The modern cinematic history of athlete cameos begins with a 7-foot-2 “airline pilot” grabbing a kid’s shirtfront like it’s a Kleenex. While no one would ever accuse Airplane! (1980) of realism, there’s a nugget of truth to NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s masquerading as co-pilot Roger Murdoch in the 1980 disaster spoof. In the scene, a boy visiting the cockpit recognizes Kareem’s true identity and then hits a nerve by sharing his father’s bogus opinion that the Los Angeles Lakers center doesn’t actually try on defense. A fire flashes into Kareem’s eyes, the same spite that saw him recoil from sports writers and fans for much of his career. He’d no doubt heard that dog-whistle crack from white dads before about not earning his fame with effort. Amid the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker absurdity, a painful fact about the often retiring, stoic basketball player arises: Much as he might’ve wanted, he could never hide.
That honest undertone, giving the non-actor something to really act, is largely absent in the next 40 years of similar cameos. More than screenwriting, most movie appearances by sports figures feel like successful handshakes between agents and producers. (“My client has been talking about getting into acting.” “Funny you say that! Our project would love to contain a very famous person!”) Here’s the basic gameplan: The sports star moves the plot, surprises the audience, fights with their few lines, and cashes the check. See Dan Marino in Ace Ventura (1994), Brett Favre in There’s Something About Mary (1998), John McEnroe in Mr. Deeds (2002), Lance Armstrong in Dodgeball (2004), Mike Tyson in The Hangover (2009), Derek Jeter in The Other Guys (2010), LeBron James in Trainwreck (2015), Tom Brady in Ted 2 (2015), and Ronda Rousey in The Entourage Movie (2015).
So it’s a low bar for Kevin Garnett to clear in Uncut Gems for the accolade of “Best Performance Ever By An Athlete Playing Themselves.” In the Safdie Brothers’ latest conniption of a New York crime film, the now-retired NBA star plays himself in 2012. That year, Garnett made a late-career playoff push with the Boston Celtics and, according to the fiction of Uncut Gems, fatefully patronized the jewelry store of compulsive gambler and Diamond District sleaze Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). Immediately, Garnett fixates on an uncut opal arrived fresh from an Ethiopian mine. The cantaloupe-sized rock, studded with multi-colored stones, twists into a cloudy spectrum through which Garnett sees the fortunes of his past and future. The Celtic decides he needs the opal by his side for luck in the playoffs ahead, and Ratner bets his last dime on their shared superstition.
On persona alone, Garnett surpasses many of the athletes listed above for onscreen intrigue. While most muster some wooden combination of hokey intimidation and pitchman enthusiasm, KG couldn’t brush his teeth on camera without exuding subversive intensity. To say nothing of his hall-of-fame career, he is known among NBA fans for the following idiosyncrasies:
- Bricking his first shot of games from sheer excitement;
- Headbutting the basket stanchion as a ritual;
- Headbutting Dwight Howard not as a ritual;
- Swatting away opponents’ post-whistle practice shots because how dare they;
- Screaming “Anything is possible!” with the force of a war god;
- Crossing the accepted lines of trash talk into wives, mothers, and cancer;
- Instructing a sideline reporter to burn his ugly suit;
- Spurning ex-teammates as traitors to his cause;
- Making his own teammates cry;
- Generally howling like a maniac.
To watch LeBron James or Lance Armstrong pop up in a movie is to watch athletes self-consciously negotiate their fame. After all, their notoriety is the main tool at work in such cameos. The surrounding characters are typically shocked at the sports star’s sudden presence, and the athlete performs that very practiced nodding routine of: “Yes, it is really me. Please settle down.” That gesture plays into one of the tepid mistruths of such cameos: Movies often depict athletes as excessively normal. A favorite of mine is Space Jam hilariously positing that Michael Jordan lives in a residential $400,000 three-bedroom house. In Dodgeball, Lance Armstrong buys a bottle of water in a public terminal of McCarran Airport. In Trainwreck, LeBron James plays casual pickup hoops with Bill Hader and lends romantic advice. Often, the movie scene plays out like a $50 million soda commercial: A comic actor ramps up the energy, and the athlete gives ‘em the side-eye rebuke. C’mon, little man. Don’t be weird.
Critically, Garnett is comfortable in Uncut Gems not restraining his inherent strangeness. He makes eye contact like a statue, slyly ignores Howard’s warnings not to lean on jewelry cases, and acts legitimately bemused at the gem hawker’s Knicks fandom and bedazzled Furby wares. When KG decides he’s commandeering the opal and begins to drift toward the shop exit like a receding tide, he encapsulates the gravitational pull of a man accustomed to getting everything he wants. It’s distinct. It’s funny. It’s a little scary. I mean, who ever gathered around and agreed that athletes should be portrayed as normal in movies? Isn’t their abnormality a thousand times more interesting? On this point, writer-directors Benny and Josh Safdie lean in. Or more to their frenetic, enamel-grinding style, they faceplant in.
Garnett’s casting is not a stunt; it’s a necessity of the writing. To hit Howard’s adrenal gambling highs while watching KG play, Uncut Gems requires a hypercompetitive, roguish vessel — a player who competed as though driven by some maniacal jewel spirit. The Safdies’ other casting ideas for the role (from Amare Stoudamire to Kobe Bryant to Joel Embiid) simply wouldn’t compare. What’s more, Garnett’s real-life 2012 stat lines fulfilled the movie’s template of an East Coast playoff series in which the player in question had one good game (with the stone), one bad game (without it), and one climatically good game (for Howard’s final bet). Talk about fate. There’s simply never been a movie that welded real sports and retroactive fiction this way, and Garnett’s acting is bolstered by the suggestion that his actual 2012 antics — from jumbotron screams to rim-shaking dunks — were motivated by the events of this movie.
And even if they weren’t, who’s to say Garnett’s on-court imagination wasn’t captured by other mystical fictions? “The NBA is like a fantasy world,” he once said, a place where he could wield emotions and energies civilian life wasn’t big enough to stage. God knows there was no scientific reason for him to headbutt the basket support before games. What’s more, the athlete and the compulsive gambler share a belief in the mythic, unverifiable forces they believe chart their destinies — the bounce of a leather ball and the wisdom of an opaque rock. Given both of their overall success rates (one championship won by KG, zero fortunes made by Howard), any reasonable observer could claim their lives are defined by unrequited wanting. Garnett visibly wanted to win more than 99% of NBA players. He lost plenty. Howard also wants too much. He believes he deserves both a loving wife and a monogamous mistress. He covets a windfall from betting cash he doesn’t have. He is an empirical loser who believes with every fiber of his oily being that he is a destined winner.
“This is how I win,” Ratner climatically tells Garnett of a harebrained plan to sell the NBA star the uncut gem and bet the proceeds on KG’s next game, despite debt collectors converging from all angles. That scene comprises a lot of telling, but it’s more about the characters finally seeing each other. Right on time, Garnett does his best acting of the film, tilting his head to understand the mentality of a glistening lunatic who tells him they’re the same breed of crazy. Could Howard actually be right? Garnett affixes on Sandler the same glare he’d give opponents to check their battle-readiness. Best of all, he passes the figurative ball in that moment, selling a scene partner who’s on fire with dramatic irony. Soda commercial side-eye be gone. Game recognize game.