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HomeSports‘Let it rain!’: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hollywood’s funniest hoops scene

‘Let it rain!’: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hollywood’s funniest hoops scene

On a cool November day 20 years ago, John Hamburg watched Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver the line and put up a shot on a makeshift basketball court in downtown Los Angeles. The take was fine, but not quite what the director envisioned. He approached the future Academy Award-winning actor.
“Phil, this guy thinks he’s Michael Jordan,” Hamburg said. “When he’s saying, ‘Let it rain!’ you gotta blurt it out.”
This was early in the shooting of “Along Came Polly,” a 2004 romantic comedy about a risk assessment analyst (Ben Stiller) who falls for a former classmate (Jennifer Aniston). The opposites-attract story has nothing to do with sports, yet it contains one of the funniest basketball scenes in film, including a performance by Hoffman that still inspires imitation today.
Hoffman plays Sandy Lyle, a former child star who uses confidence to mask his insecurity. On the basketball court this translates into trash talk and the cringey sound of a jump shot slamming off a metal backboard.
The scene’s intended punch line actually comes later, when Stiller’s character, germaphobe Reuben Feffer, has to guard a sweaty, hairy opponent in a game of two-on-two. But, as he had a knack to do, Hoffman steals the scene long before then. If you ask movie buffs to name Hoffman’s top roles, “Polly” would not come close. But to sports fans, it’s among the first performances that comes to mind.
On the basketball court that day, Hamburg understood why Hoffman seemed hesitant — he was starting to get recognized as one of the great talents of his generation after memorable roles in “Flawless,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Almost Famous.” Hoffman didn’t want to look foolish, but Hamburg also knew the actor liked to be challenged.
“Phil, I promise you, if it doesn’t work, we’ll figure out another way,” Hamburg recalls. “But in my mind, this guy has all the bravado and he thinks he’s the greatest player that this court has ever seen.”
Hoffman gave it another shot. This time he didn’t hold back.
“It’s the first shot in the sequence, and the entire crew burst out laughing,” Hamburg says. “And I think Phil found the character in that moment. I almost barely had to direct him after that because he had just totally found the essence of Sandy Lyle.”
Hoffman, who died in 2014 at age 46 after what was ruled an accidental drug overdose, was a great actor on the basketball court. But that’s not to say he didn’t have athletic skills.
Hoffman’s right-handed jumper isn’t textbook, but he holds his follow-through on release (“OLD SCHOOL!”). During two-on-two action, he backpedals with ease and attacks the basket with aggression (“WHITE CHOCOLATE!”).
Growing up in Fairport, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester, Hoffman played baseball and wrestled. His mother encouraged him to try acting, but Hoffman resisted. “I was like, ‘Mom, I love sports, why would I want to do that?”’ he told Radio Times magazine in 2011. “All the guys I hung out with were jocks. Sport was everything for me. I couldn’t even think about anything else.”
A neck injury suffered during wrestling practice altered his plan and changed his life. According to The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, a doctor told Hoffman’s mother that if Hoffman were his son, he’d never let him play sports again. “He’ll break his neck.”
So Hoffman tried acting.
“He started drama in 10th grade and never looked back,” former classmate and wrestling teammate Dave Garlock wrote in an email to The Athletic. “In either our junior or senior year he played Willy Loman in ‘Death of a Salesman,’ and he was so unbelievably good they basically shut down school for a day. He did three performances for everyone in the school.”
As Hoffman’s career took off, he noticed similarities with the world he left behind. According to Peter Shelley’s book, “Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Life and Work,” Hoffman would doze off before a wrestling match because of anxiety and stress. Before acting on stage, Hoffman often did the same in the dressing room.
“Sporting events are very much like theater,” Hoffman told the New York Times in 2006. “They do the same play, but it’s different every night. There’s both discipline and creativity. There’s visualization. In wrestling, you’re on top and you think, ‘OK, if I hit his arm there, I can get around here,’ and you see yourself do it. Same as acting. They have a goal and they go after it, and out of going after it, their character will be revealed.”
Living in New York, Hoffman was a Knicks fan, often attending games at Madison Square Garden. His favorite movie was “The Bad News Bears,” because it made him feel like he was 10 again, he said. “How that story unfolds, and how adults treat children and children treat adults in that film is really … it’s really appalling!” Hoffman told Tucson Weekly in 2004. “And you still find humor in it, and you also find a lot of drama in it, and both of them work. I just think the movie’s amazing.”
As an actor, Hoffman played mostly serious or eccentric characters — a hospice nurse, a storm chaser, a rock critic. Some of those characters’ stories crossed into sports.
In 2011, Hoffman played Oakland Athletics manager Art Howe in “Moneyball,” a movie about a low-budget baseball team that finds a different way to compete. Leading up to the film’s release, Hoffman said taking the minor role was a no-brainer because of his love for baseball.
In the 2008 film “Doubt,” Hoffman played Father Brendan Flynn. During one scene, he talks with schoolboys in a gymnasium, preaching the importance of having a routine while shooting a free throw.
But “Polly” was his breakout sports moment.
