Sportsflicks: Blue Chips, Or How Nick Nolte Learned To Stop Caring And Be John Calipari

Twenty years after its release, William Friedkin's college basketball opus is a lot less convincing and no less watchable.
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Twenty years ago this week, one of the most revered college basketball movies of all time was released. It mostly stinks, and is remarkably easy to watch.

Blue Chips is not a great movie, and in many ways it’s hardly a movie at all. It’s written by an off-peak Ron Shelton, far closer to his Play It To The Bone dotage than his Bull Durham prime. It was directed by an even-further-off-peak William Friedkin, two decades removed from The Exorcist and The French Connection, and stuck squarely in the trough between two separate comeback periods. It’s also a marketing tool for then-burgeoning NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, who was at the time looking to extend his brand beyond third-tier athletic equipment, fourth-tier rap, and fifth-tier video games. There’s more to it than that, but not that much more.

And yet, even today, Blue Chips has some sort of cult following, thanks in large part to one of the greatest movie posters of all time. Some credit is also due to the implicit endorsement of rapper Action Bronson, who named two of his mixtapes after the film. A partial list of people that appear in the movie includes Nick Nolte, Bob Cousy, Mary McDonnell, Bobby Knight, Rex Walters, Anfernee Hardaway, Ed O’Neill, Dick Vitale, Alfre Woodard, Bobby Hurley, J.T. Walsh and Calbert Cheaney. And yet it still isn’t much good. That, in the end, may be Blue Chips’ greatest achievement.

***

Blue Chips basically anticipates John Calipari’s career trajectory, at least insofar as it’s about a bunch of one-and-done players bringing a once-great program back to near-greatness, only to be brought down by recruiting scandal after recruiting scandal. The Western University Dolphins have just had their first losing season in coach Pete Bell’s long and wildly successful career. Only a freshmen class full of early 90’s college superstars, including Shaq, Hardaway, and, um, Indiana semi-legend Matt Nover, can revive the team. And only bribery and academic fraud can solve their own personal problems, and ensure that they’ll sign on with the Dolphins.

Nick Nolte is Pete Bell, which is to say he's Bobby Knight as John Calipari as interpreted by a very frazzled bag of whiskey. Nolte’s character, not to mention the actual character within Nick Nolte, has deeper issues, as well as a stylish Jerry Glanville haircut and an aqua-blue sweater. Instead of throwing chairs in response to a bad call, Bell punts a basketball right into the Dolphin Dome's coffin corner. At the end, Nolte/Bell is better at being (and beating) Knight than being Calipari, who kept finding ways and teams to lead to since-vacated Final Fours. Bell was always complicit in bending the rules, but it took breaking them to set him free. If that were the movie’s triumphant narrative, or tagline even, it would’ve been a lot more interesting.

Although there was, of course, always The Shaq Factor. The players kinda sorta acquit themselves in their acting.  Shaquille O’Neal was never going to be the film sensation he was billed as at the time, but his presence certainly made me watch the film with my dad on VHS as a kid, which was probably something like the point. Shaq’s Neon Boudeaux is both a Desert Storm veteran and a manchild who flunked the SATs by (reportedly) flubbing his name. He is believable in the sense that he is exactly the size of Shaquille O’Neal.

As Butch McRae, Penny Hardaway has a good cast literally supporting him; Alfre Woodard plays his mom and Lou Gossett, Jr. plays his Catholic school principal/agent. The aforementioned Matt Nover recites his lines as if he’s been told they’re just rehearsing. His character, Ricky Roe, is supposedly the next Larry Bird, which is believable in the sense that I could be the next Joe Flacco because I grew up within seven blocks of him. Anthony C. Hall, who is neither Anthony Michael Hall nor Michael C. Hall, is Tony, a point-shaving baby daddy who can barely pass a sham college course on television. To be fair, television has improved greatly since 1994.

Bob Cousy, who looks almost exactly like Coach Eric Taylor here, plays Western's athletic director. Cousy seems to have been cast only because he could still make a handful of consecutive free throws and talk in a delightfully old-style Queens accent, and he delivers on that front. 1990's film icon Mary McDonnell plays Nolte's ex-wife, an elementary school teacher. Later on she gets Shaquille O'Neal to say the password needed to get into Ben Kingsley's mob front toy factory. Or doesn’t, but you should probably watch Sneakers if you haven’t already.

Expired Trademark State, um, I mean Texas Western, is coached by Rick Pitino, who has a surprising amount of monologue. Ed O’Neill plays the boogeyman reporter hot on Bell’s trail; we know he’s evil because he’s looking for “facts”, and because he has a Chicago Sting pennant on his office wall. Rick Fox, Rodney Rodgers and a plethora of contemporary basketball players and future basketball coaches (such as Rex Walters and Matt Painter) appear as window dressing.

It's a damned shame we lost J.T. Walsh only a few years after Blue Chips was filmed. So many more asshole booster roles were his for the taking; Walsh’s purported fluency in German meant he could've played a Nazi asshole booster. There isn’t much for him to do in the role of Happy Kuykendahl, although Walsh effortlessly finds a way to inject the right amount of sleaze into it.

So, anyway, Pete Bell builds this awesome freshman class, featuring some of the greatest players in the game (and, once again, Matt Nover), and we see this superteam play only one game. Sure, Western plays and beats Indiana (then as now an actual basketball team), and it's kinda refreshing to see a sports movie eschew the "road to the championship" trope. Then again it's also refreshing to see the NBA toy with its Slam Dunk Contest format. Here's hoping James Franco decides to reimagine the lost Shaq/Penny basketball footage like he did with the leather bar scenes cut from Friedkin's Cruising.

Sportsflicks legends abound among the Blue Chips cast. You want Reggie White's friend from Reggie's Prayer?  You got him. The Los Angeles coach from The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh? Fuck yeah. The white kid who beats up the UNC Tar Heel mascot in The Sixth Man? Wikipedia mentions his appearance but IMDB does not confirm. The main antagonist from Little Giants? I haven’t done that movie yet; I’m saving it for next autumn, please stop bugging me about it. And Dick Vitale, who is legally required to be in every college basketball film, also appears.

Blue Chips is, for and despite all those recognizable faces and a few fun performances, finally just an okay movie that should have been a lot better. Less than $10 million was spent on making it, which even by early Clinton administration standards was low budget. The seams show, sometimes in strange ways; the song “Baby Please Don’t Go” goes through three iterations, for instance, until you just want to go, “Please, don’t.” In fact all of the music choices are quite obvious and well-worn, except for the inclusion of “Columbia, Gem Of The Ocean” during a parade scene. That’s one good marching tune.  

Within five years, Spike Lee’s He Got Game surpassed Blue Chips in both quality and cult status, despite the fact that Spike was apparently unable to find a role for Matt Nover. By focusing on a father/son relationship rather than a coach/booster/player triad, Lee managed to make an interesting premise all the more compelling.

Ultimately, Blue Chips is a movie worth your time. That time will mostly be spent laughing at it, and pausing the action to see if that one player actually is Kevin Garnett (no spoilers), but that’s not a bad thing. The exploitation of college athletes is an evergreen topic, and one about which we understand a good deal more now than we did during the Clinton years. It should be addressed in films and in real life more often, and if it could probably be addressed more directly and successfully than it is here, there’s enough basketball and growling Nolte to put it over. That reboot just needs to be updated enough so a course on television is something not a punchline, but a class the coach must pull strings to get his player into.

 

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