Q&A: Keith Gibbs — the Guy From Every Basketball Movie — on Jordan, ‘Blue Chips,’ and ‘American History X’
You most likely do not recognize the name Keith Gibbs. Not unless you’re a frighteningly hard-core fan of the early-’90s Cal State Northridge Matadors. But if you’re a basketball fan — and let’s face it, you’re here, so you must be — you’ve probably seen his work in the numerous basketball movies, scenes, and commercials he’s appeared in.
I spoke with Keith over the phone recently, and I asked him about his Zelig-like basketball career.
How did you start playing basketball?
I started playing when I was in high school. Grew up in the Bay Area, right around Santa Cruz. Then I went to West Valley Junior College, played two years there. Then I played Division I basketball at Cal State Northridge the next two years.
I found a pretty great L.A. Times article about how you really emerged as a player — leading the team in points, steals, and blocks — after you fainted from dehydration, allegedly due to excessive partying?
[Laughs.] Yeah, my first year there away from home, I was just partying too much, just being a total college kid, eating fast food and not drinking enough water. We, uh, tilted back a couple of beers. I’m sure that didn’t help.
Who did you pattern your game after?
Back then, it was kind of different. You took bits and pieces from everyone. I wasn’t a great standstill shooter — more of a penetrator. I liked to get in the paint, kick it out. Obviously I could jump a little bit — I had about a 40-inch vertical. I was probably more of a passer than I was a scorer, even though I led the team in scoring. I really wasn’t modeled after one guy. Everybody stole a little bit from Jordan. Everybody took something from Dominique, Larry.
After college, did you explore going pro, either in the NBA or overseas?
I did. Back in those days you had to try out for the L.A. summer league. I played that summer (1992) for, I think it was, Portland’s free-agent team. Richard Dumas was there. The NBA was a different beast. I signed a contract to go to New Zealand and play pro. But three days before I left, the team folded. I already had my plane ticket, my passport, everything. My agent wanted me to go over anyway, and just try out, but I was engaged at the time and if I was gonna go, I was gonna go with a contract. I wasn’t gonna go to the other side of the world and just hope.
How did you get from there to playing in basically every basketball movie scene of the 1990s?
It was such a fluke! I was still trying to go overseas. I really didn’t have any place to live. I had just got engaged, and I was living with my girlfriend’s grandparents. I was just working out every day and talking to agents every day.
Some guys in the basketball world who do college recruiting stuff — the Pump brothers — gave me a call. They went to Northridge when I did. They said, “Hey, there’s this audition, just show up. We’ll get $500 if you get it.” I said OK. I thought it was maybe for a commercial. I walked up in basketball clothes, and it was for The Air Up There. That was the first movie I ever did.
It was unreal. I never had any training [with acting] whatsoever. I went into the audition, and the casting director, Mali Finn, who ended up being big in the industry — she did Titanic and a bunch of other things1 — she kinda just walked me through it. They had me read a couple of pages. I could hear my voice shaking, I was so nervous. I did so bad at the audition. It was horrible. They liked me enough to bring me back to play ball, which was great. There were a couple of guys there who had played overseas, but I was the best player there.
I got to go out and play a little bit. Literally, before I got home that night, they called, told me to pack, because I was gonna go on a plane to Toronto to audition with Kevin Bacon. That’s how quick that whole thing happened. The crazy part was, I went that day [to the audition] and they had already hired an actor for the part, and they were firing him, but he didn’t know.
We get to the audition, and Bob McAdoo is the basketball coordinator. He set up all the plays. We auditioned, spent the night at the hotel, went back in the morning, and auditioned again. I decided just not [to] be nervous, and [to] do a fancy dunk. I think I did a 360 or something. I turned around, and they were talking to the other guy, and they put him on a plane that day; he went back to L.A.
What about Charles Gitonga Maina? Was he any good?
You know, he wasn’t bad. Bob McAdoo actually helped him out and got him into a junior college in North Carolina, and then I think he played Division II for a little bit.2 Then he went back to Africa. He was really long and athletic, but really raw, basketball-wise.
Could Bacon ball at all?
He really couldn’t. He was a good guy, and he really made me feel comfortable, as far as the acting went. We relied on my basketball skills to really sell some things. He hit me in the balls with the basketball three times. That kinda killed me.
The thing about Kevin, he was a really hard worker, and he was a perfectionist, so he didn’t want anyone else to do it for him. It led to a lot more takes, but it was more fulfilling. Obviously, he was a veteran actor and he helped me out quite a bit.
