point, everyone collectively decided, “Let’s start calling this guy Nutso.” To put that in perspective, we’ve never even reached that point with Ron Artest, Mike Tyson or Dennis Rodman. So Nutso absolutely HAD to be a lunatic. And yet, Tommy Sheppard mourned Nutso as if he were an assassinated religious figure or something. I guess you shouldn’t ask a lot of questions when you’re watching Above the Rim.

RAFE: And what was that backboard made of? Matzo? Couldn’t Shep have redeemed himself by becoming the key witness in a lawsuit against the backboard maker that netted Nutso’s family seven-figure damages? Would that have saved him from a life of working on spin moves with no ball in the middle of the night while wearing his long underwear?

SHARP: Although, that story line isn’t that implausible. A man playing one-on-one with an invisible basketball and shouting to the sky at an invisible best friend — there’s someone doing that on a New York City playground every single day. There’s probably someone doing that even as I type this.

SIMMONS: Before this movie, I always believed in the following rule: “If you regularly practice basketball outdoors by yourself, only you don’t have a basketball, you immediately need to be whisked away to a mental institution.” I’m happy to say that I don’t feel that way anymore. So thank you, Tommy Sheppard. Thank you.


Q: Above the Rim kicks off with a Tupac song, crests in the middle with the earth-shattering “Big Pimpin'” from Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound, then ends with Warren G’s “Regulate.” Has there ever been a better rap soundtrack for a movie?

RAFE: We need background music for this discussion.

SHARP: There were probably five movies whose rap soundtracks changed my childhood. Nutty Professor II, Blue Streak, In Too Deep, and Above the Rim are four. I downloaded the ATR soundtrack as part of a larger pirating exercise, where I downloaded every album and bootleg Tupac ever made, and Above the Rim eventually became my favorite thing from the whole set. The music here makes the movie 200 percent better.

RAFE: With respect to the soundtracks of New Jersey Drive, JuiceWho’s the Man?, and a few others, Above the Rim wins the title and it’s not particularly close. “Pain” belongs in the discussion for being one of Pac’s five best songs, even if it’s not as well known as some of his other classics because it ended up only on the soundtrack cassette (not the CD), for whatever reason. “Regulate” is unkillable. It has to be one of the most overplayed hip-hop songs ever — like the “Livin’ on a Prayer” of rap — and no one ever gets sick of it.

SIMMONS: And it heavily sampled the one-and-only Michael McDonald! Here, I’ll let my illegitimate brother Patrick Simmons explain.

Has there ever been a better ’80s song that was sampled into an equally great ’90s rap song? At the very least, I have “I Keep Forgettin’”/“Regulate” in the championship game taking on “The Way It Is”/“Changes.”

RAFE: My musical education began and mostly ended with 1990s hip-hop, so you could play Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” around me and I will likely say something like, “That’s the song from ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’!!!” So pardon me for whatever obvious choices I’m missing here. But the first two songs that come to mind for me are Snoop’s “What’s My Name?” (which sampled “Atomic Dog”), and Nice & Smooth’s “Hip Hop Junkies” (which sampled the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You”).

SIMMONS: [Thinking.] We shouldn’t go down this rabbit hole. Regardless, I’d like to thank Above the Rim for merging seven of my favorite things — the Doobie Brothers, Tha Dogg Pound, streetball tournaments, The Wire, Tupac Shakur, Death Row Records, and Deranged People Playing Hoops Outdoors Without A Basketball — into my own personal entertainment scorpion bowl.

RAFE: Fact: Three million people bought Warren G’s debut album on the strength of “Regulate,” and 2.9 million of them forgave him for how much it sucked, because at least Warren had the good sense to include “Regulate” as the first track. H-Town’s “Part Time Lover” is such a perfect morsel of mid-’90s R&B sleaze that it’s a wonder R. Kelly wasn’t involved. “Afro Puffs” briefly made the Lady of Rage cool, even if listening to her music felt like being yelled at by a middle-school librarian. And then there’s the end of “Big Pimpin’,” where an artist whose name happened to be Big Pimpin’ delivers 90 seconds of uninterrupted spoken-word pimp game. I was 12 years old when I first heard this song, and lines like “Ain’t nothing like a lollipop / That gets sucked all day long / A tangy little candy drop” might have been single-handedly responsible for ushering me into puberty.

