A Shaq is Born

Truly satisfying basketball movies are rarer than celibate NBA players. From Drive, He Said to White Men Can't Jump, Chu Chu and the Philly Flash to Hoosiers, the essence of the game has eluded Hollywood's grasp. It's not just the fact that removing the elements of competition and unpredictability takes all the fun out of it. After all, the Harlem Globetrotters have been popular for decades, and when was the last time the Washington Generals gave them a game? With the controlled violence of the slam dunk and the parabolic beauty of the three-point shot, the modern game would appear rife with opportunities to create stirring visuals of great plays that might be appreciated for their aesthetics as much as their usefulness in winning ballgames.

As basketball movies go, William Friedkin's and Ron Shelton's Blue Chips doesn't shatter any genre backboards, but it also doesn't commit any flagrant fouls. It comes the closest of any movie in recent memory to capturing the fluid beauty and otherworldly athleticism that mark the game of big-time roundball. That doesn't make it a great film, or even a very good one, but at least they got the action sequences right. Director Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and screenwriter Shelton (Bull Durham, White Men Can't Jump) are lifelong hoops aficionados, and they have loaded their cast with enough ringers to give the Dream Team a run for its money. All of the parts for ballplayers were filled with ballplayers who could act, rather than actors who could play ball, from the blue chippers of the title -- Shaquille O'Neal, Matt Nover, and Anfernee Hardaway -- to their cinematic opponents like Bobby Hurley, Calbert Cheaney, Greg Graham, and Chris Mills. Even Celtics legend Bob Cousy gets into the act as a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil athletic director. None of the players' acting ability is going to give De Niro nightmares, but neither are there any scrubs in the lot.

In addition to the players, a supplemental dose of realism was provided by the inclusion of college basketball icons like Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, Jerry Tarkanian, and the Big Kahuna himself, Bobby Knight. Friedkin and Shelton were going for authenticity, and they got it, right down to a breathless Dick Vitale spewing hyperbole at the opening tip of the film's Big Game. (You had to know it would all boil down to a Big Game, didn't you?)

Unfortunately, in their zeal to get the basketball footage right, the writer and director let a predictable, overwrought plot slip through. Watching Blue Chips is like playing straight poker with someone who makes no attempt to shield his hand. You know exactly what cards he's holding. In this case, you can guess the whole story from a glimpse of the trailer. A coach tries to recruit a trio of stud players in the face of intense and unscrupulous competition. Will he cave in to pressure from the evil alumni booster, or will he stick to the moral high ground and jeopardize his chances of reaching the Final Four, the NCAA basketball coach's equivalent of the Promised Land?

Not only is the story line obvious, a b-ball version of 1993's The Program, but every character in the movie is patterned closely after a real-life hoop legend. Nick Nolte does a commendable Bobby Knight imitation, complete with chair-tossing, ref-baiting, and locker-room tantrums. When, in the Big Game, Nolte's character leads his fictitious Western University Dolphins against an Indiana University team coached by the real Bobby Knight, it's like watching that Saturday Night Live skit where Eddie Murphy did his Stevie Wonder impression for Stevie Wonder. (Hard-core fans are in for another shock here as well -- the sight of one-time Duke star Bobby Hurley in an Indiana uniform. The footage was shot well before his recent near-fatal car crash.)

Former Indiana forward Nover plays a Larry Bird clone. In case you miss the parallels, the real-life Bird has a cameo. The off-the-court highlight of the film is a scene in which Nover and Bird are feted in a parade through French Lick, Indiana. The convertible on which they are seated rolls slowly past a gaggle of recruit-hungry coaches like Syracuse's Boeheim and recently deposed UNLV field general Tarkanian. Smirking triumphantly at the wheel of the car is -- you guessed it -- Nolte.

Ironically, on-screen teammates Hardaway and O'Neal are NBA teammates as well for the Orlando Magic. In the movie Hardaway portrays a six-foot-nine point guard modeled after a different Magic A Magic Johnson, the charismatic ex-L.A. Laker. And the Shaq's character is based on, well, the Shaq.

It's a shame Blue Chips wastes so much energy on the overinflated corruption-in-college-sports theme. Top collegiate athletes are well-paid mercenaries. It's common knowledge. Shelton's strength is his ironic humor. One such scene that evinces his dry wit involves noted rules-bender Tark, playing himself, pooh-poohing a prospect's chances because the player might not have the right stuff academically. The film could have used more of that tongue-in-cheek attitude.

The corruption angle shifts the focus of the film to an issue that was more topical twenty years ago. But people aren't going to Blue Chips to view an expose on recruiting violations. They're going to watch the big man in action. Any coach could have told the filmmakers that when you've got a franchise player like Shaq on your team, you put the ball in his hands as often as possible. They could also have avoided the lame subplots involving Nolte's impossibly loyal ex-wife and the muckraking reporter who wants to nail the coach for past transgressions. That self-righteous horse manure just clogs up the lane. Besides, where does Hollywood get off lecturing anyone about ethics? It's as credible as a Hunter Thompson dissertation on temperance.

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