The True Story of How Kevin Garnett Ended Up in ‘Uncut Gems’
Now that Uncut Gems—one of 2019’s very best movies, and a must-watch for any fan of sports, gambling, or sports gambling—is streaming on Netflix, a whole bunch of people are about to find out that former NBA MVP Kevin Garnett is now an Adam Sandler co-star. Those people are also about to find out that not only is Garnett an Adam Sandler co-star, but that he absolutely kills it, playing an intense, gem-obsessed 2012 version of himself. And as the long story goes, the plan wasn’t always for Garnett to be in the movie. In fact, directors Josh and Benny Safdie—die hard New York Knicks fans—ran through several different options for the part during the movie’s 10-year road to the big screen, only landing on Garnett after a number of different factors wound up coming into play.
Originally The Safdie Brothers wrote the part in the movie with Amar’e Stoudemire in mind. The dynamic forward was a force when he signed with the Knicks before the 2010-2011 season, and his then-new embrace of judiasm fit in perfectly with the movie that featured a seder scene (and is helmed by a pair of Jewish brothers from New York City.) In that early version of the script, Stoudemire’s acquisition served as a jumping off point for a string of 30-point games he would have. According to The Ringer, he even came to a table read. Eventually, though, production on the film stalled and the Safdies moved on to different projects.
A few years later, the brothers returned to the project and were again looking to fill the pivotal NBA player role—they believed that if they cast a big name in the role, it would allow the movie to call for an increased budget. William Morris Endeavor, the talent agency who represent the Safdies, recommended another one of their clients for the part: Kobe Bryant. In that version of the movie, the events would center on the late Lakers star’s 2009 61 point performance against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. There was one problem, though: Bryant wasn’t interested in acting—only directing.
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As the rest of the movie began coming together, the Safdies started realizing exactly what timeframe they had to deal with. Because R&B/Pop superstar The Weeknd had already appeared in the movie as himself, that meant that the very earliest it could be set was 2012—the first year he started performing. At that point, the Safdies circled back to Stoudemire, but it quickly became clear that it wasn’t going to work out.
Because Uncut Gems makes pivotal use of real NBA game footage and was set in a very specific 2012 moment in NBA history, filming would’ve required Stoudemire to look exactly how he did in 2012. This meant the 6’10 big man would’ve had to cut his hair, which in 2012 was a short, tight cut, and has since evolved into dreadlocks. When he refused, the Safdies once again had to pivot.
They briefly looked at current players—notably Philadelphia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid—but when the filming schedule shifted to the fall, he was no longer available because he was preparing for the start of the NBA season.
At that point, both Safdies—Josh and Benny—drew up a list of no-longer-active NBA stars who might have the personality and charisma to work in their fast-paced movie—and fit alongside stars like Adam Sandler and Lakeith Stanfield. Garnett—a rival of the Knicks during his time with the Celtics—made his way onto the list.
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“Because I’m a fuckin’ disgusting, sick Knick fan, my instinct when I saw Kevin’s name was, ‘I hate him. I don’t want him anywhere near my movie,’” Josh said in the same expansive Ringer piece. “And we talked with him and I told him that I hated him and I realized eventually that the reason why I hated him is because he’s an incredible performer.”
Eventually, Garnett and the Safdies had a meeting. Garnett was a fan of the documentary Lenny Cooke, about a high school basketball phenom who flamed out, that the brothers had made a few years prior. The meeting between the two parties went extremely well, and Garnett eventually landed the part.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Garnett said that acting wasn’t even on his radar. “I kind of drilled my agent a little bit about what the opportunity was and asked them, “Why me?” To tell you the truth, I tried to talk myself out of it,” he said. “We had a phone call that we took and the first thing Josh says to me, “I hate your fucking guts, man, I’m a Knick fan,” and he just starts going in. I was like, “First off, get over it.”
To fit the movie’s theme of the opal (the titular Uncut Gem) fueling a hot streak, Benny and Josh had to find a hot streak that would match the story accordingly—incredibly good games (when he has the gem) broken up with bad ones (when he doesn’t have the gem). It’s all about the allure and the belief that this thing really is making a difference; they landed on the 2012 series between the Celtics and the 76ers.
“When we met him in person it was just like, ‘His personality comes out of every part of his body,’” Josh said in the Ringer piece. “He’s incredible. He tells stories in a way that’s so engaging. And it’s so three-dimensional in a weird way. He’ll set up where everybody was sitting, what was happening. Then he shifts the stories based on who’s paying attention. He’ll give it a shape. It’s like, ‘OK, this guy can act. That’s acting.’”
And while Garnett had no prior acting experience, and only had to play a version of himself, he still managed to blow everyone away. Anyone watching the movie has got to be impressed with the way his intensity matches that of Sandler, and from the sounds of it, that same feeling took place on the movie’s set.
“We were getting so detailed and subtle with the direction,” Benny said, “but I remember looking up at Josh like, ‘I cannot believe that this is happening right now.’ He was totally knocking it out of the park in such an incredible way.”
For a pair of Knicks fans to embrace a Celtics legend surely took some time. But both the finished product of the film, and their experience, clearly make it sound worth while.
“There was a long process to get to where we are,” Benny told EW. “But to tell you the truth, it totally disappeared and I can’t imagine this movie any other way.”
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