SIMMONS: I will never forgive Above the Rim director Jeff Pollack for blowing the “Big Pimpin’” scene. Snoop’s legendary solo kicks off the “we’re setting up the tournament!” montage, only they inexplicably cut him off right as Snoop was preparing to slide through the city in his rag six-four and hop like a muthafucka trying to find his ho. Couldn’t they have at least kept it going until Snoop left the liquor store to get himself some drank?

SHARP: On the other hand, when Nate Dogg sings, “I was at the park one dayyyyyyyy,” it makes me want to leave the office and go play basketball in a city park right this second. They could’ve looped that bridge for the entire Uptown Shootout and nobody would’ve complained. R.I.P., Nate Dogg.

RAFE: Sorry, I missed that last exchange. I was at the EAST SIII-IIIDDEEE MO-TEEELLLLLLLLL.

SIMMONS: Everyone remembers the groundbreaking soundtrack, but the trailer broke new ground, too. They used Tupac’s “Holler If Ya Hear Me” …

… and it actually drove people to the movie, which is why Dangerous Minds built its entire ad campaign around Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” one year later. I remember seeing Above the Rim’s trailer in the theater, hearing the Tupac song, seeing the dunking and thinking, My God … WHAT IS HAPPENING? IS THIS A REAL MOVIE?????? By the way, they didn’t put “Holler If Ya Hear Me” on the soundtrack because it wouldn’t have been fair to every other soundtrack.

SHARP: For the record, and with all due respect to Tupac and Rafe and Above the Rim, this is not the best rap soundtrack. If you ever find yourself wondering whether any soundtrack ranks no. 1, ask yourself: Does this album have R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”? Does it have Coolio greeting Earthlings? Does it have a track with Barry White and Chris Rock singing about basketball? Or Bugs Bunny rapping about basketball on a track that was ghostwritten by Jay-Z? No matter what happens in this world, the “best soundtrack” is always Space Jam’s.

SIMMONS: I’m still going with Above the Rim. We’d seen soundtracks take off for movies like When Harry Met Sally and Singles, but never for an “urban” movie — Juice, Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society all had big artists, but you always felt like you were getting their B-list stuff on those soundtracks. Above the Rim crossed over with HUGE songs and captured Death Row’s sound at its peak. Even if “Regulate” became the song everyone remembered, “Big Pimpin’” was the greatest ’90s rap song that never actually became one of the greatest ’90s rap songs. The good news: “But when I take her home, and tap that ass I’m gone / I’m just a dog don’t blame me” became a helluva high school yearbook quote.

Q: Even though they’re supposed to be the villains of the movie, it’s OK to root for the basketball-loving gang of street thugs led by Tupac Shakur and a young Avon Barksdale … right?

SHARP: This is complicated. You can’t trust anyone who roots against Birdie for the first half of the movie, but you also can’t trust anyone who roots FOR Birdie after he kills Bernie Mac, everyone’s favorite hobo oracle.

RAFE: I disagree with “a young Avon Barksdale.” Even if Wood Harris was just 24 (and billed as Sherwin David Harris) when Above the Rim was released, does he really look any different as Motaw, Birdie’s Wee-Bey-esque enforcer, from how he did eight years later, when The Wire came out?

SIMMONS: I wonder when and why he switched to “Wood Harris.” That decision was definitely made at 3:30 a.m. and involved at least two other buddies and a seven-step handshake. Anyway, I root for Birdie and Motaw every time I watch this movie — I wish they’d filmed an alternate ending in which Tupac shoots Duane Martin right as he’s going for the winning alley-oop. Is there still time? Can we CGI it?

