Liberty Ballers at the Movies: Above the Rim

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

"We both know there's more to makin' it than what happens on the court" -- Kyle Watson

It's the offseason, the Sixers finally have a coach, and most importantly our own Roy Burton continues to instruct Evan Turner how he should be answering these fan questions on Ask.fm. With the start of training camp a month or so away, not much is left on the Sixer news front once some assistants get hired and Chris Duhon gets signed to help the tank job. There has to be something to talk about in the meantime, right?

In between Dave sending us his dissertations on the flaws of Royal Rumble 1993 and Roy's God Shammgod references, there was discussion (mostly between Dave and me) about filling the information gap with extremely serious and in-depth reviews/walkthroughs of some of the greatest basketball movies ever made. Without any permission to go ahead from editor Michael Levin, we felt it was time to share the beauty of these films with the masses. So without further ado, we bring to you the first edition of the Liberty Ballers at the Movies series; the 1994 instant classic, Above the Rim.


WARNING: If you haven't seen this movie, most of this won't make sense.

Our first film was responsible for arguably the greatest soundtrack of all-time and partially the reason that I fell in love with rap music (the other being "California Love" and "I Ain't Mad At Cha"). How can you pass up Warren G and Nate Dogg's "Regulators" coupled with the classic opening credit 2Pac track in "Pain" (which was redone by Pac wannabe Ja Rule in 2001 #JaRuleFridays)?

We meet our leading man Kyle Watson, all-star high school point guard for the Monarch Bombers and Georgetown hopeful, after the credits roll. This opening scene probably generates the most discussion (mostly between the basketball voices in my head) about the intricacies of the film. After running these five minutes back a few times, here are the thoughts and questions I had:

  • Why do these two schools have the same uniform design? While one team was maroon and the other green, both had the team name above an outline of a basketball which contained the players' respective numbers. I've never seen high schools, not to mention hated rivals, have the same basic uniform design.
  • Apparently at Monarch High School they don't have the retractable version of the side practice hoops. They are just sticking out, easily susceptible to being struck during game action. It's their version the roof at the Devil Ray's stadium.
  • A ballsy move by the Tigers' big-man going for the dunk at the buzzer. It worked out but these were before the days of instant replay. I'd like to see if the light went off before he slammed it home.
  • The little white point guard on the Tigers has the last name Montross and is headed for North Carolina once his high school career ends. Is this Eric's little brother? I'd like to think so. This remains a LOST-like mystery that was never answered during the course of the film. I see you former Sixers double zero.
  • Hey, look! The Georgetown scout is played by (legend in two games like I'm) Pee Wee Kirkland. Nice little cameo.
  • We're introduced to 2Pac's character Birdie and the rest of his crew which includes Marlon Wayans (Kyle's childhood friend Bugaloo) and Avon Barksdale Julius Campbell Wood Harris (Birdie's right-hand man), all of whom are here to scout Kyle for the upcoming shoot-out.
  • Kyle's mom shows up to the game after it's completed, gets stopped by security guard and former Bomber's all-star Thomas Sheppard for five seconds and proceeds to blame him for missing her son. Take responsibility for your own actions Mama Watson. He's just doing his job. You waltzed in like you owned the place after the game had ended. It's your own fault you missed your son.
After Kyle refuses to take any credit for the loss, he and Bugaloo head to Birdie's club after the game, at which time Birdie lays out his intentions to have Kyle run with his squad during the shoot-out. Side-note: the song used to segue to the club from the basketball game is one that utilizes an incredibly catchy Kurupt verse. Take a listen here.

It's all good fun in the VIP room as Kyle meets a "friend of the program" (term I learned first from the 1994 film Blue Chips) who asks his shoe size (I need to meet this gentleman) and a prostitute who begins making out with him upon introduction. Although it's never mentioned that she is one, subtle hints are thrown out there over the course of the scene. Case in point, Birdie offers Kyle some cash and tells him "everything costs" while staring directly at the female in question. With access to free shoes (11.5's by the way) and unlimited prostitutes, it's hard to imagine Kyle turning Birdie down.

As we switch character focus to the previously mentioned Sheppard, we learn he's Birdie's brother and back in town to bury their mother. Birdie meets up with his older sibling at their mom's grave and delivers what is easily my favorite scene of the entire film, offering Sheppard partnership in his highly successful drug dealing and gambling business. Take a look below. I miss Pac.



After shutting his brother's business proposal down, Sheppard falls for Kyle's mom and takes her to 70s retrospective night at the local movie theater. Here we learn that Kyle's mom is a big-time buzzkill. Sheppard gives a great rendition of the Shaft theme song and follows up inquiring if she ever dreamed about being with Shaft. She give a straight-faced answer that Shaft is fake and Kyle's father was real. Thanks for bringing down the mood, mom.

"Folks either move past the things that happen to them, or they stop moving at all." -- Kyle's mom to Sheppard

Kyle's not a fan of this brewing romance and it affects his game tremendously as he tries to hero ball his way to victory. Sheppard notices the weakness in his game, and smiles at Kyle's shortcomings proving that Kyle should have listened to him in the first place (snap your wrist, Kyle).

"Oh yeah, I'd say you owe plenty. If you ever plan on giving anything back, you better start right now. You can't do anything about your mom or Nutso, but you can about Kyle. It's all there for him, Shep, and he's blowing it." -- Coach to Sheppard

Being the immature superstar he is, Kyle continues to let the romance affect his game to the point where his emotions get the best of him in a rematch against the Tigers, leading to his eventual ejection and beatdown of a locker with a steel chair. This isn't King of the Ring 1993, Kyle. You're not Luna Vashon and that locker is certainly not Bret Hart. As Monroe so eloquently yelled at your face, "AND WHAT IS THAT GONNA DO?!?!".

