Uncut Gems Isn’t Just About Basketball. It’s Structured Like a Basketball Game.
The following post contains SPOILERS for Uncut Gems, as well as the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Among the collectibles available for sale on film distributor A24’s online shop is a basketball with the logo for Uncut Gems branded into one of the panels. $75 gets you a silver, black, and grey ball marked with the absurd, bank-breaking bet placed by the film’s unscrupulous hero, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). A custom Uncut Gems display stand will set you back another $12.
That’s a lot of money for a basketball and a clear piece of acrylic. But the fact that they exist at all speaks to the importance of basketball in the film, which follows Howard, a jeweler in New York City’s diamond district, as he places one crazy bet after another on the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Howard has smuggled a huge black opal out of Ethiopia and plans to auction it off for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But when Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) walks into Howard’s shop, he can’t resist showing off his new prize — and then can’t say no to KG when he wants to take it with him. The rest of directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s thriller follows Howard as he tries to reclaim his gem — and stay a step ahead of his crushing gambling debt and the two goons looking to collect, Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik).
Although Howard’s addiction makes basketball an important component of Uncut Gems, I have seen some people argue Gems is not a sports movie. Most sports movies, the argument goes, are about the ups and downs of a season, and the lives of a group of players and coaches. It’s true that Garnett is only Celtics player in Uncut Gems, and that very little basketball is actually played onscreen. The stuff that is shown is always at a remove, mostly on television screens in Howard’s jewelry showroom or his house on Long Island. In the rare cases that Howard gets close to the game, he’s immediately rebuffed, like when he follows his business associate Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) to a Celtics practice, and the security guards refuse to let him in.
So Uncut Gems is not a traditional sports movie. No one, including the Safdies, would argue that’s what it’s designed to be. But from a certain perspective, Gems actually takes more from its central sport than something like Hoosiers or Blue Chips — including its unusual construction, which makes it not just about basketball, but structured like a basketball game.
This fact is easy to miss on a first viewing, largely because on first viewing audience members get so caught up in Gems’ sustained tension and Howard’s increasingly desperate financial situation. The final scene really puts the whole thing into focus. Howard’s most reckless gamble actually pays off; he hits every part of the bet imprinted on that $75 basketball mentioned above. He finally releases Phil, Nico, and their boss Arno (Eric Bogosian) from the locked vestibule inside Howard’s shop’s entrance; he traps them inside until he can see the result of his wager. Howard’s now $1.2 million richer — but as soon as he frees his creditors, Phil shoots him in the face and kills Arno for attempting to flee. As Phil and Nico ransack Howard’s shop in an attempt to make the murders look like a botched robbery, the TV in the store plays a postgame interview with Kevin Garnett about his phenomenal performance.
“In the end,” Garnett says. “I felt like it was just me and the rock. Nothing else.”
Anyone watching the NBA back in 2012 would have assumed that Garnett’s comments referred to the game. Uncut Gems viewers recognize the ambiguity of the line, since Garnett has spent the film coveting Howard’s opal, and he finally secures it in a backroom deal with Howard right before this all-important Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Garnett’s line also draws a direct connection between the opal and a basketball — at which point it becomes clear that the entire film has, like a basketball game, been a fight over possession of “the rock.” The “game” of Uncut Gems begins with the arrival of the opal to Howard’s store and a sort of almost-literal tip off, as both Howard and KG fight over initial control of the gem. (It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Howard puts money on the opening tip as part of his climactic all-or-nothing bet — or that he picks the Celtics to win the tip off, just as KG won the tip with him in his jewelry store.)
I recently hosted a discussion about Uncut Gems, and one member of the group noted that the movie actually made him sick to his stomach. He generally loved thrillers, he said, but this one made him physically ill and he couldn’t figure out why. Unless this gentleman had eaten a bad bagel right before our conversation, I suspect the culprit was Uncut Gems’ nonstop suspense. While the action in most thrillers rises and falls, with periods of relative calm where the audience can catch their breath, Gems begins building anticipation with the very first scene and rarely relents until the final sequence. This, too, is like a basketball game, where the flow of action is nearly constant, and only pauses for brief timeouts — which have their own equivalents in Uncut Gems in the scenes where Howard stops running from or to a bookie, and spends a few moments with his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and their children.
The only extended break in Uncut Gems’ suspense is a seder scene, where Howard and Arno — who, it is revealed, is Howard’s brother-in-law — observe the Jewish holiday of Passover with the rest of their family. For a moment, their hostilities are tabled as they recite the ten plagues and then watch television — the NBA playoffs, of course — while the children hunt for the afikoman. The Passover seder sequence begins 72 minutes into Uncut Gems’ 135-minute runtime, almost exactly at its halfway point. It is, essentially, halftime at Uncut Gems.
When I put my theory about Uncut Gems-as-a-basketball-game to co-director Josh Safdie recently, he didn’t confirm I had unlocked the movie’s secret meaning. But he did say my theory would have been even stronger if they had proceeded with their original plan for the seder, which would have seen Howard and his family watching ... the Celtics game’s halftime show. And he also noted that basketball is a game of momentum — who has it, and how difficult it is to maintain it — something Uncut Gems is all about as well.
Once you start looking for Uncut Gems’ basketball connections, you see them everywhere. The mantrap that protects Howard’s shop needs to be buzzed to open; the noise it makes each time an employee lets someone into the jewelry store is like the horn that goes off when there’s a player substitution off the bench — and it means the same thing; a new person has walked onto the court. (The name “mantrap” also recalls a basketball team’s trap defense.) Even the way the characters talk to each other is loaded with references to basketball.
Howard takes shot after shot after shot throughout Uncut Gems. All he does is take shots; in basketball terms, Howard is a classic ball hog. In the final scene, he throws up the ultimate full-court buzzer beater — and actually hits it. But when time expires in the Celtics game, Howard expires too.
His famous “This is how I win” speech comes during the scene when he finally hands over the opal to Kevin Garnett. When the Celtics beat the 76ers, and Howard pulls off his $1.2 million wager, it seems for one fleeting second like he was right. But Howard doesn’t realize he and Garnett have been playing against each other — and in order for KG to win, someone else has to lose. But at least there’s a basketball commemorating that sick bet he made for all eternity.
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