RAFE: I play for a men’s league team that gets named after a different team from a basketball movie each season. So far we’ve been Hickory, the Western Dolphins, Tech U, and the Pittsburgh Pythons. We’ve discussed how to handle Above the Rim, and even though we look like the token white guy on the Bombers times seven, we’d all prefer to call ourselves the Birdmen, with the lone exception of our power forward, who loves to recite the line: “Bombers, Bombers, Bombers … championship! As long as y’all gimme the rock.” The lesson? Everybody wants to roll with Birdie.

SIMMONS: Which coach would have been scarier to interview at halftime — Popovich, or Birdie? I still say Popovich.

SHARP: Birdie would murder you if asked about Avon’s hard fouls, but the answer is still probably Popovich.

RAFE: As much as I’d be worried that Birdie would respond to my question by slicing my face up into a jigsaw puzzle, aren’t we all convinced that Popovich was a CIA spook in his pre-basketball life? I don’t want to be the reporter who finally asks the question that causes him to snap and then give me a sharp poke in the sternum that causes my heart to explode.

Q: Where does Birdie rank in the Tupac Movie Character Trilogy against Bishop (Juice) and Lucky (Poetic Justice)?

SHARP: No. 1 for the razor-blade trick alone.

RAFE: I’m ditching Poetic Justice. Besides the immortal “smell my punani” scene, I’ve always considered it a low point for Pac and for John Singleton. My personal Tupac Movie Character power rankings:

1. Birdie, Above the Rim: He changed bandanna fashion forever. He also inspired my friend Eric in middle school to practice holding a razor blade in the side of his mouth and blowing it through his lips without cutting himself.

2. Tank, Bullet: Pac basically plays Birdie again in this 1996 NYC neo-noir — only now he’s cast opposite Mickey Rourke at that actor’s chiseled, leathery, narcotized apex, and Rourke is playing the Jewish hard-rock version of Tupac as Birdie.

3. Bishop, Juice: Indisputably the most important role of Pac’s film career (apologies to Nothing But Trouble), and probably his best performance. But the acting is so good that it demands a level of respect and reverence that goes beyond flat-out enjoyment.

SIMMONS: I live on the “White Guys in Their Mid-Forties Who Still Love Pac” corner much like Rafe lives on the Philippine basketball corner. Pac was one of the biggest taken-way-too-soon talent losses of my lifetime, but what’s strange is that — two decades later — everyone forgets we lost a major young acting talent during an era when we weren’t exactly overloaded with African American leading men. (There’s a reason Omar Epps headlined 38 movies in the 1990s.) Check out how Owen Gleiberman started his Entertainment Weekly review of Above the Rim:

As the strong-arm hustler who darts in and out of Above the Rim, Tupac Shakur proves, once again, that he may be the most dynamic young actor since Sean Penn. (The jury is out on whether he’ll prove as self-destructive.) Like Penn, Shakur gives each of his characters a unique spiritual temperature. In Juice, he wore a gloomy, reptilian stare — a look of the damned — as the psychotic homeboy who got hooked on murder. Last year, he was an oasis of decency and yearning amid the self-indulgent noise of John Singleton’s Poetic Justice. Now, he brings barbed comic edges to the role of Birdie, a Harlem operator who carries a razor blade in his mouth and flashes his big, gleaming teeth like a happy wolf. A junior Don King, Birdie presides over the local playground basketball games, which he turns into high-stakes contests. There’s something creepy and smug about this hustler’s leering confidence; he’s too young to have so much bravado. Shakur gives the movie a charge of excitement.

SHARP: Goddammit. That “self-destructive” parenthetical is probably the saddest thing we’ve read in 2014.

SIMMONS: Yeah, I’ll always believe that Pac had a few top-notch movie performances left in him, as well as a transcendent six-episode The Wire cameo. But isn’t it creepy that he died at the tail end of his two most beloved performances? In Juice, he falls to his death. In Above the Rim, a Wayans brother guns him down. I don’t like that part.

RAFE: It’s pretty sobering. I’m sure I’ve watched thousands of characters be shot to death in the movies. Well, how many of the actors who played those roles were actually murdered? Tupac was shot to death two and a half years after Above the Rim came out, and enjoying fake movie violence requires some extra mental moral gymnastics when the person you’re watching die onscreen has died from real-life violence.