From there — I guess I’ll just go down your IMDb page — you got Blue Chips. Pretty amazing collection of basketball talent on that set.
I actually auditioned for Rick Roe (played by Matt Nover) and didn’t get it. Once we got started, we flew out to Indiana. That was the first time I met Shaq. I ended up really getting along with him. There was a lot of pickup being played on the set. The first day there, I got caught on a two-on-one break with Penny and Shaq dribbling at me. Shaq got the ball, I swiped at it, played a little fake defense, and just got the hell out of the way. Really fun pickup games. I mean, Calbert Cheaney, Bobby Hurley, Allan Houston, a lot of the Duke guys, Eric Riley from the Fab Five team. Rex Walters — who’s now the coach of USF and who I grew up playing ball with — he was in it. The games were amazing. Such great runs. And we had police escorts for our bus; there were people lined up on the sidewalks just to watch us drive by. They closed restaurants when we came by.
You guys played pickup every day?
Every day. A lot of the stuff they filmed was just us playing games. They set up cameras around this arena — a high school gym that sat 6,000 people, and it was sold out, with 3,000 people waiting outside. It was a really fun experience, even though I only played in one game on camera. I was happy I could hang with those guys without embarrassing myself. I think I had double figures in one game.
Now, I’m very interested in this — the CD-ROM video game Slam City With Scottie Pippen. Mainly we just see the back of your head the entire time.
Yup. Ain’t that funny?
After Blue Chips, I thought, Well, I should figure this out. I got a sports-only agent. He would only send me out on sports commercials and movies, and things like that. So, he sent me out for an audition that ended up being Slam City. They weren’t sure how they were going to go about it, as far as controlling the main character, so they just decided to use me. I had to work a heck of a lot harder than those four other guys in the game, I had to be in every set, every shot, and everything else.
It was really a fun experience. And Scottie came in for three or four days and we got to play one-on-one every day. I had already played with Jordan and done a couple of things with him. Scottie was just such a long, athletic beast. So smart and strong.
Where did you play with Jordan?
The first [time] was on the set of Space Jam. Joe Pytka was the director, and he used to hire me for different things. That was right after Jordan’s first retirement, when he came back and lost in the semis. Warner Bros. built a gym, and there’s some YouTube video of it, like, Space Jam pickup games.
I wasn’t there that particular day. But Pytka wanted some college guys — people who could play — just to come and work out with Jordan. And, I went, “Heck yeah, absolutely.” It was my wife’s birthday, and my wife goes, “You better go play!”
So, I went and played pickup with Jordan for three days with some other local college guys — Stevie Thompson, DeAnthony Langston, some other guys that I did a bunch of commercials and stuff with.
Any notable commercials?
That’s where I made most of my money, in commercials. I did a ton with Nike, for about five or six years. That’s how I got to play with Jordan again, the following year, after Space Jam. We were doing that freeze-frame commercial of his, where the people kind of stop—
“Frozen Moment”!3 That’s maybe my favorite Nike commercial.
Did Jordan trash-talk you?
Oh yeah, nonstop. [Laughs.]
He didn’t give a shit who you were. When I was doing Space Jam, we played three days. I thought it was over. I had to go out of town. I get a phone call, they’re like, “Why aren’t you here?” I was like, “Oh, they’re still playing?” I had no idea.
I walk in, and it’s Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, Alonzo Mourning, Charles Oakley. Grant Hill shows up. Jerry Stackhouse shows up. Now, all of a sudden it’s an NBA All-Star pickup game. Every night. I did that for about a month and a half, two months. Then the UCLA kids came in, and they had just won a national title — Ed O’Bannon and those guys. Just phenomenal. Best pickup games I’ve ever been a part of. It was unreal.
Yeah, so Jordan … I had to guard Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan in back-to-back games. It was so bad. I was friends with Chris Mills and Tracy Murray — we had been to some camps together. One play, I got switched onto Jordan, because Chris was like, “Keith, you take him.” Jordan hit a 35-footer on me. I mean, it was ridiculous: leg out, tongue out, all that stuff … hit a 35-footer on me and goes, “GET THE FUCK OFF THE COURT.”
Wow. OK, back on track, after Slam City, you did the Billy Crystal–as-an–NBA ref rom-com Forget Paris.
