Above the Rim is a movie about Kyle Lee Watson, a high school basketball star (played by Duane Martin) who has to decide where his loyalties lie: with a group of people who seem unfun but are ultimately good for him (his mom, a coach, and a would-be mentor), or with Birdie (played by Tupac), an electrically charismatic drug dealer who seems fun but is ultimately bad for him. I don’t care too much to talk about the whole movie, I just want to talk about one thing: Is Birdie the greatest movie basketball coach that’s ever been? It seems unlikely, but I suspect the answer is yes: Birdie is up there with Coach Carter and Norman Dale.
First, a disclaimer: Birdie is not a good person. In fact, by nearly all measures, he’s a terrible one. He’s an exploitative, amoral, murderous drug dealer (his worst moment is when he slices a homeless man’s throat with a razor blade because the homeless man mouthed off to him earlier in the movie). So, please know that.
Second, let’s speed through a tiny list of things you need to know about Above the Rim for the rest of this article to make sense:
- Kyle feels under pressure because he thinks he should’ve already received a recruitment letter from Georgetown University, which is where he dreams of going, but it hasn’t arrived yet.
- Kyle is friends with Bugaloo (played by Marlon Wayans), a low-level criminal he met years ago. That’s how he becomes friends with Birdie.
- Tom "Shep" Shepherd (played by Leon) works as a security guard at Kyle’s high school. He’s a former high school basketball star whose own bad decisions turned him into a cautionary tale for Kyle.
- Shep is Birdie’s older brother.
- Shep skipped town after his life fell apart, leaving Birdie and his mother to fend for themselves. Birdie turned to dealing drugs to provide for them.
- There’s a basketball tournament at the end of the movie called The Shootout.
- Birdie bets a lot of money on his team, the Birdmen, to win The Shootout.
- The Birdmen are led by Motaw (played by Wood Harris), Birdie’s angry and vicious second-in-command.
- Kyle originally agrees to play on his high school coach’s team (the Bombers) for The Shootout. He changes his mind after he gets into an argument with his coach, and decides to play for Birdie’s team. He changes his mind about that shortly thereafter, when he realizes how horrible Birdie was, and goes back to the Bombers right before the tournament starts.
- The Bombers play the Birdmen in the finals.
- Shep joins the Bombers late in the second half.
- The Bombers mount a wild comeback behind Shep and Kyle.
- The Bombers win by one when Shep steals the ball and then throws an alley-oop to Kyle at the buzzer.
Nine Pieces of Evidence That Birdie Is the Greatest Movie Basketball Coach
1. Birdie is an active scout. Early in the movie, we see Birdie and the rest of his hangers-on show up to one of Kyle’s games to watch him play. They do so because Birdie wants to decide whether or not he’s good enough to be on the Birdmen. (Birdie tries to make it seem like it’s the first time he’s seen Kyle play, but he hints later on that he’s been watching him for a long while.)
2. Birdie is a master recruiter. Birdie knows the way high school kids operate, and so he begins the recruitment process by leaning all the way into the impulses of an 18-year-old: He (a) has Bugaloo invite Kyle to a nightclub, (b) takes him on a VIP tour of it, (c) and introduces him to an attractive woman who immediately begins making out with him, then (d) introduces him to a professional handler who strokes Kyle’s basketball ego. (Bonus: This all happens after Kyle tries to talk to a recruiter from Georgetown University and gets his feelings trampled on.) (Also, as they walk around together, Birdie begins telling Kyle that they’re alike because they both grew up alone trying to take care of their mothers. It’s the only time we see Birdie be any version of sweet. It’s a very powerful move. Kyle feels at ease instantly. Birdie knew right then that he had him on the hook.)
3. Birdie is a master manipulator. I’ll point out two key things here that Birdie does that shows how much further ahead he sees things than anyone else does:
First, it turns out that part of the reason that Birdie is interested in recruiting Kyle was because he knew that he was going to be playing for the Bombers. By bringing Kyle over to his side, Birdie not only eliminates one of the tournament’s major threats, but also turns him into a weapon for his own team. (It’s very much a Kevin Durant–to-the-Warriors kind of situation.) And on top of that, Birdie is also astute enough to know that Kyle, all in all a good kid, might eventually leave the Birdmen to go back to the Bombers if he ever realizes how nefarious Birdie is, and so Birdie makes sure that he has a contingency plan in place to neutralize Kyle: He arranges for Kyle to receive free shoes and clothes and money in exchange for playing for the Birdmen; that way he can hold it over his head as a threat when Kyle eventually leaves. "You might be on another team," Birdie says prior to the start of the championship game, "but you’re playing for me, Kyle. You remember that."
Second, Birdie also attempts to enact a similar two-part plan to neutralize the other biggest threat to a championship for the Birdmen: Shep.