SHARP: On the one hand, watching Tupac get shot is horrible for obvious reasons. On the other hand, it’s pretty amazing that a guy getting shot in the chest and killed, by Kyle’s best friend, is part of this movie’s heartwarming montage at the end. A split second later, Kyle’s hitting the game winner against Seton Hall and we all go home happy.

Q: What’s the most unrealistic moment of Above the Rim?

SHARP: Three choices here. First, any teenage superstar who grew up in New York City would be too contemptuous of homeless people to ever play Bernie Mac’s character one-on-one. Second, the New York papers never would have portrayed Tommy Sheppard as a murderer after Nutso’s death. (Wouldn’t everyone rally around him after something like that?) But in the end, nothing in this movie is more unrealistic than Kyle Watson’s jump shot. No star point guard from New York can actually hit a jump shot.

SIMMONS: Don’t sleep on Tommy Sheppard scoring 40 points in the second half of the climactic game while wearing corduroys. But for me, the most unrealistic moment will always be Marlon Wayans dunking two-handed. I’ll say it a second time: Marlon Wayans dunks two-handed in this movie.


RAFE: Wayans’s dunk is ridiculous, but it becomes watered down when the Shootout scene begins and we get hit with the full-on deluge of aerial highlights performed on rims that cannot possibly be regulation height. Not to mention that we’ve seen so many fake Hollywood dunks — Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump, Edward Norton in American History X — that this kind of trickery just doesn’t faze me.

SIMMONS: Yeah, but Woody’s ridiculous dunk came on an alley-oop, and Norton’s ridiculous dunk came after he’d mysteriously added 25 pounds of muscle during the height of the Sosa-McGwire look-the-other-way era. Ed Norton probably had enough stuff running through his body in that movie to lift a Jeep Cherokee over his head.

There’s never been an explanation for the gratuitous Wayans dunk. They just threw it in with a bad edit and everything. My theory: Wayans played poker with Jeff Pollack the previous night and won a bunch of money, and then Pollack said, “Instead of me paying you, what if you got to dunk two-handed in the movie tomorrow?”

RAFE: You guys missed the most unrealistic part: Duane Martin’s character is named Kyle Lee Watson. Here are the names of some of the best New York City high school players in 1994, pulled from a couple New York Times articles: Stephon Marbury, Kareem Reid, Felipe Lopez, Duane Woodward, Levell Sanders. So how did the screenwriters come up with “Kyle Lee Watson” for the lead role in their “urban” basketball drama? Avon Barksdale even clowns Kyle over this early in the film, when he asks, “What kind of country-ass name is that?” It’s a legitimate question, and unless the screenwriters were secretly paying homage to legendary ’80s players with country-ass names like Billy Ray Bates, there’s no reasonable explanation.

Q: If they remade this movie right now, whom do you think Hollywood would pick to play Tupac’s role, Duane Martin’s role, and (most important) Eric Nies’s role?

RAFE: For Birdie, it’s just impossible. Look at the rappers who’ve tried to act since Tupac — Gucci Mane in Spring Breakers, Cam’ron in Paid in Full, Peter Gunz in the abominable straight-to-video Carlito’s Way prequel, whoever else. The best-case scenario is a performance that doesn’t submarine the entire movie. I think you just have to play it safe, dial up Jamie Hector, and ask him to be Marlo Stanfield again.

SIMMONS: My name IS my name!

SHARP: Agree with Rafe on Jamie Hector as Birdie. But you could never find anyone as perfect as Tupac. He’s so good at convincing you that he’s pure evil, but somehow remaining likable. He did it in this movie and Juice, and even in his music. I don’t think we need anyone to remind us how much his death sucked, but yeah. Rewatching this movie at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night made me miss him even more.

SIMMONS: This is why we can never remake Above the Rim. But just in case someones screws up and does it, let’s make sure Michael B. Jordan plays Kyle, please.

