Exactly how did Kyrie Irving first become Uncle Drew?
By ADAM HIMMELSBACH, Globe Staff
The story of how Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving’s graying, trash-talking, basketball-playing character “Uncle Drew” went from a pipe dream to a soda commercial to a feature film truly starts in the aisles of a Miami grocery store six years ago.
Pepsi wanted to film a commercial for its no-calorie cola, Pepsi Max, in which an athlete would show viewers what he would do with a lifetime supply of the drink. Initially, a football player was slotted for the role, but that fell through at the last minute. Pepsi executives contacted the PRP sports management team, and marketing representatives Perry Rogers and Colin Smeeton helped convince them that their young client, Irving, would be perfect.
Irving, who had just completed his rookie season with the Cavaliers, was already in Florida, where the commercial was scheduled to be filmed. Irving’s agent, Jeff Wechsler, organized the shoot in the gym at his son’s Miami high school, Ransom Everglades, and then went to a grocery store and loaded his car with about 20 cases of Pepsi Max — not quite a lifetime supply, but enough to look outrageous with some television magic.
There was no script, so they improvised, with Irving using the soda to do basketball drills. He dribbled between cases of Pepsi and carried them as if they were weights. He knocked cans off of people’s heads with passes and did sit-ups with a two-liter bottle in his arms. The commercial concluded with Irving sitting in an ice bath filled with cans of the carbonated beverage.
The footage was grainy and obviously low-budget, but the Pepsi advertising executives weren’t worried about that. Mostly, they were smitten with Irving. They believed they had found a star.
Kyrie, of course, was not quite Kyrie at that point. He was not yet an All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist, or an NBA champion. He was not LeBron James’s teammate.
“I personally had never had an experience with an athlete that was so collaborative and creative,” said Marc Gilbar, executive director of Pepsi’s advertising agency partner, Farm League. “It just got me really excited to do more with him, and thinking that maybe this was a unique opportunity to work with an athlete in a totally different kind of way.”
Lou Arbetter, general manager of Pepsi Productions, said his group essentially agreed to a multiyear endorsement deal with Irving while sitting in the high school gym. The first brainstorming session even started there, including the possibility of Irving dressing up as an old man and playing against younger, unsuspecting opponents.
Gilbar sent that idea and a few others to Pepsi’s brand team, and they green-lighted the idea of an old Kyrie as a Pepsi Max pitchman. Gilbar had some reservations, primarily making sure Irving understood the complexities involved with putting someone in Hollywood-level costume.
“I’d worked with athletes before, and their time is usually short, generally an hour or so,” Gilbar said. “And this was three or four hours just to put them in makeup before you even roll a camera.”
But Irving was unfazed. Uncle Drew, a play off of Irving’s middle name of Andrew, was coming.
A star is born
The night before the first Uncle Drew commercial was filmed, Pepsi’s creative team met with Irving to discuss the character. They watched old clips of character actors such as Eddie Murphy, who had mastered the art of transformation by playing various roles in the “Nutty Professor” movies, and they asked Irving about his vision of Uncle Drew.
Irving was very close to his father Drederick, a former Boston University basketball standout. He recalled watching his father’s pickup games as a child, and he found the unique trash talk from that era endearing. He was eager to reignite it.
Irving’s makeup was done at his childhood home in West Orange, N.J., and as each layer was pressed onto his face, Irving seemed to get into the role a bit more. He’d look into a mirror and talk like Uncle Drew. He’d stand up and pretend his back was aching.
At one point, as the creative team gave him more instructions about what motivated his character, Irving said, unprompted: “I get buckets.”
Just like that, the tag line that would carry him through a colossal ad campaign and, eventually, a major motion picture, was born.
“That,” Wechsler said, “was all Kyrie’s genius.”
The commercial was considerably more ambitious than Irving simply playing basketball while disguised as an old man. The creative team was hoping to fool unsuspecting pickup players while somehow documenting all of it.
To this day, there is a wide belief that the others in the first Uncle Drew commercial were in on the ruse. After all, they were being filmed, some of them were drinking Pepsi, and while Irving looked much older than he did in real life, he still sort of just looked like an old Kyrie Irving.
