Sportsflicks: The Kadeem Team, or The 6th Man

In which an undead J.R. Rider clone learns some valuable lessons, blows up some brackets in a PG-13 stylee.
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Ghost Kadeem's usage rate is WHAT?

Image via Internet Movie Database.

Kadeem Hardison shares a birthday with Barry Bonds, Karl Malone and myself, three difficult superstars who could never win the big one. (I’ll talk about my bar trivia career some other time.) Hardison seems a notably nicer person than any of the above, and his longstanding status as a Los Angeles Clippers superfan suggests either a willingness to embrace a tragic sense of existence or garden-variety masochism. But Hardison does have one thing going for him that none of his co-celebrants (or his beloved Clippers) can claim: Kadeem did win it all, once. It just happened in a movie, and he was dead at the time.

 

After Hardison’s career-defining stint at Dwayne Wayne on “A Different World”, Hardison starred with fifth network star Marlon Wayans, as a basketball player who is about to win it all until he, um, dies. The 6th Man is pretty crazy, even when compared to other crazy 1990’s sports movies. I was just twelve when The 6th Man was released in 1997, and at the time it looked like predictable family fare; I was looking for something stronger and edgier and a bit more challenging, and Good Burger was in theaters around the same time, and there you go. Now that I’ve finally watched it, it’s certainly predictable, but far from family fare. Directed by Randall Miller, the only man who could pull off making both the Sinbad vehicle Houseguest and the Alan Rickman vehicle Bottle Shock, The 6th Man stars Hardison and Wayans as Antoine and Kenny Tyler, a brotherly duo who lead the Washington Huskies to near-greatness. Antoine, a promising scorer, looks to be the next Tony Delk, but winds up with something like Hank Gathers’ tragic outcome, dying of a heart attack after a game-winning dunk against UCLA.  

All hope for a national title seems to be lost until Antoine’s ghost shows up to boost Kenny’s game. Things start to pick up, with horrible Serbian players making three pointers and more caucasian dunking than the NCAA Tournament would see until the advent of Florida Gulf Coast University, which (probably) coincidentally held its first classes in ‘97. Also a basketball suddenly morphs into the face of Kadeem Hardison for some reason, which is at least as terrifying as anything in fellow ‘97 release Event Horizon. Kenny’s reporter girlfriend eventually realizes that the Huskies’ miracle run is supernatural, but declines a chance to get her name in The Sporting News (to reiterate: 1997) out of respect for her lover.  Antoine’s ghost, originally a team player, eventually becomes a team-killing dick: imagine a supernatural J.R. Rider and you’re pretty close. Antoine pouts pissily when he’s not recognized for his efforts, and gives Georgetown’s star player a concussion during the national semifinals. Naturally, everyone is redeemed by the end, and Antoine goes off to heaven to ball with Gathers, Len Bias and Wendell Ladner.

***

The 6th Man is, as you might have noticed, a very weird movie, and not only because it is one in which Bill Walton is seen but not heard. So many people who would never be in such a movie today are in it. American treasure David Paymer, whom God made twice and named the other one Jeff Van Gundy, plays a decidedly non-nebbishy Washington Huskies coach. Travis Ford, then a star player with Kentucky and now the head men’s basketball coach at Oklahoma State, plays Danny O’Grady, whose dye job only rivals the bleach-blonde Serbian player’s in its awfulness. Ford probably regrets the scene where he picks a fight with the UNC Tar Heel mascot, and surely feels terrible about his in-film shredding of the University of Massachusetts, where he would later coach once his hair got back to normal. Future Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer also has a small role, although she probably would be in a remake of The 6th Man, come to think of it. Factor in a strange tone, jarringly goofy special effects, and the fact that the film hinges on the death/afterlife of a young athlete in the most family-friendly way possible, and we're in a strange place.

Almost every West Coast college team is featured, including Jerry Tarkanian’s Fresno State squad, UCLA, Cal, and Washington State; alas, the Western Dolphins from Blue Chips were under probation at the time of The 6th Man’s filming. Your usual powerhouses and then-powerhouses fall to the mighty Huskies during the tourney, including Arkansas and (um, spoiler) eventual national championship opponent UMass. Drexel fans who dreamed of seeing Bruiser Flint lead his team to the Final Four are in luck. Your usual college sports announcers, such as Billy Packer, George Raveling, Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale, are there; we can only dream what Gus Johnson would have done with the material.

If the events of The 6th Man took place today, the reboot would be decidedly darker. The whole "dead brother is making us better" angle would be commandeered by the sports media; ESPN, Chris Connelly or Jeremy Schaap would do a Sportscenter puff piece which would make you switch to ESPN2, where Skip Bayless would argue that their team was better without Dwayne Wayne, dead or alive. Deadspin would later debunk it, and Twitter would be saturated with puns on the topic. That said, the uniformity of NCAA tournament floors would keep production costs down, and perhaps passing the savings on to the CGI and lighting departments. The lighting department could only do so much to make Kadeem Hardison glow in 1997. It is not appealing at all to imagine a more realistic rendering of his face on a basketball.

It was, in retrospect, the right idea to wait all these years for The 6th Man, if only because I now can more fully appreciate how many times someone can say “shit” in a PG-13 movie. What would have been an awkward movie my dad would have forced me to watch because he spent $4.99 to rent it at Blockbuster is now a good movie to get sort of mildly weirded-out by at my own leisure. There may not be one shining moment in The 6th Man, but there are enough crazy ones and bad special effects to make it worth watching. Congratulations, Kadeem. Cut down the nets.


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