RAFE: Absolutely. Real basketball ability, great acting chops, and he strengthens the legacy connections between both Above the Rim movies and The Wire. And it pains me to say so, but isn’t that Eric Nies part the role Justin Bieber was born to play?

SHARP: I was thinking Zac Efron. I don’t know, I suck at this game. The only certainty here is that Kevin Hart would play Marlon Wayans’s character, and it would be horrendous.

SIMMONS: I’m more excited for the Eric Nies recasting than any other part of this exchange. Come back with me to 1994 for a second; Nies had just starred in the first season of The Real World and he was hosting MTV’s The Grind. So we were catching him at the 14:39 mark of his 15 minutes of fame, basically. That’s why your 2014 answer for Eric Nies 2.0 is clearly Pauly D.


New Line Cinema

Q: Just in this movie — Bernie Mac or Marlon Wayans?

SHARP: Bernie Mac’s hobo oracle, no contest. But I did enjoy when Wayans shows up to the court and Kyle tells him, “You my man and the whole nine, but you look like a 14-karat Urkel.” Probably my single favorite line from the movie.

SIMMONS: Bernie Mac in a landslide. And not just because Wayans dunked two-handed and shot Tupac. Bernie is so good that they had to KILL HIM OFF just to get us to root against Birdie. Otherwise, we’re rooting for Birdie in the final game. [Thinking.] Fine, I still root for Birdie’s team in the final game.

RAFE: I prefer Bernie Mac as a comedian and actor, but Bugaloo was the perfect role for an early-twenties Marlon Wayans and his histrionic brand of physical comedy. You could see how hard he tried to be like his actually funny older brothers on In Living Color, and his act could be both endearing and annoying. ATR captures that, and as a viewer you go from wanting to mute him whenever he’s onscreen to feeling genuinely sorry for Bugaloo after Tupac disses him before the Shootout. Also, no movie captures the hideous, awkward glory of young Marlon as well as Above the Rim does. Also see his In Living Color music-video spoof “Mr. Uglyman.”

Q: How would you describe Kyle’s game in 25 words or fewer?

RAFE: The winning attitude of Ricky Davis at a midnight Sunday game at MSG after a night of champagning and campaigning meets the overall skills of the homeless man’s Milt Palacio.

SIMMONS: Everything you ever despised about Stephon Marbury’s game, only with a worse handle, less talent, less leadership, less stability and less Vaseline.

SHARP: I said my piece on Twitter six weeks ago: “Watching Kyle Lowry always makes me think Kyle Watson from Above the Rim actually made the NBA.”

SIMMONS: I love that you just quoted yourself on Twitter. Did we ever figure out why they made Kyle’s character so unlikable? I’m still upset that Birdie didn’t kill him. Is there any way Kyle actually gets into Georgetown?

SHARP: Hold on. Did you recognize the scout they had in the stands? The one-and-only PEE WEE KIRKLAND.

More proof that Above the Rim is the absolute greatest.

SIMMONS: The more I think about it, Kyle getting into Georgetown might have been the most unrealistic part of this movie.

SHARP: Allen Iverson got into Georgetown in the mid-’90s. A fiery point guard with a few red flags ending up at Georgetown might be the most plausible part of this whole movie.

RAFE: Kyle’s freshman year would have been the 1995-96 season, which would have been Allen Iverson’s sophomore year with the Hoyas. Assuming Kyle would have played shooting guard beside AI, that would have meant John Thompson recruited Kyle over Victor Page. Kyle is no Victor Page.

SIMMONS: Yeah, if this were real life, then Kyle definitely transfers after one season and ends up at Fresno State (and eventually, his own three-part Outside the Lines investigation).

Q: If you could start your all-time basketball team with one defensive player, would you pick Bill Russell or Tommy Sheppard?

RAFE: Shep all the way. Sure, Russell blocked shots and kept the ball in play to spark the Boston fast break, but no player in recorded history has ever gotten a shot off against Tommy Sheppard without getting stripped.

