As the latest in our yearly bout of March Madness nears its final weekend, I find myself amazed at how enthralling these basketball battles are. When I was younger, my year revolved around the comings and goings of different sports seasons. The onset of March Madness meant counting down the days until Selection Sunday and then waiting impatiently for the Thursday when the tournament would actually begin. As I’ve gotten older, the emotional stakes and degree of my attention have waned, but the passion has stayed the same.
I sat glued to my television set on Saturday evening, watching Villanova and Pittsburgh engage in one of the greatest basketball prizefights I have ever seen; these two teams went back and forth over and over again, pushing each other to the limit until a great play as the final moments ticked down sealed the deal for ‘Nova. I’m a Kentucky Wildcats fan through and through, but they missed the tournament this year for the first time in 17 installments (worry not friends of the blue, the dreaded Gillespie is gone and the proven titan Calipari has been brought from lands afar to redeem the program’s former glory), leaving my emotional investment in this tournament at a reading of zilch. But in a way, that makes the tournament more fun; watching ‘Nova and Pitt truly excited me as I was rooting for no one and simply praying that both teams would continue to play at the same level of excellence.
When one team would score to take the lead and the other would follow with a scoreless possession, my spirit would sink. It meant one team could possibly pull away. If you are a true basketball fan, this is what you crave; beyond simply wanting your team to win, you want a great contest, something that excites and siezes your spirit and sometimes breaks your heart. Pro basketball has lost my interest–with players paid ridiculous salaries and scores that often reach 140, the professional game is a three ring circus of big egos and no defense. In the college game, we see kids taking to the floor on all fours to come up with a loose ball, making a sprint for the basket in the final moments, trying desperately to save their team’s possession by chasing an errant pass out of bounds, etc. Pro basketball is the promised land for these kids, an epic terrain where they can shoot without regard and never have to worry about defense. The college game gets their passion, and the pro game is where they sell their skills as mercenaries.
You are probably sitting here asking yourself, is he ever going to relate this back to movies? Is this ESPN.com? Don’t worry. I’m getting there. There is an inherent drama to the college game, and it doesn’t just come from the bruising nature of the contests but often from the dilemma of keeping the innocence of college students and the decadent compromises of the professional world separate. Though I’ve extolled the virtues of college basketball, I acknowledge that it is far from perfect and infractions do occur, but it is interesting to ponder why they occur. William Friedkin’s film Blue Chips, released in 1994, is one of the few films to explore the complex terrain of college basketball and engage with its many ethical quandaries.
Most sports movies seem content with portraying a story of a team coming together and winning a rough contest at the end. Blue Chips digs deeper and shows us a team that comes together through the machinations of business rather than the quirks of character. When the big game happens, we are less concerned about its outcome and more about what in reflects in the soul of our hero, a formerly great coach made to cross an ethical line in order to reclaim his success.
The coach is played by Nick Nolte in one of those performances that is gruff and irascible on the surface, but is slow to reveal the immense complexity it possesses. His name is Bell, and his basketball career is currently on the rocks at Western University (obviously meant to represent UCLA, as the film is set in Los Angeles and Western shares colors with the Bruins). Having won two national titles in the late eighties, expectations are high, but he has just suffered his first losing season with a mediocre team.
Bell is one of those explosively short-tempered coaches you often see shouting uncontrollably at referees. Obviously modeled after the cartoonishly volatile Bobby Knight (who appears in the film as an opposing coach), Bell puts his frustration out on the court for everyone to see, often showcasing it embarassingly (he kicks a basketball into the stands in an early game) for his program. His athletic director (former NBA great Bob Cousy) seems reasonable enough, but he’s getting heat from the alumni to pull the plug on Bell who they claim has lost the touch.