That was a fun set to be on. They took amazing care of us. We only had to work three days a week. Got paid a bundle. We’d be there 18 hours a day, but we’d only work, like, seven, eight hours, and the rest of the time we’d be in the trailer watching movies. Billy Crystal was fantastic. Billy’s a basketball junkie; he just loved being around it all.
Did Billy Crystal practice his reffing on the pickup games?
Nah, they had ex-NBA officials on set to help him with his mechanics and do all that. All Crystal wanted to do was shoot.
Then you did Celtic Pride, which is a movie that, I think, pretty clearly promotes kidnapping as a means to support one’s team.
I got that through Kevin Benton and Rob Ryder, who both helped coordinate Blue Chips. They set up all the basketball stuff. They recommended me to the director. I would go in and play with Damon Wayans everyday. Then I went in and read, and they offered me the part of Kirby.
Daniel Stern was fantastic. He was great. That was my longest movie shoot. I was there for 10 weeks. The set was kind of chaotic — everybody was on different pages. [Celtic Pride] was why I didn’t end up actually working on Space Jam. They were gonna throw me in one of the scenes, but I got a speaking part in Celtic Pride. Obviously, if I’m trying to be an actor, I’ve got to be seen on camera. I didn’t realize it would only be a couple of lines. The part was actually bigger in the script.
Damon Wayans seems like he might actually have some game from that movie. Is he the best actor-basketball player you worked with?
Actually, no. Damon has a clubfoot. Like, in real life, he has a clubfoot. So that was challenging.
He was such a great guy; I actually love Damon Wayans. He’d work out in the morning for two and half hours, then come to the set and we’d play for two and a half hours. He worked really hard at it … but they had to cheat quite a bit on film — do some little tricks to make him seem a little quicker, a little better. If he was guarding me, I might have to sell it a little bit differently. Kind of like the Kevin Bacon situation.
If you’re a basketball junkie, there’s certain things that you can see on film, that you know it’s not authentic. So these movie people have this dilemma: Do I get a basketball player and teach him how to act, or get an actor and teach him how to play basketball? And, obviously, in a movie situation, they’re gonna pick the actor and surround him with ballplayers.
I always tell people, if I was that good of an actor, I’d probably still be acting, even when the basketball stuff ended. It’s kind of hard to give a $45 million project to a basketball player who wasn’t gonna be as gifted, acting-wise. You understand why they chose the actors over the ballplayers. At the time, I was so arrogant, I thought I could carry something. Looking back, there’s now way I could’ve carried something.
The Cable Guy has one of the more wacky basketball scenes in recent memory — Jim Carrey just being a goon out there. How did you end up in that?
I appreciate you saying that, because I actually coordinated that one. I actually trained them and set up all the plays. So that’s how they brought me in. This shows you the genius of my business knowledge when it comes to acting stuff: Judd Apatow wrote Celtic Pride. So, we were working on that, he was a great guy, he was always on set, real energetic, and just loved the process. So, he said, “When we get back to L.A, give me a call. I might have a project for you.”
The Monday I get back, I call him, and he goes, “We’re doing a basketball scene. The guys in this movie love working with you; you have this good rapport. Let’s set up a meeting.”
I went in, didn’t have any idea who was in the project or what it was about, and I met with Judd Apatow and Ben Stiller.
I know. I was, like, What the heck is going on? So, they wanted me to train Jim and Matthew Broderick, just enough to make that scene work. They explained: It doesn’t have to be super great. It’s just a pickup game. Now, neither one of them had a clue, athletically. Not a clue.
I went to Jim Carrey’s house to do some stuff with him in his backyard for about three or four hours. The first thing he told me when I walked in was, “I’m a Canadian. I don’t know anything about basketball.” I literally spent an hour with him just on right-hand layups. I was like, What are we gonna do? He just started taking off, going into character. And it was just he and I in the backyard. At one point, he goes into character, and throws a baby hook from 35 feet, and it goes over the hoop, over the backboard, over his fence, and hits the guest house. And he starts running around the backyard like he just won the NCAA championship.
What special effects were involved in his dunk? Did they have him on like a winch or something?
Well, they had him swinging on the rim, so they brought in a ladder to get that stuff. There was a stunt double. Actually, the stunt coordinator got fired on the spot, because when the stunt double went in to dunk, the backboard shattered. The glass, instead of falling backwards, all fell on top of his face, on his chest, on everything. The pyrotechnics didn’t work the right way and pushed all the glass the wrong way, so the guy got fired on the spot. I think, in the actual scene, they ended up using it.
In Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, you got to play Billy Cunningham. That’s got to be your best role, right?