SHARP: Shep’s a two-way player, too. He could drop 40 on you, and then lock down anyone on the court. I have no doubt Shep could’ve locked down Jesus Shuttlesworth.


RAFE: Shep doing to the Birdmen what Sleepy Floyd did to the Lakers in the 1987 playoffs while wearing brown corduroys and a long-sleeve thermal shirt requires some serious suspension of disbelief. But even more unrealistic than Shep’s scoring run were some of the Birdmen’s late challenges on Shep’s jump shots. I’m fairly sure that on a couple of those jumpers, the ball had already swished through the net by the time Shep’s defender jumped to get a hand up.


SIMMONS: I have to ask: What would be the worst thing about your mom dating Tommy Sheppard? That he’s your own high school’s security guard? That he’s brothers and bitter rivals with the neighborhood drug lord? That he doesn’t have any money whatsoever? That he occasionally looks up toward the sky to talk to a dead person named Nutso? That he goes long periods of time without speaking or blinking? Or that he plays basketball by himself at night without a ball?

SHARP: This brings up an important point. The worst part of the movie might be when Shep kisses Kyle’s mom, and she says, “Oh, you think you can just kiss me?” and Shep says, “Yep,” and she says, “I guess that’s how it is, then.” All of this in front of Kyle. Even I wanted to punch Shep in the face at that moment.

RAFE: All of the above still pales in comparison to what Tyrese endures in Baby Boy. In that movie, his mom dates an ex-con Ving Rhames who smokes sleazy cigarillos, occasionally chokes Tyrese to the edge of losing consciousness, and frequently engages in intense squatting pile-driver sex with Tyrese’s mom while Tyrese tries to sleep.

SIMMONS: Yeah, but I guarantee Ving Rhames never looked up toward the ceiling during the intense squatting pile-driver sex and said, “You hear that, Nutso?”

Q: Did they make a mistake not calling this movie Above the 9-Foot Rim?

SHARP: Stop it. Don’t ruin this for me.

RAFE: Sure, the low rims lowered the degree of difficulty on Avon Barksdale’s 75 dunks during the Shootout, but think of how much harder the rims made it for Tommy Sheppard to shoot a perfect 48-for-48 on long 2s. If Shep were playing today, would his shot-chart data cause Kirk Goldsberry’s computer to burst into flames?

SIMMONS: This is a great point. Any Dork Elvis disciple who claims long 2s are dead really needs to rewatch Above the Rim. As for the inexcusably short hoops in the tournament, it’s ATR’s biggest obstacle in any “greatest basketball movie of all time” conversation, narrowly edging the script, the acting, the directing and the dialogue. To quote the great American revolutionary Patrick Henry in 1775: “Give me 10-foot rims in basketball movies, or give me death!”

RAFE: One more note on Above the Rim’s realism, or lack thereof: When I saw this movie in the theater, it felt like the realest thing ever put on film. Being 11 years old probably had something to do with this, but it was more than that. Above the Rim is seeded with true-to-life details that pretty much only New Yorkers and New York basketball junkies would recognize. The uniforms worn in the movie’s first basketball scene are very recognizably from Olaf’s Sporting Goods, a mom-and-pop place in East Harlem whose shorts were coveted by pretty much every teenage basketball player on the East Coast. New York City playground legends Pee Wee Kirkland and James “Speedy” Williams are given bit roles in the film. Even calling Eric Nies’s character Montrose — pronounced like early-1990s UNC center Eric Montross — felt like a heady bit of verisimilitude, since any white basketball player from New York (and probably many other places) back then probably has a few unforgettable stories of being called by the names of other white players or actors. My top two were “A-yo, it’s Michael Dudikoff!” (star of the American Ninja films) and “Watch out! They brought Remy from Higher Learning with them!” (Remy was a mass-murdering skinhead played by Michael Rapaport in John Singleton’s film about the American college experience — and not a very flattering comparison.)

Q: In 25 words or fewer, describe your thoughts on the token white guy on Kyle’s street tournament team.

