• Jay Christian

FOUR TIMES TOM SHEPPARD WAS COMPLETELY CRAZY AND NOBODY SAID ANYTHING ABOUT IT


Above the Rim is an underrated cinematic classic. As a film, it explores common themes in creative ways. It’s the story of loss, redemption and family told in a contemporary way. As a basketball movie, the hoops hold up. Except for Blue Chips and He Got Game, Above the Rim has arguably the best cinematic basketball in movie history, non-documentary division. And the soundtrack? Top five all-time, regardless of genre.

I recently watched the movie again and noticed that there are some disturbing moments throughout the film involving one of the central characters, Thomas Sheppard.

Sheppard, played by Five Heartbeats hall-of-famer Leon, is a former prep basketball star who loses his drive to succeed after the death of his best friend. His redemption runs parallel to the development of the protagonist Kyle, played by Duane Martin, who is a hotshot high school basketball star on his way to Georgetown.

Throughout the movie he has some rather “interesting” moments that are cause for concern. What’s most troubling is that none of the other characters call him on his kookiness. They just totally ignore it like his behavior is normal.

Here now are the four craziest Thomas Sheppard moments from Above the Rim.

1. That time Shep and Nutso wanted to see who had the most hops using a basketball hoop erected on the side of a freaking building.

So, I alluded to the fact that Nutso doesn’t make it to end credits, and it was a life altering experience for Shep. What happened to Nutso? Drive-by? Drugs? Suicide? No. Nutso plummeted to his death when he slapped the backboard on his rooftop hoop so hard that it gave way, and he experienced the most horrific death that one can imagine. I feel bad leading off the list with this moment because a) it was traumatic for Shep and b) there is no evidence that Shep personally erected the basket on the edge of a twenty-story building.

But then again.

You should never, under any circumstances, engage in any sport (least of all basketball or vertical jump testing), on a New York rooftop. Maybe the rooftop game is a common occurrence in places like New York; I grew up in a flat dusty West Texas town, so I have no frame of reference. But that does not make it a good idea. Look, I get it. Basketball never stops. However, just because there is a hoop around doesn’t mean you have to partake. Hoops exist in tons of places (prison, a Neo-Nazi picnic, the courtyard at ISIS headquarters to name a few), but they are nonetheless bad choices for a game of H-O-R-S-E. I would add a New York rooftop with a guy named Nutso to that list.

2. That time Shep was playing basketball without a ball in the park.

After some plot development and humor from the incomparable Marlon Wayans who plays Kyle’s best friend Bugaloo, we next encounter Tom Sheppard playing basketball in the park at night. But there is only one problem – he doesn’t have a basketball. Yes, Tom Sheppard, former hoops legend, is getting his workout in without the most important piece of equipment. (I guess you could argue the hoop is the most important piece of equipment, but people shoot into hollowed crates and bicycle rims all the time. Hell, the inventor of the game used peach baskets, indicating how inconsequential an actual basketball rim is to the equation.)

Anyway, several things are going on here that make this moment so crazy. For starters, we learn through the movie that Shep has a steady source of income through his job as a security guard. So, it’s not like he can’t afford to buy a basketball. Second, Shep is not crazy per se. I mean, he has no mental health issues. Sure, he’s been in a depressing spiral since he lost his friend and his mother, but he is not “crazy” in the classic sense, if there is such a thing. Look, I’ve lived in different urban centers for most of my adult life, and through city living I have run into people who are not well. Commentary aside, I have objectively seen people do some crazy stuff. But that’s the point --- these people were CRAZY! Shep is not. Having his mental faculties, he elects not to work out with a basketball despite a) knowing that he needs one to engage in the sport in a meaningful way and b) having the means to purchase it.

3. That time Shep avenged Flip’s death, passed on his boonks and instead talked to Nutso

Aw yes, the pivotal one-on-one scene that is necessary in basketball movies. Unlike in the real world where players elect to play to a set number of points in order to declare a winner, in Hollywood the stakes are much higher. Players have played for their hearts (Love & Basketball), their freedom and/or letter of intent (He Got Game) and racial harmony (?) (White Men Can’t Jump, which is technically two-on-two but alas).

