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‘Above the Rim,’ a 1994 basketball movie, paints a different picture 30 years later

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Leon Robinson, the award-winning actor who simply goes by Leon, receives photos every year of fans dressed as one of his characters for Halloween. Leon, who has made appearances in “The Five Heartbeats,” “Ali,” “Cool Runnings” and other films, might be best known to basketball fans as Thomas “Shep” Sheppard from the 1994 movie “Above the Rim.”

One of the movie’s most memorable scenes is when Shep chooses to play in a streetball tournament against his brother’s team (his brother, Birdie, is played by Tupac Shakur). It was a last-minute decision, and his playing attire showed it. Shep arrived at the court wearing a coat, a thermal shirt and corduroy pants. He was given a blue team jersey by his coach, Mike Rollins (played by David Bailey).

The memes have been endless, and basketball fans and players of all ages continue to keep that memory alive. If Leon, 62, needed any assurance of Shep’s impact, it happened in 2022 when he arrived at the renowned Rucker Park for a New York Knicks celebrity game dressed like Shep during that particular scene.

It was enough to catch the attention of LeBron James.

“When I walked into the park (in 2022), it was just bedlam,” Leon said. “Even cops were like, ‘Oh, my God, is it a ghost? I can’t believe it. Is it real? Is this really Shep walking in the park?’”

Thirty years later, Shep and “Above the Rim” still hold a place in the hearts of many basketball purists. He has been praised for his work in many movies — some will remember him most as David Ruffin in the NBC miniseries “The Temptations” — but Shep’s character gives a sense of nostalgia to which many basketball players can relate.

Former NBA forward John Wallace, a 20-year-old sophomore at Syracuse when the film was released, was among those participating in the celebrity game two years ago. He said the players were never told Leon would make an appearance.

“It was just incredible to see Shep come out there and do his thing. … It was dope,” Wallace said. “The reaction was organic, because nobody gave us heads up on that. The fact that we didn’t know about it, that added to it when he walked on the court, because it was very similar to what he did in the movie.”

Several movies from the early 1990s blended sports with escaping dire circumstances. “The Program” dealt with steroid use, alcoholism and other pressures of being a college athlete. “Boyz n the Hood” had a neighborhood storyline that sadly included the death of a promising high school football player on the verge of earning a scholarship to USC.

But “Above the Rim” had a different tone. It told a PTSD story largely through the eyes of Shep, a former New York City high school star who lost his way after the accidental death of his friend Nutso. The pain of the death — Nutso fell from a high rise in a freak accident during a contest in which he and Shep were testing their jumping ability by slapping a backboard — was too much to bear. Shep’s hoop dreams ended after Nutso’s death.

Shep returned to the city after his mother’s death to find his younger brother supporting the family as a successful drug dealer. The trauma he endured with his best friend is now mixed with seeing his family supported in an unethical manner.

May was Mental Health Awareness Month. June marks Men’s Health Awareness Month. Watching this 1994 movie in 2024 brings a different vibe with what is now known about signs and basic knowledge of mental health, particularly when a character’s questionable well-being is easily visible.

What unfolded in the movie was a life story that arguably hits harder today than it did 30 years ago. There are the mental health struggles of Shep. Struggles that made it difficult for him to be an invested mentor to another rising star athlete (Kyle Watson, played by Duane Martin, is the lead protagonist aspiring to play college basketball for Georgetown). Struggles that made it hard to accept a romantic relationship. And struggles that made it stressful to relate to a family member who embraced being a neighborhood hero the illegal way.

“I think when the movie first came out, it was more about this streetball movie where people are real ballplayers,” Leon said. “But I think over the years, what they’ve realized is that the movie was much deeper than that, and the relationships were parallel. I think the appreciation not just of the movie, but for my role in particular, grew over the years into what (Shep) might have been going through.”

Wallace said several scenes still make the movie memorable, particularly for anyone who has dealt with personal issues. Moments like Shep on a deserted court at night dribbling and shooting without a ball is “relatable to hoopers,” he said. And then there’s the action in the final scenes.

Leon is Leon to film buffs. He’s Shep to hoop fans.

“He’s one of the best actors of our time. That’s one of his best roles to me,” Wallace said. “He will always be known as Shep to us because of everything — playing ball, talking junk to the young guys, being a security guard. I remember that movie so vividly. To have him come out (to Rucker Park) when we were doing the pickup game … he just showed up and it was like, ‘Wait, hold up!’”

Many neighborhoods have a “Shep,” someone who once was a young star athlete who never made it beyond high school success for whatever reason. That’s also part of what makes the “Above the Rim” character so relatable. At high school reunions, there’s always someone asking, “Whatever happened to … ?”

Leon conveyed those feelings and the struggles in the role. Throughout the movie, Shep looks lost. His gaze is void of hope. The pain of losing Nutso while playing basketball is unshakable.

“People have gone through trauma that’s changed their lives,” Leon said. “So much of my character is played through my eyes more than my words.”

And for those wondering, Leon was fine with playing basketball in street clothes during the movie. In real life, that can be uncomfortable and might get some laughed at. But on that particular day of shooting the movie, he was the envy of his peers.

“On that day, it was unseasonably cold. I was the warmest out there,” Leon said. “Everyone else was in shorts and tank tops. They were looking at me in corduroys and a thermal, and I was good.”

Wood Harris, an accomplished actor in his own right, plays Motaw in the movie. Harris made his on-screen debut in “Above the Rim” and gave his best portrayal of Birdie’s top guard and a true villain, someone who was unafraid to do whatever dirty work was asked of him.

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Wood Harris on making sports films, working with Scoot Henderson, Tupac and others

Harris, 54, has an impressive film resume, but he acknowledged he couldn’t fathom when filming what the movie would become and how spectacular of a cast he would work with. Leon was well established, but the movie also included Tupac and comedians Bernie Mac and Marlon Wayans.

“Tupac (then) wasn’t what he is now,” said Harris, who went on to star in films like “Remember the Titans,” “Paid in Full” and the “Creed” series. “None of us were really the star star of that movie. The guy who was, like, a star was Leon.”

Harris continued: “Bernie Mac was so funny. He never did the same lines twice. Tupac couldn’t keep a straight face. If you look at the movie now, you’ll see that Tupac turned away and they had to use one because he laughed on every take.

“I’m very fortunate that I’ve met so many special people.”

Tupac died in September 1996 after being shot in Las Vegas. Bernie Mac died in August 2008 of complications from pneumonia. Wayans continues to do movies, TV and stand-up comedy. Harris and Martin also are still active with movies and TV. Harris, most recently, had a recurring role in “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” as Spencer Haywood.

But as “Above the Rim” celebrates its 30th anniversary, Shep still receives love from basketball movie fans of all ages. It’s a different kind of appreciation. In 2024, Leon’s character might have been suggested to seek counseling for the memory that haunted him.

Thirty years later, Shep is relatable to those looking to find peace after tragedy. It isn’t just a movie. It’s reality to some.

(Photos of Duane Martin and Leon: Milan Ryba / FilmMagic via Getty Images and Paul Bruinooge / Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

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