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Let Us Now Praise Whoopi Goldberg’s ‘Eddie,’ a Love Letter to the ’90s Knicks

We talked with the director, Steve Rash, about what he calls his "most interesting and least successful" movie.

(PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Permut Presentations, Island Pictures, Hollywood Pictures / Library of Congress)

The 1996 film "Eddie," starring Whoopi Goldberg as a superfan-turned-head coach of the Knicks, opens with an aerial shot through Manhattan. As Coolio's "It's All the Way Live (Now)" bumps, a font that almost resembles that of the Knicks logo spells out the names of six screenwriters, multiple Oscar nominees, and a delightful assortment of 1990s NBA Guys. "Make the fast break down the FDR to the Long Island Expressway," Goldberg's Eddie, a limo dispatcher, instructs a driver, right before we see a limousine make its way through the outer boroughs, set to the tune of classic WFAN jingles. Within minutes, "Eddie" has localized its audience—and pinpointed the Knicks as the animating force of the metropolis.

Released six months before "Space Jam," "Eddie" is only slightly less loony. The film attempted to ride a wave of successful, semi-fantastical sports comedies, but it flopped financially and critically. 

Yet as a snapshot of New York City during a particular time and place—and one that captures basketball's role at its epicenter—"Eddie" scores from all three levels. Rarely is an exterior shot in the movie not jam-packed with either the hustle and bustle or mundanity of city life. Longtime MSG reporter Al Trautwig is deployed for boots-on-the-ground reporting, asking New York City fixtures for Knicks takes, including a hard-hat construction worker, Rudy Giuliani (he calls Eddie's promotion "a real breakthrough for the human race"), and Donald Trump ("Hiring Eddie was my idea from the beginning"). 

"If you wanna know the truth then you better get the scoop," Coolio raps in his song. On that advice, I sought out the director, Steve Rash, who was confounded by my curiosity about his, as he put it, "most interesting and least successful" movie. We discussed how the film created its New York vibe, Whoopi bringing her A-game, and that Donald Trump cameo. 

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hell Gate: You recently rewatched "Eddie." What was your reaction?

I was surprised at how good the basketball action was. Frankly, most of the rest of the movie, I didn't care much for.

How did you shoot the basketball scenes?

I'm surprised that we pulled it off, because we had so little time with the players. A lot of the basketball action was shot in Charlotte Coliseum. We did use Madison Square Garden for as much as we could, but no basketball action.

My goal was to get down in the game, from the player/coach perspective. That's why I did the movie, because I didn't know of anybody else pulling that off in a feature film situation where you're dealing with 35-millimeter cameras, big-ass cameras. 

You were interested in the movie because of the challenge of shooting it.

There's three helicopter shots that were groundbreaking because the FAA would not permit helicopters to fly in between the buildings unless they had two motors. Because if a single motor failed, they didn't have a way to not have to crash land. And the Hughes helicopter had just come into use. That had two motors and was small enough. So the opening shot, it's not a great shot. I mean, it's got to have credits over it and shit. But it was quite groundbreaking in its day, because we were flying down. If you notice, it ends flying down on Times Square between the buildings. 

When did the script get in front of you?

My guess is, at several different studios, somebody had an idea that this woman would end up coaching a basketball team, and how fun would that be? But from what I know, there was no vision. Whoopi never had a character, really, to play. Had a lesser entertainer and a less brilliant person been in that role, I think the film might've been unreleasable.

It was an interesting mix of NBA players—Mark Jackson, for instance, was no longer on the Knicks in real life. But he's on the Knicks in this movie, as basically an extra. 

They were willing to pay decent money for these guys to show off their athleticism for a minute.

This movie came out when the Knicks were great. It feels like a movie about the Knicks being dilapidated would've played better in 2004.

I can give you a two-word answer about how the world responded to that: box office.

How did you deal with the reception?

It was one of those movies that had lots of problems at every level. Whoopi was battling with the studio. She just had enormous anger against the studio for not following through with what they had promised with "Sister Act 2." And "Eddie" was fulfilling the deal. 

She's great in that scene with Frank Langella, who plays the team owner, on the roof, when she tells him off for threatening to move the team. As she put it, "You own a lot of things, Bill, but you don't own the Knicks. New York own the Knicks!"

She's talking to the studio.

What's the story behind "It's All the Way Live (Now)," the lead single of the soundtrack? That's kind of a good song.

I don't agree. I wanted something that was "New York."

The movie is seasoned with '90s New York energy and iconography. 

I would give a lot of the credit to the production crew. The wardrobe, the set design [by Roberta J. Holinko, of "Brown Sugar" and "The Devil's Advocate"], the second unit. The exterior shots of New York would've been almost all second unit. Ron Bozman was the second unit director. Great, great, great production. It was a professional bunch. They knew what they were doing.

Do you remember any intentionality about conveying the Knicks's centrality to New York City?

Oh, absolutely. It's one of the reasons I got involved in the first place. For decades, I worked out of New York—Second Avenue, like 58th or so—and drove across town almost every day. So, I felt like New York was my creative home. However, I had done all my film work in California. This was the first time I had an opportunity to work in New York.

New York is a really strange place. It's a vertical world. It's like a tilt on the axis.

In "Eddie," it really does feel like the Knicks, the basketball, and the story are part of the fabric of the city. I'm thinking especially of the scene going to the playground with Malik Sealy and Anthony Mason, Gary Payton, John Starks, Herb Williams.

The choice of that location was out of my history in the '80s and '90s. That playground was one of the places that I loved to stop and watch the locals play basketball. And they were amazingly good. 

I thought that was an essential part of what made the Knicks—back in those days, players didn't change cities so often. The players were more representative of the fans than they are today. That needed to be a part of that story, because a lot of the players from the Knicks before my time came off those playgrounds.

The Trump cameo.

We're not talking about Trump.

Do you regret that he's in a movie that you made?

Well, let's put it that way: He was unsuccessful. I only spent a half hour with him and I don't remember him at all. I should make a comment. I'm not making any comment. If by some miracle he's out of the picture in terms of being the president, then I'll tell you the story.

There's a "30 for 30" on “Mike and the Mad Dog,” which perfectly captures drive-time radio in the mid-'90s. "Eddie" has Chris Berman playing the radio blowhard.

Chris was good. And Marv Albert.

You have Marv criticizing the Knicks, which he ended up getting fired for in real life.

I was a bad influence.

Do you think the movie's funny?

No. I'm trying to think of any of it that I find funny. I did laugh once. I'm trying to remember now what it was. 

Lisa Ann Walter, who plays her friend Claudine, has a great line that's basically a precursor to her "Abbott Elementary" character—"One phone call to Staten Island, ba-da-bing! You know what I’m talking about!" she yells at a fellow fan.

What a wonderfully talented actor. But she was so wasted in that movie. Like any other movie, you shoot a bunch, and the story changed, and so there were bit characters. There was stuff that got left out. There were characters written around the people in the stands.

You got Dennis Farina, at least. You told me you fought to shoot in Staten Island, Queens, the Bronx, and Harlem. What was important about trying to shoot in the outer boroughs?

Because they're all involved with the Knicks. It's not a Manhattan thing. It's a New York thing. I just wanted to make sure that it didn't look like the Knicks are skyscrapers. They're not. They're a part of the real world.

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