Shepherd, we come to find out, was a basketball prodigy who let everything turn to mush after the accidental death of Nutso, a close friend and teammate of his during high school. When Birdie finds out that Shep is back in town (Shep ran away in hopes of escaping the guilt of Nutso’s death because he blamed himself for it), he tries to recruit Shep back into the fold. Shep tells him no, that he would never resort to that lifestyle, and so then Birdie spends the whole rest of the movie trying to run Shep off again. Had it worked, the Birdmen would’ve absolutely won The Shootout. (Shep was actually on his way out of town and, while in a cab, happened across two guys playing basketball together. It reminded him of him and Nutso. He decided right then he couldn’t leave. He had the cab driver drop him off at the game instead.)
4. Birdie puts personal relationships aside for the good of the team. We learn that, should he choose to play for Birdie’s team, Kyle will take Motaw’s spot as starting point guard. It’d have been easy for Birdie to simply give that starting spot to Motaw, what with them being so close and all (and also because Motaw is a fairly talented basketball player). But that’s not how Birdie chooses to run his team. Every spot needs to be given to the best available option, and Kyle, Birdie determines, is precisely that. (Birdie’s assessment was exactly right. Motaw loses the ball in the final seconds of the championship, which leads to the loss for the Birdmen.)
5. Birdie argues his positions from several different angles. When he realizes that Shep is checking into the game, Birdie quickly tries to argue against it being allowed. He tries to address the preposterousness of the situation first ("What is this shit?!"), then he tries to address a thing that he thought might be true ("He ain’t on the team!"), then he tries to address a small technicality ("He ain’t even in fucking uniform!") and then he tries a last-ditch effort ("He ain’t been playing!"). It’s brilliant, really: like watching a marksman work his way through all his different weapons. And he did it so quickly that a lesser official likely would’ve acquiesced to his demands.
6. Birdie’s team is disciplined on defense. The Birdmen are bruisers on defense. Their whole game plan on that end of the court is just to fuck everyone up. That’s not just me being descriptive, that was their actual philosophy: When Shep checks into the the championship game, Birdie hollers to his team, "Aye, fuck him up! FUCK him up!" Anyone who comes into the lane gets clobbered. Anyone who tries to come off a screen gets clobbered. Anyone who doesn’t have their eyes up while jogging down the court has their knees taken out. It’s gnarlyGnarlyGNARLY defense; a direct extension of the Bad Boys–era Pistons and a direct precursor to the Riley-era Knicks.
7. Birdie’s team is disciplined on offense. I’m going to throw a stat at you, and this stat is legit one of the most impressive and unbelievable basketball stats I have ever seen in my life: Over the course of the four games that the Birdmen play in the tournament, THEY SHOOT 100 PERCENT from the field (!) and also every single shot is a dunk (!!). That’s incredible. You really have to be a special kind of basketball genius to be able to design an offensive scheme that results in a dunk on every possession. It’s just never been done before; not in real life and not even in movies or on TV. And here’s an extra tidbit that shows how disciplined the Birdmen are: Over those four games, they have only two turnovers as a team, and one of them is forced when Shep openly and blatantly knees Motaw in the genitals at midcourt. So really they have only one turnover.
8. Birdie is good at understanding human nature. There’s a point during the championship when where one of the Birdmen just demolishes one of the Bombers. The coach of the Bombers runs on the court and demands that the referee remove the offending player from the game, or at least call a foul. Birdie smiles, makes fun of the coach for complaining, then, loud enough for everyone to hear, declares, "This is a man’s game, am I right? Good no call, ref. Good no call." That’s the kind of tiny statement that is often ignored, but when it comes from someone as powerful as Birdie, it transforms into a mission statement of sorts. It seeps into everyone’s brain stems, influencing all the rest of the parts of the game. A ref might decide against calling a foul he might’ve otherwise called, for fear of appearing soft. A player might be less inclined to argue a thing for the same reason. On and on.
9. Birdie is unafraid of being hypocritical. When Shep knees Motaw and then steals the ball from him, Birdie demands that the referee remove Shep from the game. It was just minutes after his team had done basically the exact same thing. That takes a real Phil Jackson–y level of moxie, to do something like that.
Now, you might point out that the Birdmen lost the championship, and so that’s a mark against Birdie’s coaching skill. That’s fine. I get that. But think on these two things: (1) It took a completely cosmic performance from Shep to steal that game away from the Birdmen. He came in and dropped 38 points in 2:34 on 14-for-14 shooting, including 10-for-10 from 3. You’d have had to hit him with an F-150 to slow him down that day. It was just his moment, is all. Nothing you can do about that. (2) The best player that the Birdmen had (Motaw) was several levels worse than the second-best player that the Bombers had (Kyle). For the Birdmen to even have made it into the championship game, let alone to have been seconds away from winning it, was a remarkable coaching achievement on Birdie’s part. Imagine coaching a high school team to within inches of beating the 1996 Bulls, or the 2001 Lakers, or the 2017 Warriors. That’s what Birdie did. No other movie basketball coach could’ve done that. No other movie basketball coach ever has.