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Kyrie Irving’s ‘Uncle Drew’ jumps to the big screen

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO

What began as a five-minute short for Pepsi Max soda in 2012, with Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving playing Uncle Drew, a septuagenarian schooling younger players about the fundamentals of basketball on the court, has since morphed from a digital episodic series into a feature film of the same name. The comedy, “Uncle Drew,” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday.

Directed by Charles Stone III (“Drumline”), the film centers around Dax (Lil Rel Howery), who depletes his life savings to enter a Harlem team in the Rucker Classic street ball tournament. Dealt a series of unfortunate setbacks, including losing his team to his longtime rival (Nick Kroll), Dax is desperate to win the tournament and the cash prize. By chance, he runs into the legend Uncle Drew and convinces him to return to the court one more time. The two men embark on a road trip to round up Drew’s old basketball teammates (Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson and Lisa Leslie) and prove that a group of seniors can still win the big one.

The Boston Celtics point guard and a five-time All-Star player sat down with the Banner earlier this month to talk about playing Uncle Drew.

I thought the movie was so much fun, from the players and comedians to the music. Did you have any involvement in putting the film together other than acting?

Kyrie Irving: No. I was finding out who we were going to cast as our costars. I thought Lil Rel Howery fit perfectly. It made sense. And then Tiffany Haddish as well — that was a surprise for me. Then Erica Ash, as well as Nick Kroll. I was like ‘Oh, ok, this is big time. This is big time here.’ And you have the comedians who made their cameos as well. That was fun.

You’ve been doing the shorts and commercials since 2012. Did you think that they would take off in the way that they have?

KI: No, I didn’t at the time. I knew that we had something really authentic that was going to connect to a particular part of the culture. But once I started seeing that, it just hit different avenues. A lot of different individuals were just like, ‘Have you seen Uncle Drew? Have you seen Uncle Drew?’ It was being passed along as this viral video, an eight-minute short. I’m glad that it stuck, and even more amazed that we actually filmed that movie.

In chapter 1 of the “Uncle Drew” video, did everyone on the court know that you were Uncle Drew, or was it a combination of people who knew and those who didn’t? The reactions were so real and so fun. It didn’t look they were actors.

KI: They were all extras, but we were filming a documentary for one of my best friends, Kevin, and they knew that Kevin was acting. But, as I came into the park, no one had any idea, except I had my family with me. No one had any idea that I was Uncle Drew. That’s why it was really, really fun. I had a great time shooting all of them but after a while people knew that I was Uncle Drew so we had to bring other people on, which I appreciated. But, the first one was so off-guard.

I noticed that Bill Russell was in one of the commercials.

KI: Look at how legendary that is. I had Bill Russell in there. And at times when I was Uncle Drew I really felt like he thought that I was an older man.

What’s been one of the best things about playing Uncle Drew?

KI: I would say the connection that it now brings to my life, as my own brand, as Kyrie Irving. Uncle Drew went from being a short, to being in a Superbowl commercial, to now a movie. To see that evolution has been part of who I am. The fact that analysts as well as fans are nicknaming me Uncle Drew now — it’s pretty awesome. It’s a real thing. I’m glad that I can add a lot more value to my diversity as a human being.

This seems to have happened quite organically. Is this part of a post-NBA plan?

KI: I think behind the camera is what I would love to go after. Honestly, I’m for creative expression. If I get cast for a movie and I get to lead a whole movie again, then cool, I’ll do it.

How has it been for you to be creative in another field other than basketball?

KI: It’s been awesome. I’ve had interests. I didn’t know that it would go in this direction but I definitely had interest in making sure that I remained authentic in what I appreciate about art. Whether it’s body movement, whether its language, whether its voice, it’s all great to watch, and great to see a transition from one scene into another. That’s what life always is; just one scene into another. Our own perception. It’s just fun to see that on camera and then re-watch it, edit it and then see it transform to something.

What do you hope audiences take away from seeing this film?

KI: Just how authentic the film is, as well as the connection that it breeds to different audiences — the life lessons taken from it, being able to convey it through sport. It’s something I’m amazed at as well as just kind of seeing the form of a family come back together. I love how oriented that is. It holds value to a lot of people’s lives, how important family is and facing friendships that you have to mend and rekindle. Truth starts to come out in all that and you start to see real emotions. I’m happy that I got to convey that on a bigger scale than just a series on the internet.

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