“It’s a role that may not be huge among the cinephiles, but I think among the viewing public many of them would pick it as a signature scene of Phil’s,” says John Baynes, the actor’s former high school English teacher and friend. “Just because it combines the comedy with physicality. He was a very physical actor. Even in ‘Boogie Nights,’ the way he’s kind of using his body as a way of expressing his character. And also, there’s just kind of the crazy, funny aspect of American males and their sports fantasies.”
The scene stemmed from Hamburg’s hardwood experiences. The comedy writer and director grew up in Manhattan as a Knicks fans during the days of Bernard King and Patrick Ewing. During his college years at Brown University, Hamburg recalled playing shirts and skins and getting matched up against the sweatiest guy in the gym. “He was the skin, I was the shirt,” he said.
Hamburg also encountered ballers who talked a game their skills could not match. This is not uncommon in pickup hoops. It’s what makes it so funny. These guys usually are dressed as Hoffman was in “Polly,” red tank over yellow T, gray sweats and black high-tops. The last guy picked but the first guy to fire.
“Making these comedies, you sort of observe everyday life,” Hamburg says. “That’s always the basis of my comedy. I don’t make sci-fi movies. My movies are based on observing regular people going through the day, and there are those people that have this sense that they’re always better than they are. They should not be this confident and nothing will faze them.”
After Hoffman captured the essence of Sandy Lyle, Hamburg had Hoffman and Stiller play two-on-two against actors Edward Conna and Robb Skyler. Conna’s background mostly was in stunts, but he had gotten more work for the simple reason that he also could act.
A former comic, Skyler was there for a different reason. He had heard that “Polly” needed a “large, hairy basketball player.” During his audition, Skyler not only had to show off his basketball skills but also take off his shirt to reveal his hairiness. “You’ve got to be very careful when you ask that in a casting situation,” Hamburg says with a laugh.
On the court, the four mostly just played two-on-two as Hoffman worked his way into character. Most of his dialogue came from the script, but he also ad-libbed.
“It was funny, but we couldn’t laugh,” Conna says.
“You could hear the ball slamming into the backboard,” Skyler says. “It was like thunder, the noise, because he fired it against the backboard so hard.”
The second day of shooting mostly focused on Stiller and Skyler — the germaphobe and the sweaty man. The script called for Skyler to back Stiller into the lane, jumping to shoot, then coming down, his sweaty and hairy chest rubbing flush against Stiller’s face. To make it work, Skyler had to get his chest lathered with a glycerin solution that looked like sweat.
It took 12 takes, Skyler dribbling onto a small trampoline and jumping high enough so he could slide down Stiller’s face. “I had to lean into Ben,” Skyler said. “It was a very tricky shot to shoot.”
“Comedy is very specific,” says Hamburg, whose writing credits include “Meet the Parents,” “Zoolander” and “Night School.” “When you have something in your mind, you know whether it’s working or not. And Ben was so incredible. Even though it was so unpleasant, not because of (Skyler), but just the idea of what we were doing. He knew we had to get it right. He was never like, ‘John, we’re moving on.’ He was a great sport about it.”
(James Devaney / Getty Images)
On “Polly’s” opening night in 2004, Hamburg visited theaters with the movie’s producers and studio executives to gauge audience reaction. They watched for about 30 minutes at each stop.
At one theater, Hamburg was in the aisle and noticed someone leaving to go to the bathroom just before the basketball scene. He stopped the person. “I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, but I really would wait five minutes,” he recalls. “You may want to see this scene first.”
In the basketball lexicon, the phrase “Let it rain” predates “Polly,” although its exact origin is difficult to pinpoint. In the 1994 documentary film “Hoop Dreams,” the father of featured high school player Arthur Agee throws it out several times during a one-on-one game against his son.
“You want to see it rain?” Agee said, taunting, pulling up for a jumper. “Let it rain.”
In a text message, the younger Agee told The Athletic that he first heard the phrase in a Reebok commercial featuring Chicago playground legend Lamar Mundane in the late 1980s. In it, a man is telling friends about the greatest player he had ever seen. “Lamar be rainin’ 30-footers from out of the sky.”
Hoffman and “Polly” gave the phrase a second wind.
Hoffman went on to play more memorable roles. A year after “Polly,” he won an Academy Award for his lead performance in “Capote.” He was a three-time best supporting actor nominee for his work in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Doubt” and “The Master.” “Polly” was hardly the only movie in which he stole a scene.
In July, in honor of what would have been Hoffman’s 55th birthday, Variety published a list of Hoffman’s 15 top film performances. “Polly” didn’t make the list. And maybe it’s better that way. The movie, at least the basketball scene, lives on in other ways. In addition to the social media love, Hamburg has had conversations with people who tell him they yell out “Let it rain!” whenever they play pick-up.
That’s staying power.
“You never know when you make these movies what’s going to stick and what’s not,” Hamburg says. “But I’m very, very grateful that people clicked with the movie, but also with that scene. I really had fun writing it. I had fun shooting it and previewing it, it was just one of those special kind of things in a career.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Kurt Vinion, James Devaney / Getty Images)



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