Bell becomes determined to change his team’s fortunes via hot recruits. The film follows him across the country as he encounters one great prospect after another: Butch McCrae (Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway), an explosive point guard from Chicago, Ricky Roe (Matt Nover), a farmboy sharpshooter from French Lick, Indiana (the home of Larry Bird), and Neon Bodeaux (Shaquille O’Neal), a dim but intimidating center from the sticks of Louisianna. Bell courts the three players and, within collegiate rules, tries to secure their committment. Friedkin carefully sets up Bell’s ethical inflexibility, but it soon becomes challenged–the kids want money and other amenities to play for him.
Friedkin, working from a screenplay by the great Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump) is smart to set Bell up as a man of integrity in danger of being swallowed by wolves. His scruples are an anomally in the world of shady alumni, represented in the film by the devilishly persuasive Happy (the late, great J.T. Walsh), a rich socialite always with a young philly on his arm. He has already corrupted Western’s football team and would do the same to basketball if it weren’t for Bell. Happy could exist as an easy villain, but his rhetoric about paying players makes some twisted sense: Bell gets money for coaching, money for T.V. exposure, money for making his team wear a specific type of sports shoe. The athletic program generates millions of dollars off of their backs. What do the players get? Very little coupled with not enough.
Friedkin and Shelton navigate Bell’s eventual compromise not as a moment of shock but inevitablity–he simply won’t be able to reattain his former glory if he doesn’t bend the rules at least a little bit. The film’s screenplay is extremely perceptive about social realities that feed into the world of college basketball; Butch, well played by Hardaway, is revealed as living in a small apartment with his mother (Alfre Woodard), two sisters, and grandmother. Woodard is upfront with Bell about wanting money for her son’s committment. Looking at their situation, it isn’t hard to understand why.
Roe is portrayed in a similar way–with a father (Jim Beaver) that runs a small farm and tells Bell that he will require a new tractor if his son will attend Western. When Roe sits down to ask Bell for $30,000, he adopts an air of casual, business-like formality–he seems genuinely surprised when Bell explodes at the request. Friedkin and Shelton’s point is clear: in a world where the college sport has become corrupted by favors, under the table dealings, and compromises, figures like Bell are in the minority.
Bell’s compromise seems to be understood better by everyone around him than it is by him, and the audience sympathizes; as a coach, your sole obligation is to win, and in order to do this, you need great players. In a way, the existence of a system that values winning almost makes compromise inevitable as players realize their great value to a program and exploit it. But as Happy points out, they deserve it in some ways and, in the case of a kid like Butch, need the assistance.
The acting in the film explores these complexities effectively. It is easy to forget that Nolte is one of our most talented character actors, having been largely disregarded over the years because of problems in his personal life. Blue Chips is one of his finest moments as he takes Bell from the realm of comedy as a cartoonishly angry coach to a place of tragic gravitas, battered and disillusioned by his compromise. Mary McDonnell, playing his ex-wife, is his conscience. A pre-school teacher who often tutors Bell’s players, we sense that she is still in love with him but was driven away by his obsession with success. When he commits his violation, she understands its magnitude before he does, sensing how it will damage his character. And J.T. Walsh, such a treasure as a character actor, beautifully melds philosophies of depravity and reason–a true politician to the end.
In a sports film that is this introspective, the actual sport in it becomes an afterthought, but Friedkin makes the basketball in the film genuinely thrilling. The decision to cast real basketball stars was an inspired one–it gives him the freedom to take the games to insane heights. Sound design is a key element in them. An early scene shows Friedkin pumping up the sound behind a dunk, lowering and heightening crowd noise at strange moments, letting a made basket linger ambiently on the soundtrack for a few moments after. In the final game, he uses these methods to show Bell unravelling; trapped with a team he had to sell his soul for, the talent we see on the court registers as the emotional price he will have to pay.
Blue Chips is interesting because it is one of the few sports movies that seems curious about the dynamics of its subject. Most sports films go the formulaic route, but I was impressed by how this film mined for deeper material. In so doing, it explores the ethical conundrums that exist in the college game–something that seems to ferment with so much passion but possesses real world problems that threaten to compromise it.