RAFE: He is the doofiest token white in the history of the sport. From his sun-kissed blond bowl cut to the number 52 on his jersey to his khaki-in-the-front, blue-and-red-in-the-back shorts, the Above the Rim filmmakers nailed every detail. He might be the most fully realized character in the movie. Besides Nutso. NUTSO!!!!!

SHARP: The shorts. THE SHORTS.

SIMMONS: Like a cross between the late great Dwayne Schintzius and some ’90s sitcom character that won’t come to me.

SHARP: The older brother on Home Improvement?

SIMMONS: Boom. He’s a cross between Dwayne Schintzius and Zachery Ty Bryan. Only with Kris Humphries’s game. How does this person not have a Wikipedia page? Who was he? I’m going to Google this while Sharp takes over.

SHARP: There’s no way the older brother from Home Improvement is anywhere near the Uptown Shootout. In fact, I’d like to amend an answer from earlier. This guy starting for the Bombers is easily the most unrealistic part of the entire movie.

SIMMONS: Update: I Googled “goofy white guy above the rim,” “Kyle’s white teammate above the rim” and “WHITE GUY WTF ABOVE THE RIM” — nothing. It’s a mystery. At least we’ll always have this GIF.


Q: How many flagrant fouls did Avon Barksdale commit in the street tournament — over or under 15? Which was your favorite?

SHARP: I’m glad you asked about this, because Jesus Christ. Off the opening tip I’m pretty sure he punches someone in the face. He definitely sucker punches Kyle at least five times, and those are just the ones the camera caught. Are we supposed to think Birdie had the refs on payroll? Or is this just how things roll in the Uptown Shootout?

RAFE: If this YouTube supercut is to be trusted, the number is 11, including one impressive “mushing” of a Bombers opponent and a vicious submarine undercut job on Shep.

SIMMONS: That was a flagrant 9. I’m still disappointed he went after Zachary Ty Schintzius only once — at the 0:23 mark. They couldn’t have filmed one McHale-Rambis-type clothesline where Barksdale actually decapitated Schintzius? By the way, a flagrant 15 decapitation foul still wouldn’t have been one of the three most unrealistic moments in this movie.

Q: What’s the most dated part of Above the Rim?

RAFE: I’m going with the sneaker company British Knights’ sponsorship of the Shootout, and Birdie’s chauffeur/ladyfriend wearing a giant BK varsity jacket and gold door-knocker earrings that look like enormous bundles of grapes.

SIMMONS: Three words: Birdie’s cell phone.

SHARP: Every outfit Birdie wears is the most dated moment, but I’m partial to the full-camo jean suit he wears about halfway through. He’s in New York City dressed like a Master P doll, and people are supposed to take him seriously and be afraid of him. It makes me love the whole movie even more.

Q: Can you pick the Above the Rim quote that’s not actually an Above the Rim quote from these eight choices?

1. “I’m standing right here, I ain’t goin’ nowhere!”
2. “Being alone makes you strong — you and me are a lot alike that way.”
3. “How you expect me to piss when you talkin’ about my moms?”
4. “Now I seen it all, man — a bum with a bodyguard!”
5. “This ain’t about a game anymore, it’s about real life!”
6. “You ain’t the muthafuckin’ man no more! I’m the one, shit has changed! It’s a new day, brah.”
7. “Yo, he’s playin’ ball without a ball!”
8. “You may not like the man I become, brah — but I’m still a man.”

RAFE: This is a trick question, right? They’re all Above the Rim quotes?

SHARP: All of those are real except the pissing one. Right?

RAFE: Come on! The pissing one is part of the same bizarre exchange where Marlon delivers the canonic line: “Your dick look like an anteater!”

SIMMONS: “This ain’t about a game anymore, it’s about real life!” is the fake one. That’s too close to Mr. Miyagi telling Daniel-san, “This not tournament, this for real.” They never would have ripped off KK2. Come on, guys.

SHARP: Another great quote: “Folks need to move past the stuff that happens to them, or they stop movin’ at all.” Or Birdie lecturing Shep: “If you can’t clean up your act, I suggest you raise the fuck up and get out of Dodge.” By “clean up your act,” Birdie means, “Come be my lieutenant and deal drugs with me.” He says all this in front of their mother’s grave. Birdie is awesome.

