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Trading Blue Chips for Uncut Gems: The NBA Cinematic Universe

Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield and Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems

Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems could lazily be classified as a “basketball movie,” which raises the stakes in the third act via a tense and deciding Game 7 in the NBA Playoffs—numerous critics cite the nail-biting play-by-play action as the film’s tensest sequence. Yet Uncut Gems isn’t just driven by the attributes afforded a fast-paced sport: the narrative’s “house of cards” doesn’t come down to a single three-pointer or clutch free-throw that rolls around the rim before dropping in as the game clock strikes zero, Teen Wolf be damned. The Safdies pull off something trickier, interlocking their film with both on-the-record, well-documented basketball history and previous cinematic works also featuring professional basketball players playing heightened versions of themselves.

Uncut Gems is set in the spring of 2012, with NBA champion and 15-time All-Star Kevin Garnett playing himself. It features actual footage of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals between the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics (of which Garnett was a member) from May 16th, 18th and 25th. Former NBA players are referenced ad nauseum, most often by the film’s lead, the New York Knicks-diehard Howard Ratner, played by noted basketball fan Adam Sandler. Much like The Irishman told a story bouncing off American historical events as guide posts, the Safdies use recent basketball history to influence which unfortunate situations their misguided hero will plummet towards next. Ardent NBA fans are both ahead of and alongside the plot. If you know who won the 2012 series between the Celtics and the Sixers, your enjoyment won’t be ruined; the film’s details are purposefully more specific and cringeworthy. Having envisioned a scenario in which basketball purists view the film with their almanac-like memory intact, the Safdies prop up and cut down expectations by brilliantly changing the rules. Rather than cheat the fans by altering the playoffs’ quite public outcome (this is not Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time on the Hardwood), the Safdies turn their desperate schlemiel into a schlimazel. Perhaps Kevin Garnett was not Howard’s knight in shining armor after all.

Garnett didn’t make his screen debut with Uncut Gems. Drafted by the Timberwolves as the fifth pick in the 1995 NBA Draft, the high school prodigy and future MVP was to be Minnesota’s shining armor—at least until the summer of 2007, when he was traded to Boston to fulfill his unwavering desire to win a championship. But even before the power forward entered the league (and 24 years before his role in Uncut Gems), Garnett had an uncredited role as a basketball player in William Friedkin’s 1994 Blue Chips. Starring Nick Nolte as a withered college coach who resorts to unethical/illegal means to recruit potential superstars, Blue Chips was itself an early example of “basketball movie realism,” casting second-year center Shaquille O’Neal as a kid from rural Louisiana (O’Neal attended LSU) who could dunk with the best of them. His co-star was Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, a point guard whose character in the film is also heavily pursued by Nolte. 

Blue Chips was met with a tepid critical and box office response but sent reverberations around the sport. O’Neal had such a productive time working with Hardaway on the film that he encouraged his NBA employer, the Orlando Magic, to draft the point guard to complete the franchise’s deadly one-two-punch (thanks to some last minute tomfoolery, the team was able to grant O’Neal his wish, acquiring Hardaway via a trade with the Golden State Warriors on draft night). Hardaway went on to have a successful All-Star career, leading to his current position as the head coach of his alma mater, the Memphis Tigers. Who could’ve predicted that, much like Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino (also seen briefly in the film, playing himself), Hardaway’s coaching career would be marred in scandals involving player bribery, the type of controversy that could have easily been avoided had he simply chosen to rewatch Blue Chips? While realist casting led to some unavoidably awkward moments (Nolte’s detour to French Lick, Indiana to meet with hometown kid Larry Bird and a potential prospect is dopey at best), Blue Chips works as a prophetic sign of things to come for each of the athletes cast. 

The rapid rise and fall (and subsequent rise again) of a local basketball superstar is the subject of Eriq La Salle’s Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault, an HBO production made for television in the fall of 1996. Starring Don Cheadle in the title role, Rebound is more traditional biopic than sports classic (its focus on drug-related issues that plagued the streetballer’s career is narrow and melodramatic), but its 1960s Harlem setting provides the opportunity for the likeness of several Rucker Park prodigies to make an appearance. In the film’s consistently loose referencing of (and interacting with) history’s greatest, it too resembles the narrative catch-all of The Irishman.

As Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain, the-still-teenaged Kevin Garnett was cast and provided few lines (but several more than in Blue Chips!), his tall, lanky appearance matching the two-time NBA champion’s physique. The same can be said for actor Deanthony Langston as a young Lew Alcindor. Alcindor’s unmatched accomplishments and professional recruitment loom large over Manigault’s story, and, given the hagiographic treatment, it’s no surprise that Alcindor, subsequently known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, makes an appearance as himself to open the film in a flash-forward, citing Manigault as the greatest basketball player he ever saw. Thanks captain! Brandishing a screen presence that oozes relaxed comfortability, Abdul-Jabbar is more than adept at playing himself, a role he perfected sixteen years earlier in Airplane!