But Pepsi’s ad executives insist that the bit and the surprise were fully authentic, and that they went to great lengths to make it that way.
The quality of hidden-camera video would have been poor for a cinematic commercial, so that was never an option. Instead, Pepsi gathered players at the Clark’s Pond courts in Bloomfield, N.J., and told them they were shooting a documentary about a young player named Kevin, who would serve as Uncle Drew’s decoy nephew. So the cameras were rolling on Kevin long before Irving arrived.
Also, production assistants put two tubs of Pepsi Max at the edge of the court and made it clear they were free. So by the time Uncle Drew arrived, people were already swigging from the well-placed product.
“We basically got everyone comfortable with the cameras, and the cameras were focused on Kevin, because that’s who we said this was about,” Gilbar said. “There was a little bit of smoke and mirrors. Then there’s some old guy sitting on the side, and it didn’t seem like he was the focus of the thing.”
Producers interviewed Irving as Uncle Drew during a 20-minute van ride to the court. It was primarily to get him comfortable, but it ultimately resulted in excellent footage that was added to the commercial.
After Irving arrived and sat near the sidelines, his “nephew” was injured, leading Irving to replace him in the game. Irving had a small microphone attached to pick up his dialogue, but there was no real script, because it is not really possible to script a pickup game.
Of course, Irving needs no direction when it comes to being a basketball magician. He shredded defenders with his crossover dribbles. He poured in 3-pointers. He did not look like an old man.
“There’s a certain point in the story when Uncle Drew hits a couple of deep threes, and eventually, he dunks,” Gilbar said. “I think at that point you’re not fooling the audience. Certainly some of them knew what was up.”
But by that time, it didn’t matter. When the production crew edited the footage, they were amazed by Irving’s clever trash talk. He was a natural, and the ad, which has now been viewed more than 52 million times on YouTube, was a sensation. (Irving’s Pepsi commercial in the Miami high school, by comparison, has been viewed fewer than 100,000 times.)
Three more Uncle Drew short films followed, each about five minutes long and featuring other NBA players, including Kevin Love, Nate Robinson, Baron Davis, and Ray Allen. By that point, Irving’s character had become part of the sports lexicon, so the mystery was mostly gone. But the entertainment value was not, and viewers remained seemingly willing to suspend belief.
On to the big screen
Marty Bowen and John Fischer, executives at Temple Hill Entertainment, were interested in making a movie about an American basketball player who goes to China to find himself.
In late 2015, Bowen asked Fischer to send him work samples from possible directors for the film, and the Uncle Drew commercial series was in the collection he submitted.
“When you watch the people on the sidelines when it starts to dawn on them what they’re watching and what’s happening, there’s an element of wonder there that has a real cinematic quality to it,” Fischer said. “It feels like something you’d see only in movie magic, and that’s initially what attracted us to it.”
Bowen loved the short films, and when he saw Irving listed as both the writer and director in the closing credits, he was at once impressed and dismissive.
“I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Bowen said. “What 24-year-old NBA All-Star who’s getting paid all this money is going to not play in the league for two years to direct a movie for two years in a foreign country? It was never going to happen.
“But I had to keep watching the Uncle Drew shorts, because I loved them. And while I was doing that, I realized, well, that’s the movie.”
Fischer reached out to Wechsler, Irving’s agent, and fired off a surprising suggestion. They wanted to make Uncle Drew, the movie. Irving and Smeeton met with the Temple Hill representatives and loved the idea. After a screenplay was written, it did not take long for Lionsgate Films to come on board.
And on Friday night, about six years after Irving’s professional acting career began in a Miami high school gym, his first feature film will be released to the public.
“Kyrie is a bit of an enigma, right?” Bowen said. “He wants to be provocative, he’s highly intellectual, and he tends to be a bit of a contrarian in his own way.
“But all the while, he’s highly, highly competitive, and I think the challenge of proving to the world that he could be really good as an actor was appealing to him. And like everybody else, I think he loved the character.”