SIMMONS: I still love Shep interrupting a conversation with Kyle to glance at the sky and say, “You hear that, Nutso? The boy here says he owes me!” That’s the best moment of the movie AND the worst moment of the movie.

RAFE: I have it tied for best with Flip the bum hugging Shep and then mumbling, “They can’t erase what we were, man — champions, baby.”

SIMMONS: Come to think of it, the ending was the best moment in the movie: Down by one in the final seconds, Shep pickpockets Barksdale, then throws a half-court alley-oop to Kyle to win the game at the buzzer — that’s immediately followed by Birdie telling Barksdale to shoot Kyle, then Shep jumping in front of the bullet, then multiple cops killing Barksdale. Was that finish more or less realistic than the last 28.2 seconds of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals?

RAFE: Game 6 was more realistic, because, as so often happens in real life, the bad guys won.

SIMMONS: And then we get a second ending — we fast-forward at least a year (maybe more) to real-life footage of Duane Martin scoring a game winner at Georgetown as John Thompson celebrates, followed by “Regulate” kicking in and Shep and Kyle’s mom rejoicing. In retrospect, this was the moment the Big East officially started to fall apart.

SHARP: There was nowhere to go but down.

RAFE: It was either that or whenever Etan Thomas first performed slam poetry at a Syracuse, New York, coffee shop.

Q: Has Above the Rim aged (a) poorly, (b) horrendously, (c) tremendously, (d) like a fine wine, or (e) all of the above?

RAFE: I vote for (c) — tremendously. They can’t change what we were, man. They can’t change what we were.

SIMMONS: I vote for (e). [Looking to the sky.] You hear that, Nutso? I vote for (e).

SHARP: (e) Everything that’s aged horrendously is also what makes it tremendous. It’ll only get better as the years pass. You know how some dads make their kids watch Hoosiers? Well, my kids are watching Above the Rim. They will have three years of nightmares about Birdie and his razor blade, but it’ll be worth it when they spread their fingers and snap their wrists to win the Big East tournament.

Q: If you could have put any mid-’90s celebrity in this movie just to make Above the Rim 10 percent better, whom would you pick, and why?

SHARP: Maybe Judd Nelson as a sleazy agent, because why not? Look at this picture of him in New Jack City. That man was born to be a sleazy agent. (Note: Every other person in that photo would also work great for this role.)


SIMMONS: A just-before-Friends Jennifer Aniston still shaking off her baby fat as Kyle’s forbidden love interest — I have her playing a stripper at Birdie’s club who belongs to Birdie and Birdie only, and yet, she can’t fight that little spark she has with Kyle. And guess what. She’s also going to college during the day, as an English major at NYU, and she offered to help Kyle with his SAT so he can get into Georgetown! But right as their romance is about to heat up, Birdie finds out and shoots her 239 times. So long, Aniston.

RAFE: The guy who plays Kyle’s high school coach always seemed like just some central-casting New York accent type. I’d swap him out for a burly father figure — not someone with gravitas like Brian Dennehy, but someone a little more left-field: Gary Busey. It would make zero sense from a casting perspective, but from the moment Nutso crashes through a backboard and falls to his death at the beginning of the film, Above the Rim makes it clear that making sense is not a priority. Busey is a bona fide lunatic. Everything he touches becomes 20 percent weirder and more entertaining. Would he have improvised a scene where he joins Shep on the court for some one-on-one with no ball? Would he have grabbed the razor out of Tupac’s mouth and licked the blade’s edge while keeping his pretend dribble alive with his other hand? The possibilities would have been endless. Plus, it would have given Busey one of the all-time great crappy-entertaining movie hat tricks in 1994, with Surviving the Game, Drop Zone, and Above the Rim.


SIMMONS: Rafe just won the column.

Filed Under: 1994, Above the Rim, tupac shakur, Regulate, Duane Martin, Basketball Movies

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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