Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: Garnett the latest sports figure to shine on a movie screen

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When the Boston Celtics last won an NBA championship, Kevin Garnett shouted to the rafters that "anything is possible."So if that is the case, can we begin a case for Kevin Garnett as an Academy Award nominee for best supporting actor?

During my recent vacation, I had a chance to see "Uncut Gems," Adam Sandler's latest film. KG has a critical role in the film, playing a somewhat fictitious version of himself. Garnett and Sandler, who plays a New York City jeweler, get involved with a precious opal from Ethiopia, one that Garnett believes will help the Celtics beat the 76ers in the 2012 NBA Playoffs.

I thought the movie was outstanding. Sandler was great, Garnett was great. Even Mike Francesa of WFAN fame was great. This movie is not for everybody, and it has stirred a lot of polarizing reaction.

But this column is not a movie review.

As I left the theatre, I got to thinking about athletes who became actors. Not so much the ex-athletes like Jim Brown or Mark Harmon, who left sports and started a second career in movies. I was thinking more about guys like Garnett, who probably never really thought about the movie business until directors Josh and Benny Safdie called.

As good as Garnett was in "Uncut Gems," he's not even the best former Celtic to make his movie debut. That honor goes to Ray Allen.

Allen, the third member of Boston's Big Three, played Jesus Shuttlesworth in the Spike Lee film "He Got Game." If you thought Garnett playing opposite Sandler was tough, how about Ray Allen sharing the screen with Denzel Washington? This was one of Spike Lee's best movies, and most reviews of Ray Allen's performance were very good — and not just because he was an athlete.

Of course, the most memorable basketball player's performance was in one of the best comedies of all time, and had this exchange with little Joey.

"I think you're the greatest, but my dad says you don't work hard enough on defense.

"And he says that lots of times, you don't even run down court. And that you don't really try... except during the playoffs."

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Abdul-Jabbar, playing co-pilot Roger Murdock in "Airplane," then told young Joey: "Hell I don't! LISTEN, KID! I've been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I'm out there busting my buns every night! Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes!"

It was not Kareem's movie debut. That came in the 1978 Bruce Lee epic "Game of Death." Bruce Lee died while filming, and the movie eventually was released twice. One of the releases was an American re-editing of the film.

Shaquille O'Neal wanted to be a movie star, but a couple of really bad films nipped his career in the bud. O'Neal's performance in the basketball movie "Blue Chips" was pretty good. The basketball stars of that movie, in my opinion, were Penny Hardaway and Bob Cousy.

Hardaway was the best actor among the players used in the movie. His performance was moving. Cousy, in a smaller role as Western University's athletic director, was simply superb. He had just enough dry wit to make his character memorable.

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A number of current and former coaches played fictional versions of themselves in "Blue Chips" but none were particularly memorable.

Perhaps the best basketball player to act was the late Ken Howard. Howard, a regular at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the star of the classic TV series "White Shadow," was the captain of the Amherst College basketball team back in 1966.

Howard's career was much, much more than just playing Coach Ken Reeves. But when you ask me, that role is the first one that comes to mind.

I imagine you might not know that Chuck Connors was the "Rifleman" in the NBA long before Chuck Person was. Connors played for the Celtics in 1947-48 before taking a stab at baseball with the Chicago Cubs and then heading to Hollywood.

Connors and Abdul-Jabbar were both in "Airplane," another example of ex-Celtic and ex-Laker d tente.

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"Airplane," "Animal House," and "Blazing Saddles" are three of my personal funniest movies. And "Blazing Saddles" had another ex-athlete making his movie debut.

Alex Karras, who was suspended by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1963 for gambling on football, went on to have a good career in TV sitcoms. But his debut was as Mongo in Mel Brooks' comedy western, and when he deadpanned "Mongo only pawn in game of life," the house would come down.

Joe Namath is a football legend, having guaranteed victory for the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. But did you know that Joe Willie took a stab at show biz? We're not talking about broadcasting, which he did doing NFL games.

Namath made two of the worst movies of all time: "C.C. and Company," a truly awful motorcycle gang movie, and "The Last Rebel," a western best forgotten.

Namath did actually do some stage work, and while nobody will compare him with Ken Howard, some of it (I read) wasn't embarrassing.

But the most famous Joe Namath appearance was on a "Brady Bunch" episode where he not only threw a pass to Bobby Brady, but threw another football the broke Marsha Brady's nose.

There are many, many more ex-athletes who had various degrees of success in the acting business. These were just a few.

And if Kevin Garnett's performance leads to more acting work, I will not be surprised.

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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