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Dwayne Johnson is Ballin' in Ballers


The Rock channels his unique mix of brains, brawn, and charm into Ballers, HBO’s football buddy-comedy ensemble.

“Go ahead, show him your pinkie,” Johnson jibed.

You kind of “get” that they’re friends when two guys snark at each other like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Mark Wahlberg do.

The place was Miami, the setting for their movie Pain & Gain. Wahlberg showed up for interviews with his hand in an inflatable cast. Not in the best mood, he declined to say what happened. He did lie at first, saying it was a spider bite.

“Nah,” he retracted. “Dwayne will tell you about getting muscles ripped off his pelvis. I was trying to make up an interesting story to compete with his WrestleMania injury.”

     “Go ahead, show him your pinkie,” Johnson jibed.

     “It’s not a pinkie, OK? It’s a knuckle, with serious tendon issues.”

Two things. First, it’s true. WWE fans will tell you The Rock still makes regular WrestleMania appearances. And he did tear a tendon almost completely off his pelvis in a WrestleMania match against John Cena at New York’s MetLife Stadium. To the consternation of all involved, the injury almost led to the cancellation of production of Johnson’s movie Hercules.

Second, the bickering between Wahlberg and Johnson was for show. At the time, they were secretly working out the details of HBO’s Ballers, a football buddy-comedy ensemble that mashes up Entourage with football. Johnson, who also produces, portrays Spencer Strasmore, a retired player who is the de facto leader of a group of fellow athletes, some retired, some still active but with retirement in their sights.

Which brings us to another fact about Dwayne Johnson. Wrestling may be his life (on a par with movies these days), but without football, there would be no Rock. Johnson is, indeed, a retired football player  – though he retired from the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders in his early 20s after a first-season injury (he’d been making $250 a week at the time).

But the game informed his life earlier, when he played for the U.S. national college champion University of Miami Hurricanes – and even earlier than that, when football saved him from a life on the streets.

A few years before the interview with him and Wahlberg in Miami, I’d interviewed Johnson in Honolulu – the setting of yet another of his movies, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. The son of Canadian wrestler Rocky Johnson, Dwayne had grown up in Honolulu and had strong feelings about returning there to film a movie and promote it.

I thought about how fortunate I was to have great parents and a couple of great football coaches who believed in my potential, even when I didn’t.

“It was weird. I kept passing by places where I remembered being arrested,” he said of touring the streets of Oahu’s big city. “It was petty thefts, fighting … nothing big yet, but it could have gone that way. It was a reflective moment for me. I thought about how fortunate I was to have great parents and a couple of great football coaches who believed in my potential, even when I didn’t.”

Later he visited his alma mater, McKinley High, and did something else he loves: work the crowd. “I told the kids that after all these years, it’s amazing to come back and see that the weight room still looks like sh--. And I told everybody to keep up the great work and keep chasing their greatness.”

In wrestling, a sport that rides on putting on a show, Johnson stands above the rest as an entertainer. He’ll do anything for a laugh, including:

  • Wearing a tutu for the movie Tooth Fairy.
  • Playing a flamboyant gay Samoan bodyguard singing “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” in the Get Shorty sequel Be Cool.
  • Doing the “Pec pop of love” in Mysterious Island.
  • Going from Bible-belter to furious coke-inhaler in the course of Pain & Gain.
  • Resurrecting a ’90s picture of himself wearing a fanny pack as a Toronto Sun Sunshine Boy. (He asked me to email it to him when he saw it on my smartphone. It went viral in 24 hours and was featured in a bit on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon the next week.)

Johnson, whose mother was Samoan, credits that side of his family for the playful side of his career. “In the Polynesian culture, they love to sing, they love to dance, they love to have fun, they love their ukulele – which is the most fun instrument on the planet. My family enjoyed themselves and I’m always kind of reaching back to that, even when I’m trying to add dimension to dramatic roles.”

As for Ballers, suffice it to say Johnson’s heart is in it. “I’m practically never bored because I generally am only involved in things I’m passionate about,” he says.

I believe hard work and luck go hand in hand, and you need them both.

“Every day of my life, in some form or fashion, I have a moment of gratitude. I believe hard work and luck go hand in hand, and you need them both. The goal is to always be diverse. Sometimes you hit home runs, sometimes you don’t. But I’m always swinging for the fences.”

A baseball metaphor for a football-themed TV series, but we “get” that, too.

Jim Slotek is a writer and columnist with the Toronto Sun.