The Forgotten Basketball Movie

Kurt —  March 1, 2007

While watching Jesus Shuttlesworth play the Clippers last night, and thinking about his movie career, it dawned on me that one hoops movie I always enjoyed I haven’t seen in a very long time:

Blue Chips.

For those yet to catch this melodrama (it’s a preachy film) the plot is pretty simple: Nick Nolte is a college hoops coach who is loosing too many games so he starts to do what “all the other schools are doing” and paying players under the table. Those players are Shaquille O’Neal and “Penny” Hardaway, back when they were young and athletic. The list of cameos in the film is impressive: Bobby Knight, Jerry Tarkanian, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, Marcus Johnson, Dick Vitale, Bobby Hurley, Jim Boeheim, Louis Gossett, Jr. and a bunch of others.

It got indifferent shrugs from critics but it worked on a few levels for me — not the least of those being unintentional comedy. In one scene it is Tarkanian most concerned with a recruit’s grades and ability to do well in college. Then there’s the athletes turned actors. We’ve seen Shaq “act” and Penny may actually be worse. In fact, all the athletes were just painful-in-a-funny-way to watch on screen, hitting their marks and saying their lines with all the grace of a porn actor waiting to get to the action.

But Nolte was pretty good, and I remember being surprised that Cousy (as the schools AD) was good, plus he can act and sink free throws at the same time. The basketball scenes were really good (as I recall), with Shaq coming off as the unstoppable force (this is back in 1994, when he was an unstoppable force). There just weren’t many of them.

I remember Blue Chips as a classic case of a film that was over-hyped and never lived up to expectations. I’d forgotten (until I looked at the IMDB page today) that the writer was Ron Shelton (Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump) and the director was William Friedkin (he Exorcist and The French Connection). There were great basketball players all over the court. It could/should have been an “A” but instead it was a “B,” and because of that felt like a “C.”

All that said this movie wasn’t bad. Nolte throws some classic frustrated-coach tantrums in the locker room. The message about money in college sports is accurate, even if this film wields it like a sledgehammer.

And for all the cheesiness I kind of miss it. I guess it goes on the NetFlix list.