D. Charles Martin Smith (1997)
with Michael Jeter, Kevin Zegers, Wendy Makkena, Bill Cobbs
The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh
D. Gilbert Moses (1979)
with Julius Erving, James Bond III, Flip Wilson, Jonathan Winters, Stockard Channing, Meadowlark Lemon
Long Shots: The Life and Times of the ABA
D. Steven Stern, George Roy (1997)
D. Steve James (1994)
As NBA players and owners still squabble over money, fans are undoubtedly disgusted. But while the pros are on temporary hiatus, sports nuts can still relish college ball, or better yet, head to the video store for hoops flicks. Here's just a small sample of the basketball films that might cure your basketball jones.
A basketball-playing dog? The premise of Air Bud is dumb enough, but the creative folks at Disney probably figured that plenty of tykes would eat this story up (which is apparently the case, considering the recent sequel). As the film opens, we meet Bud, an excruciatingly cute golden retriever who is owned by an abusive, white trash party clown (Jeter). After upstaging his hateful owner for the last time, he finds himself about to be left at the dog pound. Luckily for Bud, he ends up meeting Josh (Zegers), a maladjusted new kid in town. Before long, the two discover they share a love for basketball (Bud can bop the ball through the net with his nose), which only means good things for the local elementary school hoops team. The elements are right (cute kid, adorable dog, wise old coach, screwball villain), but the execution is handled at a snail's pace. Even more frustrating is the gaggle of characters with convoluted past histories, who often overshadow the film's title character. At times, its messages of teamwork and the love of the game are refreshing, but in the end, the movie is too sugary for its own good. Perhaps kids seven and under might be able to appreciate the court antics of sweet-faced Bud, but older siblings and parents might be better off housebreaking the family mutt.
Even more harebrained than Air Bud is The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, a freakish 1979 film about astrology and basketball. Julius "Doctor J" Erving stars as Moses Gutherie, a member of the Pittsburgh Pythons, a floundering pro basketball team. Team waterboy and neo-astrologist Tyrone (played by an annoying James Bond III) devises a plan to find players who share the same zodiac sign as Gutherie. Soon a motley crew of slam-dunking Pisces are assembled and begin to dominate the league. With a new name (the Pittsburgh Pisces) and new uniforms, the bumbling franchise is transformed into a Cinderella team on the rise. The film has an assortment of familiar faces and a disco-enhanced score to fuel its game sequences. Panned by critics at the time of its release, the film is bona fide camp by today's standards. Despite its crazy theme and predictable outcome, there is a kitschy allure to the film. Maybe it's the afros, maybe it's the new-age lingo rendered by Bond, or maybe it's the refrain from the title track ("Hey, have you heard? It's the Fish That Saved Pittsburgh! Whoa-oa-oa!"), there's something too absurd here to be ignored. Far from high-quality stuff, this film is enjoyable in its goofy reflections of the free-spirited, fad-driven decade known as the Seventies.
Like Fish, this HBO Sports documentary captures the funkiness of the Seventies with its look back at the American Basketball Association. A renegade pro league on a shoestring budget, the ABA was an entity originally comprised of NBA rejects, but later developed some of the game's all-time greats (Dr J, George Gervin). Playing with its trademark red, white and blue ball, the league weathered tough times, but altered the face of pro hoops with its freewheeling style of play and novel innovations (the three-point shot, slamdunk contest). If you don't remember some of its staple teams (Anaheim Amigos, Spirits of St. Louis), welcome to the club. With anecdotes from various players, coaches, and announcers as well as crisp highlight reels (including a shaggy Willie Nelson crooning the national anthem at an All-Star game), Long Shots is a short yet endearing look at a league that had its heart in the right place, but not enough cash to fulfill its goals.
Snubbed from the Oscars, but embraced by fans and critics, Hoop Dreams is an engaging documentary about two inner city kids' athletic aspirations. The two teens, Arthur Agee and William Gates, are residents of Chicago's impoverished Cabrini-Green housing district. Both are promising hoopsters who are discovered by a talent scout and inserted into a predominately white, suburban Catholic high school. The lengthy film follows their trials and triumphs during the four years that they're in school. But high school and hoops are just part of the film's focus. Their respective family lives become intensified by their environment and by the passions that propel them towards separate destinies as players and men. There are chunks of real-life irony throughout the film and a slew of fascinating faces integral to both Gates' and Agee's stories. Engrossing to say the least and brilliantly constructed by the filmmakers, Hoop Dreams is a passionate film depicting youthful ambition, heartbreak, and growth within the realm of high-school basketball. -- Mike Emery