I love Above The Rim. Its soundtrack is always in the convo for best Black movie soundtrack of all time, and Tupac Tupac’d the shit out of the movie. Then, you have Leon (I was today years old when I discovered his last name was Robinson) displaying another talent of his—a believable jump shot—to go along with his (especially at the time) propensity to morph into various singers, Jamaican track stars turned bobsledders, gang members, ladies men, etc. Leon really is a treasure of African America.
And nowhere is that more on display than in Above The Rim, especially in the last 20 minutes. The movie itself is a hoot; Leon plays Thomas Sheppard, a nomadic basketball super-talent who effectively went into hiding after the death of his best friend Nutso, a death Thomas blamed on himself.
His younger brother, Birdie (basically Tupac playing Bishop if he doesn’t die at the end of Juice, let’s call it Juicier), grew up to be the neighborhood gang leader (essentially) who caught a chip on his shoulder because his big brother, nicknamed Shep, took off. The movie’s main character is Kyle Lee Watson (played by Duane Martin, one of the few black men in movies who you can tell actually knows how to play basketball) a high school basketball standout whose entire goal is to play college ball at Georgetown University, and whose dalliance with Birdie almost costs him that opportunity and his life.
You know—and I’m just going to assume everybody has seen it—what’s up with 90s high schoolers not learning how to move out of the way of bullets? Ricky, an alleged standout high school running back, tried to literally OUTRUN a 12-gauge shotgun round in Boyz in the Hood, and when Motaw (more on him later, played by Wood Harris) pulls a gun on Kyle at the end of Above the Rim, he literally just stands there with his hands up while literally EVERYBODY else around him is trying to get the fuck out of dodge.
Anyway, the movie leads up to a ShootOut tournament at the famous Holcombe Rucker Park courts in Harlem where Kyle, who until that point is part of Birdie’s Birdmen team, which is stacked to win, quits to join the team his high school coach has assembled. Birdie is unhappy. Their teams, The Bombers (Kyle’s team) and the Birdmen (Birdie’s team, natch) meet in the championship game which is where the shenanigans come to life.
Look, I don’t know if it’s just been a while since I watched it (I just watched it) but it’s like I saw it with a new set of eyes. And I’m specifically talking about the basketball tournament scenes that end the movie. Good lord.
For starters, and this is the point nearly everybody talks about, Shep shows up to play basketball in CORDUROYS. This is AFTER the Bombers team is depleted because The Birdmen have literally fouled the shit out of them into injury status. The Bombers can’t field a team and then Shep shows up—he was previously asked to play by his former coach, now Kyle’s coach, who left his name on the roster just in case he changed his mind; that’s fucking foresight—again, in corduroys and a long sleeve thermal shirt, and some hi-top Adidas Superstars. He didn’t even stretch. He just walked onto the court and goes fucking bonkers.
By my entirely accurate scientific analysis, the score of this game is—with, let’s say, 10 minutes left on a running clock—74-36, Birdmen. The Bombers are getting murdered.
Somehow, Shep, after being flagrantly fouled AT LEAST 3 times, one time resulting with him going head first into the outdoor court (concussion protocols were not a thing there), gets up and goes on a 39-2 run BY HIMSELF. He plays defense, he gets steals, he dishes out his own flagrant fouls….
…quick aside: what the fuck were the refs even there for? I saw AT LEAST 20 fouls that weren’t called. At least. Why are there even refs? Birdie actually went to a ref at one point asking for a foul call even though his team literally punched niggas in the face on the court.
Anyway, Shep hangs 39 on them, makes the game winning steal AND assist, an alley-oop to Kyle for the game-winning jam. The Bombers win 77-76 (on camera, the Birdmen only scored one time, but considering how Shep carved them niggas up, I’m assuming he singlehandedly killed them). This with a running clock and it being 5-on-5.
I don’t remember getting as much joy out of that before, but on this latest watch I was tickled pink. Like holy shit, he did this IN CORDUROYS. Imagine if he had on better shoes and shorts. He finger-rolled, dropped 3s, a few mid-range jumpers, had assists and played defense. I think I’m ready to call this the single greatest fictional basketball performance in a movie. And he played with toughness and aggression. He stood up to Motaw who was a baller but was SOMEHOW benched for Kyle? When Kyle quit Birdie’s team, Birdie tells Motaw that he is now starting. Meanwhile Motaw has handles, dunks and is clearly a good player. I was surprised by that.
And here’s the funny part: upon rewatching with different eyes I saw the most improbable, the craziest shit that ever could have or would have happened in a basketball game.
Shep does this in a game where a player on the Birdmen (#52) intercepts a pass under the Bombers basket, makes a full-court length pass…TO HIMSELF and then dunks it. It’s the most amazing basketball play I’ve ever seen. I had to watch it like 5 times just to make sure I wasn’t making it up, but it happened. He literally threw an outlet pass on the other end of the court TO HIMSELF for the dunk. SHEP DID THIS AGAINST A TEAM THAT WAS BASICALLY A VIDEO GAME SET TO ALL-CENTURY!
I realize I’m not reinventing the wheel here; if you’re a fan of Above The Rim (and who isn’t? Amirite?) then you’ve probably talked about Shep’s performance many times, but wow, was that a joy to watch. It would have only been more impressive if he did it wearing Stacy Adams or Chuck’s.
To Thomas Sheppard, the GOAT, you are appreciated.
(See what I did there? Because ‘Pac…I’ll see myself out.)