Basketball has always been a part of Jay Longino’s life.
So when the 1991 Westminster graduate got the opportunity to write the screenplay for “Uncle Drew,” a hoops-themed comedy, he took a chance on the idea despite initial doubts about writing a screenplay based on a character in a series of four 2012 YouTube videos Pepsi made.
Longino, who lives in Los Angeles, had always wanted to write the screenplay for a basketball-related movie in the style of Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed sports-related comedy hits like “Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Tin Cup.”
“It was a really big deal for me,” Longino said of “Uncle Drew.” “That was always sort of what I wanted to do when I first came out here. I get the opportunity to do this with this character people really love. But it’s also scary because you get a lot of negative feedback because (the film) started as a commercial. Audiences are really liking the movie. Having played basketball my whole life, it was great to write a love letter to the game as a kid. I could do that through this character, Uncle Drew, and that was really cool.”
In the “Uncle Drew” YouTube videos (and now the movie), NBA star Kyrie Irving dresses up as the title character, an elderly, bearded, pot-bellied man who schools other players on famed outdoor basketball courts across the country.
The first video has been viewed 52 million times and all four got a combined 105 million views. The movie version, which opened June 29 and has a budget of about $18 million, has grossed $29.9 million at the box office nationwide through Sunday, according to Box Office Mojo estimates.
Longino’s journey to screenwriting success started at Westminster, where he is quick to point out he was a member of the school’s last region championship boys’ basketball team, in the 1990-91 season. Longino then played at Colorado College before living in Los Angeles briefly to play in the NBA Summer League for aspiring rookie players.
He then played for a professional team in Mexico and for the Atlanta Trojans, a squad in the now-defunct United States Basketball League, then coached JV basketball at the Walker School in Marietta before moving back to L.A. for good in 1998.
“Uncle Drew” was filmed last summer and fall entirely in Atlanta, a huge plus for Longino.
“It was my first big U.S. movie and to film it in my hometown was a dream come true,” he said. “I actually put some of my friends' kids in the movie.”
One of those friends is Teague Hunter, a Buckhead resident and Westminster classmate and basketball teammate of Longino who had him stay with his family while the movie was filmed. His daughter Emmie, an aspiring actress, had a small role in “Uncle Drew.”
“I couldn’t be happier for my friend, the perfect man for the job,” Hunter said. “To film it in Atlanta is the icing on the cake. He’s a great mix of athlete, competitive spirit, (one who) wants to win at everything and a creative mind at that. His dream was to make a basketball movie and he did it.”
Longino’s father Linden, a Buckhead resident who appears in the movie as an extra for what he called “a split nanosecond,” said he’s “very proud” of his son.
“He has worked hard for a long time,” he said. “He deserves, I think, the success and recognition. He has always loved basketball, from a very young age. And I just think it’s great that he could find a way to combine his love of writing with basketball.”
Longino said the past decade’s explosion of the TV/film industry in Georgia, thanks to new tax credits for production companies, is “great” for Atlanta and the state.
“It is Hollywood East,” he said. “You walk through the Loews (Atlanta) Hotel in Midtown and it’s a who’s who of Hollywood hanging out there.”
Longino said it was “a dream come true” to work with several current and former NBA stars like Shaquille O’Neal and Reggie Miller, who had roles in “Uncle Drew.”
“It was incredible. … I was there on set every day,” he said, adding he and his college friends got to play against the hoops legends during a basketball tournament scene. “They were super impressive as actors. That’s always a concern when you’re working with non-actors, but they did great. Chris Webber steals the show. Nate Robinson says little but does a lot with his actions.
“But being with them on the court was a dream come true since I came close to playing in the NBA. I got to guard Kyrie, and I look over and my college roommate was guarding Shaquille, so it was a surreal experience.”
Longino’s only other solo screenplay that has become a feature film was the 2016 Jackie Chan-Johnny Knoxville action-comedy “Skiptrace.” According to Box Office Mojo, it grossed $136.6 million worldwide, including $129 million in China, where it was briefly the most successful Chan movie in terms of its opening weekend at the box office in that country. But “Skiptrace” did not fare nearly as well in America.
“It was cool,” Longino said of its success in China. “We all had hoped the movie would be a hit in both countries. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. But it was still a great experience to get a movie of that size made and to know it made (nearly) $140 million (worldwide) was a pretty fun time.”
John Fischer, the executive director of “Uncle Drew,” said Longino was able to take script critiques from the movie’s director, producers, studio and actors, among others, and “roll with the punches.”
“Jay writes great characters with humor and charm, but in my mind he's the only person who could have written the ‘Uncle Drew’ movie because he has real passion and love for the authenticity of basketball and what Drew stands for as a character,” Fischer said. “One of the nicest compliments we've gotten about the film from critics and audiences is how unexpectedly heartfelt and genuine the movie is. Everyone who worked on their film gave it their all and everyone had something specific to contribute, but I credit Jay with giving us that foundation upon which everything else could be built.”
Hunter said Longino’s success “is a good story” for Westminster, whose graduates include actors Brian Baumgartner, Tom Gissendanner, Ed Helms and Van Zeiler.
Longino said “Uncle Drew” should inspire people to dream big.
“I think we’re all capable of more than we think we are,” he said. “Age and size and all of that stuff doesn’t matter. Dream your dreams, take your shot and see what happens.”