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Leon Robinson, the award-winning actor known simply as Leon, receives photos every year from fans dressed up as one of his characters for Halloween. Leon, who has appeared in “The Five Heartbeats,” “Ali,” “Cool Runnings” and other films, is perhaps best known to basketball fans as Thomas “Shep” Sheppard from the 1994 film “Above the Rim.”

One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when Shep decides to play against his brother’s team in a streetball tournament (his brother Birdie is played by Tupac Shakur). It was a last-minute decision, and it showed in his playing attire. Shep came onto the court wearing a coat, thermal shirt and corduroy pants. His coach Mike Rollins (played by David Bailey) gave him a blue team jersey.

The memes are endless, and basketball fans and players of all ages continue to keep this memory alive. If Leon, 62, needed confirmation of Shep’s impact, it came in 2022 when he arrived at a New York Knicks celebrity game at the famous Rucker Park dressed like Shep in this special scene.

It was enough to catch LeBron James’ attention.

“When I went to the park (in 2022), it was just chaos,” Leon said. “Even the police officers were saying, ‘Oh my God, is that a ghost? I can’t believe it. Is that real? Is that really Shep walking through the park?'”

Thirty years later, Shep and “Above the Rim” still hold a place in the hearts of many basketball purists. He has been praised for his work in many films – some will remember him best as David Ruffin in the NBC miniseries “The Temptations” – but Shep’s character evokes a sense of nostalgia that many basketball players can identify with.

Former NBA forward John Wallace, a 20-year-old sophomore at Syracuse when the film came out, was one of the participants in the celebrity game two years ago. He said the players were never told Leon would be appearing.

“It was just incredible to see Shep come out there and do his thing. … It was awesome,” Wallace said. “The reaction was natural because nobody told us about it. The fact that we didn’t know about it helped when he walked on the field because it was very similar to what he did in the movies.”

Several films from the early 1990s mixed sports with escaping dire circumstances. “The Program” dealt with steroid use, alcoholism, and other stresses that come with being a college athlete. “Boyz n the Hood” had a neighborhood storyline that unfortunately included the death of a promising high school football player who was about to earn a scholarship to USC.

But Above the Rim had a different tone. It told a PTSD story largely from the perspective of Shep, a former New York high school star who lost his way after the accidental death of his friend Nutso. The pain of death – Nutso fell from a high-rise in a freak accident during a competition in which he and Shep were testing their jumping ability by hitting a backboard – was too much for her to bear. Shep’s basketball dreams ended after Nutso’s death.

Shep returned to the city after his mother’s death to find his younger brother supporting the family as a successful drug dealer. Added to the trauma he experienced with his best friend is the experience of his family being supported in an unethical way.

May was Mental Health Awareness Month. June is Men’s Health Awareness Month. Watching this 1994 film in 2024 has a different vibe, knowing today about signs and basics about mental health, especially when a character’s questionable well-being is easily apparent.

What unfolds in the film is a life story that arguably hits harder today than it did 30 years ago. There are Shep’s mental health issues. Issues that made it difficult for him to be a dedicated mentor to another aspiring athlete (Kyle Watson, played by Duane Martin, is the main protagonist who wants to play college basketball for Georgetown). Issues that made it hard to accept a romantic relationship. And issues that made it exhausting to deal with a family member who wanted to be a neighborhood hero through illegal means.

“I think when the movie came out, it was more about this streetball movie where the people are real ballplayers,” Leon said. “But I think over the years they’ve realized that the movie is much deeper and the relationships run parallel. I think the appreciation of not only the movie but my role in particular has grown over the years and reflects what (Shep) may have been going through.”

Wallace said several scenes in the film still make it memorable, especially for anyone who was dealing with personal issues. Moments like Shep on a deserted court at night, dribbling and shooting without a ball, are “relatable to basketball players,” he said. And then there’s the action in the final scenes.

To movie fans, Leon is Leon. To basketball fans, he is Shep.

“He’s one of the best actors of our time. To me, this is one of his best roles,” Wallace said. “We’ll always call him Shep because of everything – playing ball, talking stupid stuff to the young guys, being a security guard. I remember that movie so vividly. When he came (to Rucker Park), when we were doing the pickup game … he just showed up and it was like, ‘Wait, hold up!'”

In many neighborhoods, there is a “Shep,” someone who was once a star athlete who, for some reason, never made it past high school. That’s part of what makes the character from “Above the Rim” so likable. At high school reunions, there’s always someone who asks, “Whatever happened to…?”

Leon conveyed these feelings and struggles in the role. Throughout the film, Shep seems lost. His look is hopeless. The pain of losing Nutso while playing basketball is unshakeable.

“People have been through trauma that has changed their lives,” Leon said. “My character is portrayed more through my eyes than my words.”

And for anyone wondering, Leon had no problem playing basketball in civilian clothes during the film. In real life, this can be awkward and some people might laugh at it. But on that day, when the film was being shot, he was the envy of his colleagues.

“It was an unseasonably cold day. I was the warmest person out there,” Leon said. “Everyone else was wearing shorts and tank tops. They looked at me in corduroys and thermals, and I was fine.”

Wood Harris, an accomplished actor in his own right, plays Motaw in the film. Harris made his screen debut in Above the Rim and delivered his best portrayal of Birdie’s top guard and a true villain who wasn’t afraid to do any dirty work that was asked of him.

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Wood Harris on making sports films and working with Scoot Henderson, Tupac and others

Harris, 54, has an impressive film career, but admitted that while filming, he couldn’t have predicted what the movie would become and the spectacular cast he would be working with. Leon was already established, but the film also featured Tupac and comedians Bernie Mac and Marlon Wayans.

“Tupac wasn’t what he is today,” said Harris, who later starred in films such as “Against All Odds,” “Paid in Full” and the “Creed” series. “None of us were really the star Star of this film. The guy who was kind of a star was Leon.”

Harris continued, “Bernie Mac was so funny. He never said the same line twice. Tupac couldn’t keep a straight face. If you watch the movie now, you’ll see that Tupac turned away and they had to use one because he was laughing in every take.

“I am very lucky to have met so many special people.”

Tupac died in September 1996 after being shot in Las Vegas. Bernie Mac died in August 2008 from complications of pneumonia. Wayans continues to work in films, television and as a stand-up comedian. Harris and Martin also continue to work in films and television. Harris most recently had a recurring role as Spencer Haywood in “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.”

But as Above the Rim celebrates its 30th anniversary, Shep is still loved by basketball movie fans of all ages. It’s a different kind of recognition. In 2024, Leon’s character might have been advised to seek therapy for the memory that haunts him.

Thirty years later, Shep is relatable to those seeking peace after tragedy. It’s not just a movie. For some, it’s reality.

(Photos of Duane Martin and Leon: Milan Ryba / FilmMagic via Getty Images and Paul Bruinooge / Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

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