Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Remembering A Hip-Hop Hoops Classic
While writing my Tim Hardaway semi-tribute the other day where I mentioned renting the same NBA video, I started remembering other video tapes and movies I used to love. I started to think about the one movie that I at the time couldn't get enough of.
Above the Rim was that movie. It had everything. Playground basketball, Tupac right before the apex of his career, a young Duane Martin, Marlon Wayans, Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and the best soundtrack ever. It also could have been more of a documentary about inner city basketball than Hoop Dreams.
Above the Rim was the story of Kyle Lee Watson (Martin), a young high school basketball star guard aspiring to get himself to the NBA and his mother out of the hood. But like every inner city hoops prodigy, the ills of the city seemed to draw him in. This story is reflected through the real lives of basketball youngsters. Whether it be guys who were drawn in deeply (Caron Butler, Stephen Jackson, Allen Iverson) or dudes that brushed against it (JamesOn Curry, Sebastian Telfair, etc.), the streets can either bite you or swallow you whole when you stand too close. Kyle Watson was a shining example of it. He got too close to Birdie (Tupac) and it almost cost him not only his free ride to Georgetown, it almost cost him his life.
Above the Rim was also a true basketball film. As much as I love Love and Basketball, let's be real, it was a chick flick. Playing one-on-one for someone's heart, though romantic, is not gangsta. The movie started off with Kyle balling in a high school game, killing dudes until his ego got the best of him, which was another side story in the flick. Humble yourself or life will. From the one-on-one scenes with Flip (Bernie Mac) and Shep (Leon Robinson) to the playground tournament at the end (which looks like it was shot at the Rucker), the actual basketball scenes were on point.
Above the Rim was never a commercial success in the same vein as He Got Game but it was definitely a hip-hop classic. It came out around the same time as Nas and Biggie's debut masterpieces Illmatic and Ready to Die, which ran New York at the time. It featured a rap star right on the cusp of national superstardom in a role that seemed tailor-made for him. Just about everybody knows a Birdie from their neighborhood, whether they're still running the streets, locked up or in the grave. Birdie epitomized the street hustler who wanted his hand in everything: drugs, clubs, women, basketball. Anything that would be in his interest. His whole point in Kyle Watson was the fact that he could potentially win money for him in the Shootout Tournament. He didn't care about his family (Shep), Kyle, his soldiers, bums (Flip). All that mattered was that he came out on top. Pac was possibly the only person alive that could play that role and he played the shit out of it. (Some would argue that he took his roles in Above the Rim and Juice a little too seriously in real life.)
In the same token, every character in the movie seemed to be a reflection of real life personalities in the hood. There was the father figure guiding hand (Shep), the single mother working late hours to support her son (Ms. Watson), the friend that took the wrong path in life and seemed to not be able to re-direct (Bugaloo), the loyal tough guy soldier, and, of course, the neighborhood laughingstock bum (Flip).
That was the thing about Above the Rim, everything about it seemed real. There was no Hoosiers-style game-winning shot at the end followed by everybody hugging. There was a park shooting that left one of the main characters with his arm in a cast taking a bullet for the young dude he was trying to protect all along. Kyle made it to Georgetown, he even hit the game-winning shot on national TV, but not before overcoming the obstacles of the unforgiving neighborhood he was born in. The last scene was a poetic summary of the whole movie; Kyle hitting the game-winning shot using the same advice that Shep had taught him, all the while Shep and Kyle's mother are looking on, proud.
And then the screen fades to Warren G's "Regulate", always one of my favorite parts of the movie. From one classic to another.