Short Story is a column that tells you all about your favorite – and less popular – pop culture topics. This entry looks at some of the best film performances from NBA players.
Space Jam: A New Legacy, perhaps better known as Space Jam 2, is here. The sequel takes place in Los Angeles Laker Lebron James as a fictionalized version of himself. After attending a pitch meeting at Warner Bros., he and his son are caught in “Serververse” by an AI villain named Al-G Rhythm. And similar to the plot of the first Space Jam, Michael Jordan, James has to win a high stakes game. Of course, he also puts together the cartoon characters from Looney Tunes to play for his team.
The release of this film follows an announcement that Uncut gemstones will be added to the Criterion Collection in October. The film is about a jeweler and degenerate gambler. One day NBA great Kevin Garnett visits the jewelry store and is fond of a rare black opal imported from Ethiopia. Garnett borrows it, excels in his next game, and believes the opal is the reason for its success. In the end, the jeweler gets the money to pay off his debt, but instead of going the easy route, he decides to place a bet on a three-way competition that will focus on Garnett’s performance in the NBA playoffs.
James, Jordan and Garnett are just a few of the many NBA players to see the big screen over the years. That makes sense: rhythm, movement and style are just as important for the cinema as they are for basketball. While no history of the relationship between the NBA and the movies could be included in a single article, in honor of Space Jam 2 and Uncut Gems who were on the news this week, here is a brief history of some of the NBA players who found their way to the cinema:
Jamaal Wilkes in Cornbread, Earl and Me
Today, many appearances in films by professional athletes are limited to comedies, either in supporting roles or as one-liners in cameos. But in 1971, Jamaal Wilkes, a future member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, starred in a film that deals directly with systemic racism and police brutality.
Cornbread, Earl and me follows the story of Nathaniel “Cornbread” Hamilton (Wilkes, credited as “Keith Wilkes”), a distinguished basketball player and the first in his neighborhood to receive an athletic scholarship. However, just a few weeks before enrolling, the police mistook Hamilton for another man and murdered him on the street. After his death, the film follows the trial in court and shows a community of leaders and witnesses ready to lie, rewrite history and protect those in power.
“Cornbread’s fate says that you can get an A, never commit a crime, have kids on an afternoon program, and have a vice as tame as playing basketball all the time, and you can still get shot down the same way as the worst criminal in Your neighborhood, ”writes film critic Odie Henderson in a haunting personal essay about the film. “And it all depends on where you live and how you look. Instead of admitting a mistake, the city will cover it up and blame you, attack and destroy your character so they can close a case. ”
Following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in 2020, many NBA players have been criticized for their vocal support of the following protests, Black Lives Matter, and calls for police reform. But as many journalists and historians have noted, the role of NBA players in the fight for social justice and civil rights – and many professional athletes in general – is nothing new. And look no further than Wilkes’ compelling performance in Cornbread, Earl and Me.
Dr. J in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh
Long before Michael Jordan turned pro, let alone played in Space Jam, there was Julius “Dr. J ”Ervingwhose speed, dunks and class helped define the sport in the 70s and 80s. In 1979 the NBA player starred in the film The fish that saved Pittsburgh. Here’s the hilarious premise: The ball boy of a lost professional basketball team seeks advice from an astrologer and devises a plan to create a team made up only of players with the same zodiac sign as their star, Moses Guthrie (Erving). They become the Pittsburgh Pisces, and with their off-chart chemistry, they run a championship run.
In one scene, Erving goes to a playground and immersed himself for a few minutes. It’s damn cool.
In a 2013 interview, Bill Simmons asked Erving about one of the film’s curiosities that appeared at the time. At the height of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, Guthrie’s team competes against an NBA legend-led Los Angeles squad Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which, Simmons notes, disappears halfway through the game.
“That day on the set,” says Erving after a lot of laughs. “He was mad about something … so he takes the director’s chair and slams it into the seat. He slams it and goes out. “Erving said Abdul-Jabbar suffered from frequent migraines and deserves” a mulligan “for the incident, adding,” I think he got over it. ”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the plane!
In the 1980s, some of the most famous great men in NBA history took on non-basketball-related film roles on the big screen. Perhaps the most famous pre-space jam performance in a film by an NBA player came in 1980 when the aforementioned Kareem Abdul-Jabbar co-piloted “Roger Murdock” in. played Plane!.
In one of the best scenes in the comedy, a boy visits the cockpit and recognizes “Murdock” as Abdul-Jabbar, who insists he isn’t the NBA player. But the child is persistent. “My father says you don’t work hard enough on the defense,” the boy continues. “And he says that often you don’t even run across the square. And you don’t really try that, except in the playoffs. ”Abdul-Jabbar cracks that, who mumbles:” Damn, I don’t. ” He grabs the child by the shirt and says: “Tell your old man to pull” [Bill] Walton and [Bob] Lanier up the square for forty-eight minutes each night. “
The role is one of the most iconic sports cameos in film history. It’s brilliant how Abdul-Jabbar fits it into the world of film without pretending he’s someone else. In doing so, he makes fun of the general absurdity of celebrity cameos without condescension.
“I mean, it couldn’t have been better than what we were looking for in a million years,” director Jim Abrahams told the AV Club as part of his oral history of the film. “He shouldn’t be able to act. [Laughs.] That just added more to it. But he’s a really bright, fascinating man. He’s the original renaissance man and he’s just a very interesting guy. Basketball never defined him. Not even in its prime. It was about much more to him than just basketball. “
Wilt Chamberlain in Conan the Destroyer
Wilt Chamberlain, who holds the record for the most points in a single game, made his cinema debut in Conan the destroyer. The title character (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) must complete a quest to be reunited with his lover. He is joined by Bombaata (Chamberlain), who has been secretly ordered to assassinate Conan as soon as the quest is completed. Eventually Bombaata’s betrayal becomes clear and after a confrontation the men engage in a bloody duel to the life and death. If you’ve always wanted to watch the former California Governor kill one of the greatest NBA players of all time – in a movie – this is your chance.
Michael Jordan et al. in the space jam
If you were an NBA fan who went to the movies in the 90s, you were in heaven. In addition to the great Air Jordan, the original Space Jam features a number of basketball pros, including Larry Vogel. In fact, while golfing with the Celtics legend, the chaos of Space Jam reigns when Jordan is sucked through a golf hole into the world of Looney Tunes.
The film also features a number of other NBA players: Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, and Muggsy Bogues. Their talents are stolen by the film’s villains, the “nerdlucks,” who transform themselves into basketball-playing monsters. The nerdlucks become “monstars” and then play the Looney Tunes characters in a basketball game. If the Monstars win, the Looney Tunes must become an amusement park attraction on their home planet.
As noted in the 2020 Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance, the year of the first Space Jam’s release marked Jordan’s return to the NBA after a brief stint as a minor league baseball player. One of the highlights of the ten-part document for me was that Warner Bros. built a full basketball court on set so Jordan could train while filming, and many ’90s NBA greats traveled to the set to play. Jordan won three other championships. I wonder if the players regretted helping him return.