These things happened in 1997, back when my wife was in third grade: baggy pants were cool; the Spice Girls’ dropped “Wannabe”; the Flu Game; the Montreal Screwjob; Kobe Paras was born; and George Clooney was Batman.
It was also an important year in movies—Titanic; Men in Black; Good Will Hunting; the first Austin Powers; and the second Jurassic Park all came out that year. Two basketball films, Air Bud and The Sixth Man, also came out (OK three, if you want to call a Dennis Rodman-Jean Claude Van Damme flick a “basketball film”).
If you remembered The Sixth Man, directed by Randall Miller, then God bless you, you are probably old.
If you have no idea what The Sixth Man is, it’s a story of two close brothers chasing their dream to win an NCAA championship. Inspiring their pursuit of greatness is their creed, “A and K: All the way.”
The alpha and more talented of the two is Antoine (Kadeem Hardison), who succumbs to a heart attack after a two-handed dunk highlight, a tragic event that pretty much puts an end to all “ball is life” arguments.
The gun-shy and less talented of the two (Kenny, played by Marlon Wayans) continues to pursue the dream as the go-to guy, but his weaknesses—and immaturity—on the court are exposed without his kuya Antoine. The unfamiliar pressure of carrying a team and the grief of losing a loved one lead to a depressing montage of bricks, turnovers, and taking a lot of Ls—aptly scored by Sovory’s “Deeper Than Blood.”
At his lowest, Kenny poses an existential question to Antoine’s retired No. 24 jersey hanging from the rafters: “What am I supposed to do now?” Kenny is no Russell Westbrook, post-KD.
To help the cause, Antoine returns as a ghost, setting in motion a series of wacky events wherein the good guys dunk from out of bounds and the bad guys hurl baseball passes willy-nilly. Cheap laughs for cheap plays. Think Above the Rim meets Angels in the Outfield.
Kenny is the only person who can see Antoine, and the two successfully will their team to victory after victory, Harlem Globetrotter-style. Basically, it’s cheating. But for basketball fans who’ve fantasized about throwing down a game-winning dunk with help from supernatural forces, it’s also very, very entertaining.
“A and K: All the way” lives on, ironically, death notwithstanding.
Things go south when their rational yet killjoy teammates lobby for the Antoine cheat mode to be switched off for the Final Four. One of them calls Antoine’s apparition a ball hog: “He was when he was alive and, no disrespect, is even worse as a dead man.”
Undeterred, Antoine keeps on helping the team, but eventually gets benched for the championship game after he commits a, um, phantom foul on the opposing team’s star player, seriously injuring the guy in the process.
Kenny, on full-on Kyrie Irving mode, lets Antoine know that it’s time for a breakup. Since The Players’ Tribune and social media jabs haven’t been invented yet, Kenny goes through the archaic task of actually talking face-to-face to let his brother know that it’s Kenny Tyler Time: “I’ve been your sidekick for over 20 years and I was happy to be that, but I can’t do that no more.”
Without Antoine’s help in the finals, Kenny and his team find themselves down 20 points at the half. In the mandatory sports film halftime speech, Kenny—finally blossoming into the leader his coach projected—fires up the team to play for Antoine, rather than with him. Suffice to say (and, you know, spoiler alert), everything ends well.
The Sixth Man is no cinematic masterpiece, but it’s fun and it does two things right: it paints a picture of a young, troubled basketball player in search of his soul and at the same time injects ridiculousness to the whole thing because that’s what basketball can do at times. A ghost-assisted halfcourt heave that goes in is equally ridiculous as a Steph Curry off-the-dribble 3. Thirteen points in 33 seconds? 62 points in three quarters? Coming back from a 1-3 deficit to win the championship? These are all bizarre things that happened on the court, in front of thousands.
At its core, The Sixth Man hammers home a tried-and-tested message: take risks and don’t be afraid to fail. It’s the same premise of Westbrook’s quest to post 42 triple-doubles in his first gig as a solo act; Kobe Bryant gunning for 60 points in his last NBA game; Irving wanting out of Cleveland to control his own destiny; and conversely, Kevin Durant wanting to join the Warriors to fulfill his.
The Sixth Man earned more than $14 million, according to boxofficemojo.com, on an estimated budget of $11 million. For context, the highest-grossing basketball film of all time is Space Jam, raking in more than $90 million during its domestic theatrical run. In basketball terms, this means that Space Jam is peak Jordan while The Sixth Man is JR Smith. Not the Knicks version; more like the Cavs version, chipping in a 14-point, 4-rebound, 3-assist output in Game 6 of the 2016 finals. Different playing fields, but make no mistake about it, both are champions.
Photos from IMDb