Some 25 years later, the answer to the question many have asked—who’s the greatest sports villain of all time?—remains and has always been Tupac Shakur’s Birdie from Above the Rim.
And before you start pelting stones, I get it: the cave-manish times of Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago wrecking us with high cheekbones still slaps. He’s the muscle sculpted frame to the perfect sum of body sweat. He’s the dead-eyed bionic Russian who could outstare the Night King. He’s more terminator than boxer. Also, shout out to soulless 30-something white men, like Wolf “The Dentist” Stansson (D2: Mighty Ducks) and Shooter McGavin ( Happy Gilmore), worthy adversaries that got their comeuppance.
But forget all those bad guys for a second. Consider my opinion as you walk with me: most sports “villains” aren’t villains.
Sure, they’re the dank, polluted, non-hopeful energies to my feel-good moods; I hated that smug-ass Johnny “coiffe haired” Lawrence for fucking with nice guy Daniel LaRusso in Karate Kid. But Lawrence was another high school athlete with an entitlement complex; he’s been redeemed. What kind of sorry-ass baddy congratulates the winner anyway? And Ivan himself was an elite athlete taught to be ruthless. But he was a Russian in the 80s—by default he was bad. Sports “villains” earned their villainy by virtue of being the unlikeable opposition.
Enter Above the Rim, the 1994 film about basketball hopeful Kyle Lee Watson (Duane Martin), who’s faced with a decision about whose advice to take when it comes to his future in basketball. For myself, the choice seemed plain: go with the old guard of loved ones looking out for you (the coach, mom, future coach). But instead, in came the toxic Birdie (Tupac) who he sided with; the effortless whisperer of sweet nothings who sought basketball talent in any way he could get it.
From the moment the drug dealer/coach/basketball scout Birdie makes his play—decked out in a club of womanly enticements, money and smooth cool—Birdie morphs into the Tupac of popular imagination. He needs Watson’s talent, and the stupidly charming man with an electrifying personally is just likeable enough to attract it. Throughout the 96-minute runtime, you never get the tokenized swagger from your routine sports villain in Birdie. After all, he was played by Tupac, then just building his acting career. He was forever the rapper of a bizarro nature—grandeur in scope and vision, but prone to idiosyncratic brashness. It’s the same harmful behaviour that lead him to being convicted for sexual assault and other assaults.
Film-wise, it comes in the moment when goofy Bugaloo, Kyle’s friend, gets stripped bare by the words of Birdie. Towards the middle ground of Above the Rim, Bugaloo interrupts the recruiter over the possibility of being on his team. He’s promptly told that he can’t play ball, is too dumb for college, and it’s all said in front of his best friend. “We’re having a team meeting, and I’d appreciate it if you get the fuck out,” he later tells the naive-eyed Bugaloo before pushing him to the ground.
Between the shocking moments of slicing the neighbourhood bum’s throat, to ordering his pre-Barksdale (Wood Harris) henchman to shoot up a basketball court, his place is already solidified in villainy here, because you wanted to like his ass because he convinced you that he could be likeable.
As I said once, and will state again, the most tired brand of thematic villain is the obvious one. The all powerful eye-in-a-mountain type barking orders about a ring. The self-righteous purple dude seeking to save universes by killing half of them. And the one of many sports dudes I’ve already mentioned, sporting smug looks and smuggier taunts. It’s the kind of “bad” that you spot a mile away—there’s never any mystery.
When we shift to Birdie’s violent swagger, it feels authentic; backed up with worded slights, and silent kills that disarm you with a laugh. Aside from the homicidal tendencies, this wasn’t that far from Tupac himself; that poetic theater kid who transformed himself into a confrontational West Coast rapper. Birdie the drug dealer was an extreme variant of that; a recreation in counter to the abandoned kid who was left behind by his older brother Shep (Leon Robinson). He was a villain who no longer wanted to feel weak. Every action he made wasn’t a stereotypical play on the “gangsta” life or an opposition move on our feel-good underdog. It was just an inferiority complex running rampant.
Show me a sports villain that manipulated like Birdie did. Played those who loved him like Birdie did. And tricked you into liking him as he did, and then we can have a real debate.
Until then, my argument rests.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.
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