On this day back in 1994, the now cult classic basketball movie Above the Rim was released. The movie starred hip-hop superstar Tupac Shakur as the local drug lord/goon named Birdie. Above the Rim was a basketball movie, but Tupac’s character, Birdie pretty much stole the show. He showed that he was conniving, ruthless and willing to do anything to win, including having someone killed in broad daylight. He could be nice and warm one minute and willing to kill the next. It almost felt as if Tupac wasn’t acting, but really playing a version of himself.
Duane Martin (who was really an NBA level player) was casted as Kyle Lee Watson, a super talented but self-centered, hot-tempered high school baller who falls under Birdie’s influence. Leon played Tommy Shepherd, a troubled local basketball legend with a few dark secrets, who returns to the neighborhood to bury his mother. The movie also featured Marlon Wayans as Bugaloo, Bernie Mac as Flip and a young Wood Harris as Birdie’s right hand man, Motow— though we’re not sure his name was ever said in the movie. Above the Rim is a coming of age story about making smart choices and learning how to own up to past mistakes.
In celebration of its 21st anniversary, we’ve listed the reasons why Above the Rim is arguably the best basketball movie of all time.
The Basketball Scenes
If you look at other highly regarded basketball movies such as White Men Can’t Jump, Coach Carter and even He Got Game, the basketball action scenes had a very polished feel. Above the Rim’s basketball scenes felt very gritty and real, almost like the director told the actors to just play the game. While the action during Kyle Lee Watson’s high school scenes were good, the standout action in the basketball tournament at the end of the movie really captures the essence of playground basketball. With the scenes shot at legendary Rucker Park, we get to see real life players shine, including street ball legend and Harlem Globetrotter, James “Speedy:” Williams. And who can forget Tommy Shepard stepping out of the cab still dressed in corduroys to score 26 straight points, bringing his team back against the Birdmen?
In addition to Tupac’s excellent performance, Leon’s portrayal of Tommy Shepherd was a perfect blend of a guy who had a tortured past but wanted to right some of his wrongs. It is also revealed that Tommy and Birdie are actually brothers. There is a pivotal, well done scene where the two brothers meet up at their mother’s grave site to “catch up.” Another standout performance is delivered by Bernie Mac, as Flip. He and Tommy Shepherd were teammates back in the day on the city championship high school team, but is now homeless. The late comedian was a mix between comedy and tragedy, as he is ultimately killed by Birdie for insulting him in front of Kyle Lee. Marlon Wayans also put in a pretty good performance as Kyle Lee’s boyhood friend Bugaloo. He’s an over-the-top knucklehead who doesn’t know when to shut up. Along with Bernie Mac, Wayans delivers a few funny one-liners during the movie.
A case can be made that this is one of the best soundtracks of the ’90s. While this movie was set in NYC, the soundtrack was very West Coast heavy, since it was produced by Suge Knight and Death Row Records. It boasted multiple songs from Tha Dogg Pound and (then known as) Snoop Doggy Dogg, a chart topping single from Warren G and Nate Dogg (“Regulate”), and a classic R&B/hip-hop pairing between SWV and the Wu-Tang Clan. It also featured female rapper Rage, and her debut single “Afro Puffs.” The standout of the soundtrack was Tupac’s street anthem, “Pain.” However, due to time constraints, the record label only included the banger along as a bonus song on the cassette release of the soundtrack, and not the CD release. Even today, the Tupac track is still one of the harder songs to find online.
While some of the styles featured in Above The Rim would be outdated by today’s standards, the characters were pretty decked out for the ’90s. Tupac kept it fresh. Whether he rocked his orange leather jacket with a cigar in his mouth at a high school basketball game, or camouflage gear (with matching bandana) around town. Duane Martin rocked a Carhartt vest, that was also a hot style in the 90’s.
While Above the Rim wasn’t a huge success when it was in the movie theaters, the movie still is a favorite among kids and teens who grew up in the ’90. It had comedy, drama and even had a happy ending… of sorts. It continues to be a cult classic and will discussed for a long time.
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