Twenty-four years ago, Nick Kroll was one of thousands of New Yorkers packed into Madison Square Garden watching Reggie Miller taunt Spike Lee on the way to ripping the hearts out of Knicks fans as he carried the Pacers past the hometown team. Fast-forward to the 40-year-old actor finding himself on the same court as his childhood nemesis, costarring in Uncle Drew and, ironically, playing a character named Mookie — the name of Lee’s character in Do the Right Thing.
“If they do the Spike Lee story, I’d like to be considered,” Kroll jokes. “The whole thing was surreal, to be able to talk smack to Reggie Miller and be like, ‘I’m still not over the fact that you just lit up the Knicks when I was a child and nothing was more important to me than the Knicks getting to the Finals.’”
For Kroll, it didn’t take long to decide that it was a slam dunk to play the bad guy in the new comedy, which features NBA and WNBA veterans Kyrie Irving, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, and Miller as a team of elderly ballers reuniting for one last run.
“How could I not go be the token white guy in a basically all-black movie with NBA legends and WNBA legends who I would theoretically get to play basketball with?” the comedian says with a laugh. “It’s one of those jobs where I think at every age, if I told myself that I would be doing it, every age of me would be psyched. People pay to go to fantasy camp where they can play basketball with pros; I got paid to go to fantasy camp.”
Leading the pros is Irving, the 26-year-old star of the Boston Celtics, who reprises the titular role he originated in a series of Pepsi ads, while Get Out alum Lil Rel Howery stars as Dax, a Foot Locker employee whose best shot at glory is building an elite streetball team to compete at the famous Rucker Park. Standing in his way is Mookie, Dax’s longtime nemesis and rival coach. The role was a first for Kroll on many fronts: working with friends Howery and Tiffany Haddish; chewing more gum than he ever had before (“I was chewing two pieces of Hubba Bubba pink bubble gum at all times,” he says); and playing defense on an NBA champion.
“I might not be NBA legend status, but I was pretty good on my Jewish day school basketball team, so I felt like maybe if things had gone another way I could have ended up in the NBA and not in comedy,” says Kroll, who admits to becoming immediately exhausted when he took the court for the film’s final sequence. “But I did score on Kyrie. I hit a layup that he tried to block and missed it, and then I got real cocky, I might have gotten a little too cocky and was like, ‘I want to guard Kyrie.’”
Kroll was recently recounting his defense prowess on Jimmy Kimmel Live when he crouched down to get in position, only to split his pants wide open.
“You don’t need to see Kimmel, all you need to see is the movie to see what the metaphorical version of me splitting my pants wide open would look like, which is me trying to defend Kyrie,” says Kroll. “I don’t know exactly what I was thinking.… No, I know what I was thinking, which was, ‘I want to try and defend the guy with the best handle in the NBA.’ And I don’t want to spoil the movie, but he did manage to get by me. I played defense against him twice and I didn’t fall down. Everyone was like, ‘Ohhhh, you got destroyed by Kyrie,’ and I was kind of like, ‘I don’t know, man, he didn’t break my ankle and I didn’t fall down.’ It’s all about taking the win that you deserve, and in this case, the fact that Kyrie didn’t break my ankle or make me trip over myself, to me, is a win.”
When he’s not locking down NBA All-Stars, Kroll is doing a little bit of everything, from hosting the Independent Spirit Awards for the second consecutive year to working on season 2 of his animated series Big Mouth to shooting the Nazi-hunting movie Operation Finale with Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. All those projects are a long way from his first big TV break: Cavemen, the short-lived ABC comedy based on the popular GEICO commercials. Now with Uncle Drew, Kroll has been a part of bringing two prosthethic-heavy commercial characters to the screen, and he’s already got a few more in mind.
“I could talk to Shaq to see if we could turn the General into a movie,” he says of the auto insurance company spokesman. “I’m trying to think of other commercials. I don’t know what happened to those hamsters, the Kia hamsters or gerbils — I don’t know what they are. We’ve got to see where they’re at, what’s their story?”
Uncle Drew slams into theaters Friday, while Kia Hamsters/Gerbils does not yet have a release date.