Absolutely. Kevin Garnett being Wilt Chamberlain and Joe Smith being Connie Hawkins — all these big basketball names. Getting to be Billy Cunningham was just great. Eriq La Salle directed, and he just kind of let us play around. The line I had in it was just an ad-lib, and he liked it.
Talk about pickup games — we were playing with Garnett every day. That was right after his rookie year. My hotel room was actually in between Garnett and Joe Smith. So, we’d all sit up, play video games, and hang out. Pooh Richardson was there. We did a lot of gambling on that set. We gambled nonstop — just shooting half-court shots, shooting from a chair. Pooh Richardson took an extra’s — this extra always ran his mouth that he was better than all of us — Pooh Richardson took his daily money.
His per diem?
Not only his per diem, but his contract for the day. Guy just kept running his mouth and Pooh took his entire paycheck.
KG trash-talk you at all?
Not a ton. I did beat him in a shooting contest and he ended up getting on a flight and he never did pay me the eight bucks he owed me. So, I think, you know, with interest. [Laughs.]
Kevin was a great guy … really focused on his career. He knew what he was doing. Whenever you’re on the set, you get the VIP treatment, but Kevin would never go out. Joe went out with us, Pooh went out with us, Mitchell Butler and I became real close there. We’d all go out and have a good time. But Kevin would just stay in the room. He goes, “There’s nothing good for me out there for what I’m trying to do.” Really intelligent for such young kid.
What about Don Cheadle? Could he play?
He was pretty decent. He wasn’t a basketball junkie, but he was quick and he had good feet.
There’s one scene where he throws a behind-the-back pass …
That was bad. That was probably about 10 to 15 takes. That was a really fun movie to be in. Probably my favorite, as far as quality. There’s one other one — but I didn’t have a cool role in that: American History X.
Wait, you were in that? They don’t list you on there.
No, they don’t. I’m the main white guy in the basketball scene.
That was a horrible set to be on. Everybody was fighting and miserable. They didn’t want to pay us. They tried to bring us back for two weeks and they didn’t want to pay us any more money. It was bad. The director and Ed Norton didn’t get along well.4 Talk about a weird set to be on. We had guys down on Venice Beach, you know, with swastikas all over their chests; we had a lot of security.
There were a lot of upset people, and obviously they don’t know the plot of the script. There were a lot of crazy things behind the scenes. But, boy, the finished product was phenomenal.
Norton’s dunk — probably the most infamous movie dunk of all time. How was that shot?
They had a crane, and they had ladders, too. A lot of the tricks you do as coordinator [come down to just filming] the jump: Go jump like you’re going to dunk it and they just film the approach and then we’ll pull in a ladder. He did a lot of just hanging on the rim for that scene.
Now, BASEketball is a movie I’ve seen roughly 400 times because I worked in a movie theater in 1998.
In the opening party scene, when they make up the game against those two yuppies, I played one of them. I actually had some pretty decent dialogue in that. They wanted someone who could put in at least one bucket with some topsiders on. We filmed in … two days? A day? And the movie was out a month later. The movie tested so well that the studio threw in another million dollars to reshoot the opening scene, where they describe the rules of the game.
So, that’s where that scene came from. We shot at night in this really rich neighborhood in Pasadena. About midnight every night, Matt and Trey would crack open a 12-pack of beer and start drinking real beer while we were shooting.
How did you not get in White Men Can’t Jump? Was it just that you were in college at that time?
Yeah. And that was at a time when I wasn’t even thinking about doing that. I know everybody in that movie now, because they were all doing the same things. The basketball acting community is a lot like the basketball community. You get a lot of the same people on the same set. So, I’ve got friends … guys that I’ve done commercials with, we stay in touch. It was a very close-knit group socially. There wasn’t a whole lot of competitive hatred in it. I met a lot of good people and a lot of good friends through that process.
Looking back on all of this, what was your favorite moment?
Being on sets, being on location, just being able to pick people’s brains. Especially being a young twentysomething-year-old kid like I was. It was just a lot of fun. If I had to pick one moment? It’d be so difficult to do. I know it’s kind of an open-ended answer, but there were so many great moments. Being a basketball junkie, playing against these NBA guys and now they’re all Hall of Famers, getting to see all that stuff. How all their careers have changed. Getting to know Shaq a little bit. Getting to know Michael Jordan a little bit. Getting to know Kevin Garnett a little bit. That part is cool to me because I’ve loved sports my whole life.