Above the Rim is no different. Shep, having morphed from Melancholy Shep to No-Ball Workout Shep is now in full Playground Legend Shep mode as he faces off against Kyle in his winter coat (more on Shep’s basketball attire choices later).

Let’s back up a minute.

Shep is charged up because his former teammate and current vagabond Flip, played by the immortal Bernie Mac, was murdered under orders from Shep’s gangsta younger brother Birdie, played by Tupac Shakur. Kyle and Marlon heckled Flip earlier in the film, and Kyle feels bad about Flip getting killed. It’s all a sorted tale. Look, I’m not IMBD, check out the movie on your own time.

Anyway, Playground Legend Shep meets Kyle in the park at night. Actually, he doesn’t meet Kyle in the park. Kyle is looking for Flip, and Shep just kinda appears from the shadows, which is creepy in and of itself. And he doesn’t challenge Kyle to an actual game of one-on-one but instead dares the young prep star to score on him. (Interesting to note that Shep recognizes that he will need an actual ball this time around, which somehow simultaneously proves and disproves his sanity).

The wager is not for love or for scholarship but rather boonks. Crazy, hard boonks. At the end of the match, the loser must assume the position, hands against wall with his legs spread (the “Cops” position as I like to call it) while the victor throws the basketball at the loser with intent of inflicting maximum injury to his opponent’s rectal area.

Kyle is unable to score on Shep and prepares to meet his fate. Shep decides against claiming his prize and starts to walk back into the shadows from whence he came. Kyle, for some reason known only to him, insists on Shep whizzing a basketball at his buttocks saying that he owes Shep.

Shep, as is his M.O. at this point in the film, briefly ignores Kyle’s comment and instead talks to the deceased Nutso, affirming that he and his deceased friend are even (for the latter’s death I assume).

Pardon me, sir, but how are you and your dead friend even? Boonks are hardly a fair trade for Nutso’s life. And if the bigger lesson is that Kyle doesn’t owe anyone, it doesn’t quite fit here. I mean, it wasn’t Kyle who goaded his friend to a mini-scouting combine on a rooftop, so what the hell is Shep talking about? Kyle should have called BS and kept it moving.

4. That time Shep played in the basketball tournament in long johns and corduroy pants

We have covered a lot of odd behavior on Tom Sheppard’s part up to this point, and in each case it is arguably pretty tough to call him out for his antics. Nutso idolized Shep and may have had a substance abuse problem, so he was in no position to pull rank. Kyle and Bugaloo watched Shep’s “workout” from afar and did not have the type of relationship that would warrant either of them approaching Shep and offering a basketball. And finally, Kyle was so happy that Shep did not collect on his boonks that he didn’t want to stick around and ask why Shep was settling up with his dead friend.

But this last moment falls on everybody. There are no excuses for non-intervention.

In the film’s climatic scene, Shep teams up with Kyle and guys from his high school team in a local playground tournament to defeat Birdie’s handpicked squad. Kyle was originally gonna run with Birdie, but it’s a long story that you can research on your own time.

Anyway, Shep was on his way out of town but suddenly has a change of heart. He instead returns to the tournament and precedes to put on a streetball legend clinic to win the title. The problem? He does it wearing long johns and corduroy pants!!! Yes, you read that right. Not the Nike pants that Michael Jordan used to rock in practices. Not even sweatpants. Real live full-on Old Navy corduroys.

And the real tragedy is that nobody tried to stop him. The refs looked the other way. Kyle said nothing. Kyle’s mother and Shep’s love interest, acts like this is normal behavior. His former high school coach (who is now Kyle’s coach and looking for Shep to take over for him) doesn’t pull Shep to the side and say, “Look, man go put on some wind pants.” Even his own brother, who tries to kill him at the end of the game, allowed him to play an entire half of basketball dressed as a longshore fisherman before he decided to do anything about it.

Of all of Tom Sheppard’s shenanigans, this is the most egregious. Pure talent. Fatal flaw.

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