‘Above the Rim’ not only has the greatest sports movie performance of all time, it also has the greatest individual sports play of all time

OPINION: If a movie has the best sports performance and single greatest sports play of all time, does that make it the greatest sports movie ever by default? 

"Above the Rim." (YouTube/Screenshot)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I’ve been watching Above the Rim—the 1994 (potentially greatest) sports film of all time starring Tupac Shakur, Duane Martin and Leon—at a pretty frequent clip lately. Not for any particular cultural or historic reason; ever since I included the film in my “This or That” series that compares iconic movies to the soundtracks, I just keep turning it back on when I’m folding clothes or organizing my shoes. The film is a bit oxymoronic; as a movie, it’s actually not very good, especially the more and more I watch it, except it also might be the absolute greatest sports movie of all time. So much about the movie makes little to no sense in Tyler Perryian fashion (the editing alone contributes heavily; more on this later), yet Tupac is magnetic, and I’d argue that the film contains both the greatest sports performance of all time and the greatest individual sports play of all time. 

I’ve written about Thomas Shepherd (Leon) being the greatest fictional basketball player of all time and hence the greatest sports performance of all time. We don’t have to get all into it, but in corduroys, a thermal shirt and without stretching, Shep puts up like 39-points on a running clock after being flagrant fouled multiple times to lead the team to victory with a game-winning steal and alley-oop to Kyle Watson (Martin) who upon multiple rewatches actually looks like a pretty terrible basketball player throughout the entire movie—ain’t no way a person who dribbles THAT high was making it to John Thompson’s Georgetown in the mid-’90s. I’ve seen countless sports movies; Shep leading the team from being down almost around 40 with a running clock, no real referee situation and playing in his Kohl’s work gear is easily the greatest sports-movie performance of all time. There needs to be a March Madness-style bracket for this but I feel pretty strong about this. That’s why I wrote about it in the first place. 

What I also made mention of but have yet to really give its full due is the absolutely INSANE sports play that occurs IN the same game where Shep goes full pantheon-level fictional basketball player. Well, it is time to right that wrong. Today, we are giving flowers to an individual whose athletic abilities literally defy the laws of physics. I do not know his name, but I know his number. This one goes out to No. 52 on the Birdmen, the team run and “coached” by Birdie (Shakur). 

At roughly the 1 and 21-minute marker (it happens about a few seconds before that time), Kyle Watson is just to the right of the top of the key and tries to throw a pass into the lane. Nameless Wonder No. 52 intercepts the pass with tremendous grace with his left hand, tosses a football pass…

…to himself on the other end of the basketball court and then proceeds to hit a 360-degree dunk because he’s just disrespectful like that.

I don’t think you heard me. He intercepted a pass in the lane and threw it to himself the LENGTH of the court for a 360-degree jam. Physically, this should be impossible. An NBA basketball court is 94 feet long. This wasn’t an NBA court; more like a high school court, which is 10 feet shorter. He intercepted the ball and threw basically an 80-foot pass and caught it all in under two seconds. I’m not sure just how fast you’d have to be to make this work; the physics are betraying me on this one. But let’s see if we can make it work with some simple math.

At the NFL pre-draft combine, athletes run a timed 40-yard dash. The fastest times ever recorded are disputed but let’s use one of the verified times. Deion Sanders, the current head coach of the Jackson State University football team, recorded a time of 4.21 seconds at the combine in 1989. That’s lightning speed. Forty yards is 120 feet. So based on some simple math, Deion Sanders—clearly one of the fastest people ever—cleared about 28.5 feet per second. Using more simple math, in order for Deion to cover about 75 feet, it would have taken him about 2.8 seconds. 

No. 52 on the Birdmen is not Deion Sanders. He is FASTER than Deion Sanders despite some pretty significant obstacles! He looks to be about 6 feet, 4 or 5 inches, with great leaping ability. At the combine, Deion Sanders was literally TRYING to get a super fast time. Our 52 didn’t have a start or a running start; in fact, he had to throw a pass and THEN execute superhuman speed to get to the other end of the court to catch the pass, SLOW DOWN and then hit the supremely athletic feat of jumping and spinning around in a complete circle to jam the ball. So he’s both faster and more athletically capable than a person like Deion Sanders, who is considered one of the greatest athletes of all time, EVEN AT THE TIME THE MOVIE WAS BEING FILMED.

You know what’s even MORE amazing than the athletic feat itself? It’s that nobody at the entire tournament was phased. It’s as if he does this all the time. He’s so good and disrupts physical laws so often that nobody batted an eye, stopped the game or even…acknowledged it. It was just another dunk by another guy who does this on a regular basis. It might as well have been a regular ole, I don’t know, Tuesday for him. Do you know how special you have to be to complete what has to be the single most amazing sports play of all time and nobody cares? Pretty darn special. 

(Just as a point of note; I checked the credits of the film to see which player he might be and I have no clue. But here is the list of Bombers (Kyle’s team) and Birdmen in the final credits; presumably, he is one of the listed players: Kenneth Bantum, Howard Bond, Troy Bowers, Roger Brooks, Dorian Graham, Marion Jenkins, Gil K. Kimble Jr., Shabar Lassen, Frank Martin, Troy Trusdale, Tracey Walston or Sam Worthen.)*

I contend that this is the single greatest sports play in a movie for the sheer level of difficulty, which should be at “impossible.” Most sports movies have heroes achieving the possible against seemingly insurmountable odds. Not Above the Rim. In Above the Rim, we have a nameless guy achieving the literal impossible and nobody even bats an eye. That, my friends, is true greatness.

So shouts to my guy, No. 52 of the Birdmen, for connecting the worlds of sports, culture and physics and being a true paragon of Black Excellence. And extra special shouts out to whoever did the final edit of the film and thought none of us would notice. I noticed, fam, I noticed.

*Update 2:48 p.m., 8/9/2022: After publishing, a person who knows the player wearing No. 52 reached out via social media to let me know that the guy’s name is Roger Brooks. He did not verify if or if not Mr. Brooks actually is a superhero.

Panama Jackson theGrio.com

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download here.