Collegiate recruitment of teenage athletes is given a dark twist in Spike Lee’s He Got Game, the tale of an imprisoned father ordered by the state (in exchange for a shortened prison sentence) to convince his basketball superstar son to attend the governor’s alma mater. Can a kin’s skills on the hardwood provide dad with a Get Out of Jail Free card? Or will the son choose a different destination out of resentment for his father? Released in spring 1998, He Got Game was something of a minor hit, debuting at number one in its opening weekend—an achievement no doubt buoyed by Denzel Washington, its above-the-title star, and, in the role of the star athlete, the prolific shooting guard (and soon-to-be teammate of Kevin Garnett) Ray Allen. 

Drafted by the Timberwolves one year after the Minnesota organization selected Garnett, Allen was immediately traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Stephon Marbury, a Brooklyn-born point guard referenced several times as a local beacon of hope in He Got Game. As a result of the trade, Allen and Garnett were robbed of the opportunity to become teammates, a bit of trivia that would remain relevant until the summer of 2007, when the two men joined forces to lead the Boston Celtics to an NBA championship (Allen can be glimpsed at as Garnett’s teammate in Uncut Gems via 2012 game footage). Intent on casting a professional basketball player to play the role of the son, Jesus Shuttlesworth, Spike Lee cast Allen after the rookie’s inaugural NBA season, providing him with an acting coach to balance out his scenes with a seasoned vet like Washington.

At times stilted and raw, Allen’s sincere performance is less an example of stunt casting than it is an extension of his star persona: the character of Jesus Shuttlesworth could only dream of one day growing up to be the lucratively successful Ray Allen, and Lee knowingly dresses Shuttlesworth in a numbered 34 jersey (the jersey number Allen wore for most of his collegiate and professional career). In an instance of life imitating art, 16 years after He Got Game was released the NBA hosted a “nickname jersey” night, in which members of the Miami Heat (featuring Ray Allen) and the Brooklyn Nets (featuring Kevin Garnett) donned jerseys sporting customized nicknames in lieu of their surname. A crude marketing ploy to sell more high priced fabric though it may have been, Allen took full advantage of the opportunity, displaying “J. Shuttlesworth” across his back, prompting media speculation about a still-unrealized He Got Game 2

Movie stardom notwithstanding, the success of He Got Game led to a summer of uncertainty for Allen. In August, his Milwaukee Bucks hired a new head coach (George Karl, ironically seen in Lee’s film as himself, praising the fictional Shuttlesworth) in the midst of what would become a six-month-long lockout. A wide division between team owners and team players can often be grounds for a complicated negotiation process, and never has that been made more abundantly clear than in Steven Soderbergh’s first of two 2019 Netflix productions, High Flying Bird. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), the sleek Bird takes an almost clinical approach to the financial implications involved in an NBA lockout. 

Starring Andre Holland as the fast-talking sports agent who counts the incumbent number one draft pick as one of his clients, High Flying Bird is hyperfocused on the power dynamic between agent and player, agency and players’ union, player and league, and league and television network. Rather than build to a climactic showdown on the court, the film ascends to a moment of closed-door negotiation in which lucrative deals (and subsequent profit) can be shared. Essentially Soderbergh’s Moneyball, Bird imagines a world in which the players have all the control. When not under contract, what’s to stop a superstar from defying team owners and taking to Rucker Park for a star-studded celebrity game streamed live on Netflix?

In addition to authoritative “talking heads” appearing as themselves (Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe of the popular FS1 debate show, Undisputed, use their loud personalities to notable effect), High Flying Bird features recurring cameos from three current NBA players: the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, and the Detroit Pistons’ Reggie Jackson. Shot in stark black and white like a hip Nike commercial, the three men appear in individual interview segments to discuss their experiences as NBA rookies. The price of fame and speed of success is dissected in these gentlemen’s raw recollections, and if their honesty isn’t used for much more than a deliberate framing device, at least Soderbergh chose to include them to further flesh out his realist approach to the business of the NBA. These three men succeeded in making it into the league, a luxury unafforded to many of their peers (for further real-life examples of this, rent Josh and Benny Safdie’s Lenny Cooke, a 2013 documentary about a high school phenom who never broke through to the pros).

Currently providing the Safdie brothers with the most success of their careers, it’s too early to tell if Uncut Gems has opened the floodgates for future film projects to integrate NBA players into their narratives (the most notable project to come is an anticipated 2021 sequel to the Michael Jordan-starring Space Jam, this time featuring LeBron James). Even so, it’s thrilling to see a film so relentlessly hearken back to basketball and cinema history and finding an appropriate way to merge the two. Will Kevin Garnett be gifted with an Oscar nomination when the Academy Awards’ announcement arrives next week? Prognosticators are doubtful, but either way, Garnett has closed the decade out a high note and will be starting the new one just the same: the former Timberwolf, Celtic and Net will be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts this summer. Perhaps a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame will soon follow. 

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