College basketball assistant coach Jimmy Dolan (Kevin Bacon) is looking for a new star for his team. Watching a video of the inhabitants of Winabi, a small Kenyan village, he is impressed by the skills of Saleh Wintambuh (Charles Gitonga Maina). Jimmy travels to Winabi to recruit Saleh, but there's a problem: Saleh is the only son of Urudu (Winston Ntshona), the chief of the village, making him next in line for leadership. And the Winabi can't afford to lose him, because corrupt businessman Nyaga (Mabuthu "Kid" Sithole) wants the copper deposits in the Winabi's land, and has been stealing cattle in an attempt to drive them out of their village.
The Air Up There contains examples of:
- Agitated Item Stomping: Nyaga throws his baseball cap down and stomps on it when he's displeased with how the basketball game is going.
- Animal Stampede: Nyaga's goons ride into the village on motorcycles to set most of the houses on fire and start a cattle stampede, which charges into the wedding of Saleh's sister Beisa (Miriam Owiti), forcing everyone to flee.
- The Bet: Nyaga agrees to a basketball game between the Mingori Pistons and the Winabi team. The Winabi bet all their land against the cattle stolen by Nyaga, as well as an agreement in front of the army commander that he will leave them alone forever.
- Career-Ending Injury: Jimmy was a college basketball star until he blew out his knee. Now he has to wear a leg brace. He still wears his championship ring from 1981 everywhere.
- Climb, Slip, Hang, Climb: Happens to Jimmy twice while climbing a mountain as part of his initiation. First his foot slips on a rock, and he hangs on by his fingertips until he manages to get his footing again. Later he grabs onto a sapling, which tears loose, sending him plummeting a good ten feet until he manages to grab on again.
- Dedication: "This is for Jake," presumably referring to Paul Michael Glaser's son.
- Down to the Last Play: The score is 45 to 46. Saleh scores the winning shot seconds before time runs out.
- Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Saleh would like to go to college in America and someday join the NBA, but his father forbids it. At least until Halawi is returned to the fold.
- Fun with Foreign Languages: On the way to Winabi, Jimmy's fellow bus passengers take advantage of the fact that he doesn't understand Swahili.Man: You are stupider than you are white.
Jimmy: Thank you. Thank you very much.
- Groin Attack: One of the Pistons touches Beisa's breast. She retaliates by throwing the basketball at his crotch.
- Handshake Refusal: While Jimmy is going to the bathroom in the bushes, a warthog charges. Saleh kills the warthog with a spear. Jimmy extends his hand in gratitude, but Saleh doesn't take it because Jimmy has just used the hand to wipe his butt with leaves.
- I Have No Son!: Saleh wasn't always an only son. His older brother Halawi (Nigel Miguel) believed that Nyaga was the future and tried to make a deal with him behind his father's back. When Urudu found out, he banished him. Now Halawi works for Nyaga while his parents pretend he doesn't exist. He is accepted back into the family after he turns on Nyaga and joins the Winabi basketball team.
- Initiation Ceremony: The Winabi initiation has two parts. The first involves climbing a mountain. The second is a proper ceremony in which the character has a scar cut into his lower stomach with a knife.
- Is the Answer to This Question "Yes"?: Jimmy asks Saleh is Halawi can play basketball. Halawi answers, "Does a zebra have stripes?"
- It's All Junk: Jimmy throws his championship ring off the mountain.
- Lightbulb Joke: The Winabi are the subject of many jokes by the rest of Kenya, including a cow joke:Q: How many Winabi does it take to milk a cow?
A: Twenty. One to hold the udder, and nineteen to lift it up and down.
- Shoot the Television: Urudu gets partial revenge for the raid on Winabi by shooting Nyaga's thirty-two-inch TV set with remote.
- Special Thanks: "Deep gratitude to the wonderful Samburu extras from Maralal, Kenya for their kindness, enthusiasm and hard work."
- Team Hand-Stack: The Winabi players stack their hands, then pump their fists in the air and yell, "Naftalanja!"
- Title Drop: Jimmy's instructions for the initiation ritual are "Follow the river to a wall of wood, face the sunrise and look to the air up there."
- Title In: After Jimmy arrives in Africa, there's a caption saying, "Northern Frontier District - Kenya."
- Tyrannical Town Tycoon: Nyaga all but owns the small town of Mingori, and freely steals from the inhabitants.