Lil Rel Howery in Uncle Drew
via Lionsgate Pictures

What do you get when you dress basketball players in old face? One incredibly entertaining movie! Uncle Drew stars the hilarious actor and comedian Lil Rel Howery opposite Nick Kroll, and a host of All-Star basketball players like Kyrie Irving, Shaquille O’Neal, and Lisa Leslie. But, did you know Howery has been dreaming of this role since Kyrie first portrayed Uncle Drew six years ago?

The NBA star dressed up as Uncle Drew and schooled all of the “young bloods” on the court in a Pepsi commercial back in 2012, thus birthing the now-iconic character we have today. It was a moment Lil Rel watched on television along with the rest of the world, the only difference was, he spoke the words, “If they ever do the movie, I better be in it!” Call it good karma, or simply speaking life into existence, either way, the skilled comedian-turned-actor is on the rise and it is by no small feat.

Years later, Lil Rel got a call from the producer, who was trying to sell him on the idea, but he was already sold even before the meeting. “I’m a huge basketball fan, so to be able to do a movie with these guys is surreal,” he recalled. “I remember just taking a meeting with the producer about this and he was still explaining stuff to me, I’m like, ‘You don’t have to sell this to me, if you want me to do it, I’ll do this movie.’ “

In Uncle Drew, Lil Rel Howery plays the character Dax, a man looking to redeem himself after missing a very important shot at a pivotal point in his life — something we can all relate to, especially Rel. He himself questioned whether or not a career in comedy was in the cards for him, after Diddy’s 2005 series, The Bad Boys of Comedy, decided to go in another direction. “The first season, it felt like everybody and they mama taped that show,” he recounts. “They all was coming back with the Sean John on, and I didn’t get picked. That was almost one of the moments I almost quit. I remember being emotional about it — I left the comedy club, went home and was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ “

Following the disappointing outcome in regards to the show, Lil Rel took a moment to center himself. He ultimately realized he had been given a gift, and although not everyone immediately saw it, they would in due time. “I remember calming down and I remember praying about it that night,” he explained. “I woke up, that’s when I got an email from Jamie Foxx’s ‘Laffapalooza’. They had me on new faces, and I didn’t even submit that year. I was like, ‘Is this email spam or something?’ That same day was the day NBC does this ‘NBC Stand-Up For Diversity’ program, and I made it all the way to the finals against all the veteran comics. They had Deon Cole and Deray — I went against all those dudes. That was a crazy day, and I was like, ‘I guess I’m going to be okay, and you bounce back.’ That’s what’s so interesting about the movie. For me, God was Uncle Drew — so that’s who was in my ear (God). The way Drew talks to Dax, it’s that way — It’s like, ‘Naw, you got this.’ “

In addition to making an attempting at redemption, Dax lives by the mantra, “Those who can’t (or won’t) do, teach.” Luckily, Lil Rel could relate to this character more than he even knew at the time. As a teenager, he gathered local youth to form a basketball team he would coach, but never knew just how involved the game would get. “I haven’t told this story at all to people, but there was a time that I would coach teams,” Rel reminisces. “This is a true story, I probably should write this as a movie. I was like 15 and I had a team that almost beat the dope dealer’s team. The drug dealers used to recruit because they could pay for the best players, so all I did was get all the nice kids — I went to their parents and was like, ‘Can they play on my team?’ ” Then, an interesting turn of events gave the team hope that they might walk away from the game heroes. The nephew of one of the dealer’s joined his team. “He quit their team and came to play with me. It was such a big deal, it was like an Above the Rim summer,” said Rel.

Although his team, which now included one of the dealer’s nephew’s, almost won the game, one slick move reminded them of who they were playing against. “We almost won, but they cheated and I left it alone,” he laughed.

Some roles require extensive research and soul searching to channel an inner emotion in order to truly capture a character. Others embody a piece of reality that ultimately helps the actor connect on an even deeper level, the only thing is, you never know which part of yourself will need to be tapped. Conjuring up such accounts can leave the artist with fresh memories of a painful past, or in the case of Lil Rel, a hilarious story to recall from your youth.

Outside of the inspiration, one of the highlights of the filming process for Rel was seeing NBA legends in their element during live action scenes. To witness Reggie Miller sink 3-pointers or Shaq dominating the paint was surreal for the actor-comedian. “You can’t guard this man!” he said with a laugh, referencing Shaq’s size. “I can imagine how tired everybody was that had to stick this dude for 48 minutes of a basketball game. How do you guard him?”

Uncle Drew is filled with hilarious moments, and a storyline with heart that will keep you engaged all the way through. It hits theaters June 29.