After seeing the negative effect he's had on Kyle and a straight to the point speech from his former coach, Sheppard, as he's always done, decides it's best for him to skip town right before the shoot-out, allowing Kyle to continue on his destructive path and stay aboard Birdie's ship.

After a blow-up between Birdie and Bugaloo, Kyle learns of Birdie's destructive ways. Bugaloo tells Kyle about a murder of a local bum Flip (played by Bernie Mac) courtesy of Birdie for the sole reason that Flip called him a "peckerhead". The most offensive of names if you ask me.

Kyle wants to know if this is true and goes to the court that Flip hangs by to confirm if he's dead or not. Who winds up being at the same court, but a packed and ready to go Thomas Sheppard. Challenging Kyle to a first point wins one-on-one game, Sheppard embarasses Kyle, negating every move Kyle tries to put on him. Kyle recognizes his game has major weaknesses and that he owes Sheppard his respect. OMG we've got a turn in his character!

Upon arriving to the shoot-out, Kyle returns Birdie's gear and decides to run with his high school squad instead. Since Bugaloo was Kyle's boy, Birdie neglects him as well and tells the rest of the Birdmen that if anybody is seen talking to Boog, their "ass be gone too".

The shoot-out begins and good lord did the filmmaker love to re-use footage but from different angles to act like it was a brand new occurrence. Kyle got his reverse lay-up attempt from the middle of the lane swatted by the red team's big man at least three separate times. The only things that redeem this duplicate footage is the use of 2Pac's "Holla If Ya Hear Me" during gameplay and the red team's dopplegangers of Kevin Johnson and Gerald Wilkins.

Predictably enough, the Bombers advance to the championship against Birdie's squad. Right before the game begins, Kyle is greeted with the news that Georgetown wants him as their new point guard, a dream come true. Unfortunately for Kyle, Birdie also knows this news.

In his pre-game "good luck" speech to Kyle, Birdie hypothetically asks Kyle what Georgetown would think of all the presents he took while rolling with the Birdmen. Kyle's in a predicament that Nathan Scott of "One Tree Hill" knows all too well. If this news is made public, his college dream is over.

"You're not going to college or any-fuckin-where if the Birdman don't win." -- Birdie

The championship bout starts and it's got flashes of a Hell in the Cell classic. The Birdmen are as aggressive as can be, elbowing the Bombers at every chance and getting away with it every time. The Bombers and Kyle are getting their lunch handed to them every possession, leading to an array of Birdmen fast breaks for easy dunks.

Just when all hope seems lost, here comes Thomas Sheppard to the rescue. Playing in a thermal and cream colored courderoy jeans, Sheppard starts his LeBron James-esque takeover. Fearing nobody, Sheppard sinks a ton of jumpers, one right after the other. His defense, while questionable, is highly effective as he utilizes the "knee to the opposition's nuts" style so ever popular in the mid-90s.

With the Birdmen up one and four seconds left, Avon Barksdale (well, kind of) tries to dribble out the clock but Sheppard steals it away and finds Kyle for a buzzer-beating alley-oop. The fans go crazy but during all the hoopla, Sheppard notices Birdie give Avon a gym bag which has a loaded gun inside. Aiming straight at Kyle, Avon pulls the trigger as Sheppard dives in front of it. The bullet hit Sheppard in the heart region and we're lead to believe he's most likely dead.

We cut to Birdie's club where he's at a VIP table with a few gorgeous ladies surrounding him. As we get closer, we notice we're waltzing in from Bugaloo's point of view. Standing up for himself and avenging the murder attempt of Kyle, Bugaloo puts a bullet in Birdie's chest, killing him in the process.

We fast forward to Kyle's freshmen year at Georgetown and the finals of the Big East Tournament against Seton Hall. With the Hoyas down, coach John Thompson draws up a gorgeous play for Kyle to hit the game-winner as he snaps his wrist just as Sheppard instructed him to do in the past. Enemies have become mentor and student.

Cue up "Regulators" and flash to a close-up of a smiling Sheppard watching Kyle in his moment of glory. His work here is done.

As we should always be looking to do with every situation we're handed in life, I looked for some things that I could learn upon my re-watch. Here's the top five of those instances:

  1. According to Bugaloo, Kyle's uncircumcised penis looks like an anteater.
  2. Kyle values his prompt attendance in homeroom.
  3. Birdie had a ton of money on the outcome of the shoot-out. I was always confused as to why he wanted Kyle killed after the win considering it was a meaningless amateur competition. But during that initial scene in his club, Birdie can faintly be heard telling the "friend of the program" that he's got "too much money riding on this game". It's the only time this is mentioned and if you're not paying attention, it's easily missed.
  4. Georgetown was the only school recruiting Kyle, apparently. I have a hard time believing this. We're lead to believe Kyle is one of the best recruits in the country. If a major college powerhouse wants him, I think it's safe to assume a ton of other schools would be in the mix as well. However, an exchange during Kyle and his mother early in the movie limits his choices to Georgetown and City College, a school that doesn't even have a basketball team.
  5. Birdie loves to chew on unlit cigars. Will Smith said it best folks. "I bite it. It's for the look. I don't light it."

Above the Rim is most likely my favorite basketball movie of all-time and probably in my all-time top ten overall. Is it perfect? Not in the slightest, but it did have a huge impact on my life gearing me towards rap music and basketball. So for that, Above the Rim, I thank you.

I hope you guys enjoyed, or hell, even got through the first edition of our new series. There are tons of other basketball movies out there that we need to dissect. If you have any suggestions for future viewings, give a request below and we'll see if we can get it for the next round or further down the line. As of now, I'm really feeling "Love & Basketball" and "The 6th Man".

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