I was watching The Air Up There for the 40th time a couple days ago. I fell in love with this movie as a nine-year-old at summer camp. About once a month I’ll make a reference to this movie with my friends and get zero reaction.
The plot is as follows: ambitious young Coach Jimmy Dolan, unevenly played by Kevin Bacon, sees a tape of one of his Jesuit college’s missionaries in Africa and spies the next Hakeem Olajuwon dunking in the background. Bacon rushes to Africa to recruit the kid, named Saleh, earns the trust of Saleh’s Wanabi tribe by going through their ancient rites of manhood, teaches the tribesmen (and one woman with a nasty handle) to hoop, defeats the wealthy and corrupt city tribesmen, and makes sure the Wanabi have plenty of cattle for the future.
In the end, Saleh comes to America to pursue his higher education and play for the new head coach, you guessed it, Jimmy Dolan.
This is an obviously flawed movie with a white messiah complex larger than Avatar 's, but let’s move past that. What struck me while watching it this time was one of the early scenes, back in the States.
On campus, Dolan is hosting a hotshot recruit named Buddy Wilson. While the visit begins positively, Wilson engages Dolan’s uncontrollable competitive streak by challenging him to a game of one-on-one. Dolan makes it $50 a point, game to 11. The head coach told Dolan to take it easy, but nobody tells Footloose not to dance!
In the end, he gives Bud the “Jimmy Dolan Shake and Bake,” (in which he dribbles through Bud’s legs) and wins the game with a resounding dunk. Improbable? Maybe. Did Bud Wilson’s punk butt deserve a spanking? Definitely!
Here is Saleh’s version of the JDSB —Pay attention Hippo-breath!
Now if you watched a ton of basketball movies (good and bad) in the mid 1990s, you too would recognize the actor who played Buddy Wilson, because he was in almost everything. I finally looked up the actor’s name (drum roll): Keith Gibbs.
Between 1994 and 1998, Gibbs was in no less than nine basketball-themed movies, and always in the same role: talented but smarmy, clean-cut, white baller. He moves well on the court, has great 90s hair and can even deliver a line or two. For these talents, he lived the life for a few years, and hopefully didn’t blow whatever money he made on acting classes.
His IMDB page reads like a “what movies had a basketball scene” of 1990s movies. Here’s how I rank them in descending order, based on quality of the movie and Gibbs’ role:
9. Forget Paris (1995) as “Basketball Player”
Forget this movie. I can stomach chick flicks masquerading as basketball movies (See Love and Basketball ) when the hoops are decent and provide real context for the movie. But FP is about a ref of all things, and basically uses basketball as a vehicle for slapstick cameos.
Forget this movie, but don’t forget Gibbs collected a nice check for running around in shorts for a day or two.
8. The Cableguy (1996) again as “Basketball Player”
Why is this movie ranked ahead of Forget Paris ? Probably because I’ve actually decided I kind of like Cableguy in the last few years. Kind of.
Anyways, Gibbs proves once again that if you need a basketball player on camera who is white and doesn’t look like a walking thyroid gone awry, he’s your man.
7. The Sixth Man (1997) as O’Neil
This movie was ultra lame, but a rare chance for my UW Huskies to get some exposure.
Basically this is Blue Chips meets Ghost . Marlon Wayans, playing for the Dawgs, becomes really good at basketball because the spirit of his deceased friend and former team mate helps him jump higher and get a few friendly rolls. Gibbs himself is like a ghost, no lines L.
6. Slam City with Scottie Pippen (1994) as Ace
OK, I didn’t even know that Scottie Pippen made a video game. A great Wikipedia nugget is that Pip performed the game’s theme song. I gotta find this!
Anyways, Gibbs is actually one of the characters in the game! He is named “Ace” which pretty much evokes his typical spoiled but talented ethos.
It’s worth noting that Scottie wasn’t able to get this game franchised in the Jordanless Bulls years, even though he was a top five player in the league. Just something unlikeable about that guy.
5. Celtic Pride (1996) as Terry Kirby
Bet you didn’t know this gem was written by Judd Apatow and SNL’s Colin Quinn! This flick and his role in it make the top five because Dan Akroyd is still funny even if Daniel Stern can’t capture his Home Alone magic.
Also, Gibbs get’s a relatively significant role as a good player in the NBA Finals. He even gets two names!
4. Blue Chips (1994) as Coast Team Member
So Gibbs is on screen for about 15 seconds as an opposing (soon to be dunked on) player in this one, but it’s an awesome movie in which writer Ron Shelton manages to give Shaq an even better name than his real one: Neon Boudeaux. Booya!
Add that Penny Hardaway is dropping dimes to the Big Diesel for much of the movie and you have an all time classic. The whole production is wildly over the top—like college basketball’s response to The Program —but it has some of the best movie-basketball you’ll ever see.
3. BASEketball (1998) as Davis
This is the role that Gibbs was born to play. He is too good looking to be a real basketball player, but perfect for movies.
As pleated khakis and polo wearing, reverse dunking “Davis,” Gibbs is the first victim of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “psych outs.” A hilarious movie, and a great role for Gibbs: significant lines, a few dunks, and lots of face time.
2. The Air Up There (1994) as Buddy Wilson
See above for movie notes. One more thought on Gibbs is that he is a very believable athlete. It’s hard to make Kevin Bacon look like he can really take it to the hole. To his credit, Gibbs has enough acting and basketball chops to make this scene watchable.
1. Rebound: The Legend of Early ‘The Goat’ Manigault (1996) as Billy Cunningham
Earl’s nickname, “the Goat,” is an acronym for Greatest Of All Time. Legend holds Manigault was the greatest player ever to come out of New York City. He was 6’2’’ and had a 50" vertical leap to go along with a slick handle and soft jumper—if you believe in that sort of thing.
You may have heard the “he can snatch a quarter off the top of the backboard” tale; Manigault is the original. The USA movie stars acclaimed actor Don Cheadle in the title role and was directed by too-fine-for-ER Eriq La Salle.
Our man Keith Gibbs, in by far the coolest role of his career, plays Hall of Fame New York City hooper Billy Cunningham. Not only did he get a first and last name, he got to play a recognizable legend of the game. Way to go, Keith!
My question, after spending my afternoon writing this, is “is it possible that I care more about Keith Gibbs than anybody besides his immediate family?”
I couldn’t even find a picture of him online, and I spent some serious time looking. I had to download BASEketball and take screen shots to get the images in this post! If you, or someone you know, has information on the whereabouts of Keith Gibbs, pleasepleaseplease let me know!
I am dying to interview him and find out what it was like to be a movie-baller in the mid 90s.
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