Watching 2002′s “Like Mike” — the Bow Wow vehicle with the rapper inheriting a pair of Michael Jordan’s shoes and suddenly being able to play like a pro — almost a decade later makes for a fascinating retrospective watch for any number of reasons. There’s the then-Lil’ Bow Wow at the height of his commercial powers, with the swagger and confidence of a superstar who genuinely believes he’s going to stay this famous forever. There’s Jonathan Lipnicki at the very tail end of his cuteness, six years after “Jerry Maguire” but still milking that last bit of “My glasses are too big for my head” adorability. There’s even Jesse Plemons, known today as nerdy Landry Clarke from “Friday Night Lights,” playing a bully type who is very arguably the most evil under-16 character in film history, at least until a highly-unlikely late-game redemption. But the most interesting thing about the movie — by far – is all the NBA player cameos.
It’s not just the quantity of them, though it is indeed an impressively high number. It’s not even the quality of them, though just about all the elite turn-of-the-century players in the NBA besides Kobe and Shaq make appearances. It’s that every single one of these all-world NBA superstars agreed to subject themselves to such outright cinematic humiliation. Not a single one of them ends up coming off well on or off the court; it’s all just degrees of pantsing at the hands of Lil’ Bow Wow’s Calvin Cambridge character. Need reminding of the details? Here’s a comprehensive listing of the movie’s NBA cameos, ranked in order from least to most embarrassing.
Honorable Mention: Rasheed Wallace, Michael Doleac and Desmond Mason. Supposedly they’re all in the movie, but the only one I actually noticed was ‘Sheed doing some negligible clowning during the bloopers in the movie’s credits. Then again, I wouldn’t even recognize Michael Doleac if he was trying to trade me his 2006 Heat championship ring for a falafel.
10. Chris Webber. C-Webb basically gets off the easiest during the movie’s Bow Wow-Punking-Everyone montage, despite making one of the movie’s dozen soon-to-be-avenged pre-game taunts against young Calvin Cambridge (“I got dogs bigger than him, man! He look like a little chihuahua!”). Rather than getting dunked on or crossed over by Calvin, Webber just has to suffer the indignity of getting called for a charge against him on a fast break, sending him hurdling into a row of cheerleaders. If anything, it’s more flattering to Webber’s toughness than a lot of NBA analysts probably would have been at the time.
9. Jason Richardson, Steve Francis and Gerald Wallace. The three slam-dunk contest participants that Cambridge eventually ends up wiping the floor with even though his dunk is only really impressive the same way Spud Webb’s was 15 years earlier. Still, there’s no real shame in losing for these three when it was obvious the contest was a rigged popularity contest from the get-go — though if you’re Steve Francis, it sucks to lose in a contest that you probably could have won about any other year for the second time in three seasons.
8. David Robinson. Not exactly a strong showing from a competitive standpoint, since Robinson lets Calvin’s fanboy cries from the bench of “Admiral! Admiral!” distract him while he’s running up the court, and even waves back to him. But he’s one of the few athletes that doesn’t give Calvin any trash-talking to rub in his face later, only getting owned in the form of a Cambridge layup that he fails to block, barely even clearing the rim on his contest. Then again, Robinson was on the downslope of his career by that point, and had less to prove than the other younger, hungrier superstars.
7. Alonzo Mourning. Another slightly past-his-primer, ‘Zo does put his foot in his mouth a little (“Personally, I’m more worried about stepping on him”), but all he really does is lose a jump ball to Cambridge, and he probably doesn’t have the same lift that he used to at 32 anyway. More embarrassing, I suppose, is being unable to pry the ball away from Calvin in the first place — unless owning MJ’s shoes somehow gave him Jordan’s supreme ball-gripping abilities (?) as well.
6. Tracy McGrady. Expressing pre-game nonchalance at Cambridge averaging 25 points a game (and for partially just cause — even in his rookie year, Mike averaged 28), T-Mac proceeds to get the ball Houdini’d from him by Calvin at what appears to be a sure breakaway opportunity, and stands in awed amazement rather than getting back on D. Not good, but since you never actually see Cambridge convert the steal into a score afterwards, at least there’s the possibility that McGrady’s teammates could help make up for his blunder before any damage was done. (Although on the ’02 Magic, probably not too likely.)
5. Dirk Nowitzki. Arguably should be higher on the list, since of all the presumably professional NBA players here, he’s the only one that turns into a fawning 12-year-old in the presence of Cambridge. But I just love his scene too much to rank him any higher than this:
“Hey, Calvin! Listen man, could I get your autograph?”
“It’s actually for my niece.”
“What’s her name?”
“Uh, it’s, uh….Dirk.”
Would it have worked with any other player? And besides, he comes off better than teammates Michael Finley and Steve Nash, who can’t even muster up the courage to say word one to Cambridge.
4. Allen Iverson. Badly crossed over by Cambridge, in a possible sly reference to AI’s announcing his arrival to the league six years earlier with a similar (although significantly less ankle-breaking) crossover move on MJ as a rookie. But what’s really embarrassing for Iverson is that he appears to barely even realize he’s a movie, reacting to every situation on the court with confusion and disbelief. (He appears to not have even heard of Cambridge upon first meeting him, which seems rather unlikely considering what a ridiculously huge story a 13-year-old playing in the NBA would undoubtedly be — although for a player distracted by off-court matters as easily and often as Iverson, perhaps not impossible.) “I ain’t no actor, man, I’m an NBA player,” says AI in the flick’s blooper reel. This is probably a true thing.
3. Jason Kidd. Ouch. No player in “Like Mike” gets absolutely schooled the way J-Kidd does. “You need to get back to that sandbox you came from,” says Kidd to Cambridge before he inbounds the ball from the baseline — doing so by faking a pass, getting Kidd to turn around, then bouncing the ball off his back to himself Pippen-style, then dishing to a teammate for a layup. As if that’s not bad enough, Calvin also retorts to No. 5′s youth-oriented trash-talking by pointing out that his last name does in fact say “Kid” in it, even twisting his jersey around to show him. He’s got you there, J.
2. Gary Payton. Not the most embarrassing basketball performance — all GP does is get called for a couple technicals and tossed — but Payton does bear the less-than-honorable distinction of being the only player in the movie to come off as a straight-up child molester. As he grabs at Cambridge and eventually wrestles him to the ground, sneering at him “Yeeah, now you know what it feel like to be in the Glove, huh?” while straddling him from above … let’s just say that “Wow, what a lockdown defender!” probably isn’t the first reaction that comes to mind. I’m not sure how GP could ever return to his old trash-talking ways after this one, when a simple “Whatever, pedo” comment from any of his previously-intimidated peers would have to shut him up for good.
1. Vince Carter. Was there any doubt? It has to be Vince. No one talks bigger (“My job is to shut Calvin Cambridge down. Besides, what’s a little kid know about the playoffs?” Uhhh …what exactly do you know about the playoffs, Vince?) and no one comes up smaller, as Carter is unable to stop his Raptors from blowing a 20-point fourth quarter lead to close out Cambridge’s Knights for the final playoff spot in the East that season. Worst of all, VC is the only player to get owned by Cambridge post-shoes (they rip apart with a minute to go in the game, wouldn’t you know), as Calvin is able to pump-fake Vince so badly that he’s able to drive under him, attracting three Toronto defenders and dishing to a teammate for the winning jumper. It wasn’t the first time or the last time that Carter would choke in the playoffs, but compared to this, clanging a jumper to lose the ’01 East semis seems like an act of near-Herculean heroism.
Seriously, watch the movie next time it’s on HBO. It’s got Crispin Glover, too! As a creepy bad guy of course!