Blue Chips (1994)

At first glance, it appears that Paramount couldn’t have chosen a better time to re-insert Blue Chips into the public consciousness. Its 29 March release date falls smack in the middle of the 2005 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, which is both the year’s biggest collegiate event and the annual trigger for the perpetual debate about whether or not amateur athletes should be paid.

It also follows hot on the heels of a highly publicized study conducted by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which reports that 43 of the 65 schools involved in this year’s men’s tourney failed to graduate at least 50% of their student-athletes. (Ready to get sick? According to the 2004 NCAA Graduation Rates Report, two teams in this year’s field — LSU and Minnesota — failed to graduate even one basketball player last year.) With the big business of college basketball getting all kinds of media coverage, you’d think re-releasing a DVD that openly deals with big-time relevant issues (recruiting improprieties, illegal booster contributions, and the widespread subjugation of academics in college sports) would be a slam dunk.

My guess? Except for maybe a couple dozen fans, no one else will bat an eyelash, for two reasons. First, no matter how salient the film’s commentary on modern collegiate athletics, the public doesn’t want to hear its entertainment is dirty and unethical. Second, Blue Chips was never all that good in the first place. As Western University head basketball coach Pete Bell, Nick Nolte paces, alternately channeling Bobby Knight and the White Shadow. With the occasional exception of Shaquille O’Neal, his players act like athletes, which is to say, badly. Ron Shelton’s script is uneven, sometimes recalling his successes (White Men Can’t Jump, Bull Durham), but more often paralleling his failures (The Best of Times, Play It to the Bone). And Paramount’s vanilla DVD release does nothing to improve the viewing experience. There are no special features, no extra footage, no potentially hilarious Shaq commentary, not even a theatrical trailer. At least it’s widescreen, so we get to see every inch of the messy, frenetic basketball scenes.

Blue Chips follows Bell, a coach legendary for his successes both on and off the court (his Western University Dolphins have won two NCSA National Championships, and all of his players graduate). But none of that matters now, because he’s just finished his first losing season. Western’s play against fictional powerhouses Texas Western (coached by current Louisville headman Rick Pitino) and Coast (whose lineup includes Allan Houston and Rodney Rogers) illustrate the problem: Bell just doesn’t have the talent to compete at the highest level anymore. Dolphins beat reporter Ed (Ed O’Neill) believes the school’s recruiting problems stem from an alleged point-shaving incident four years past; Bell vehemently denies any such incident took place, and thinks he and his staff have simply become complacent in their belief that Western’s prestige alone would be enough to attract top-flight athletes.

And so, with everybody calling for his head, Bell sets out on the recruiting trail, hoping to sign some major talent to save his job. In Chicago, he sees stud point guard Butch McRae (Penny Hardaway), only to have Butch’s mother Lavada (Alfre Woodard) demand the program secure her a new job and a new house in exchange for his services. Bell gets the same sort of demands in French Lick, Indiana, when visiting Ricky Roe (Matt Nover), a 6’10” forward who reminds everybody of French Lick’s favorite son, NBA legend Larry Bird. Ricky’s father (Tom Beaver) wants a brand new tractor for his farm, and he assures Bell that if Western doesn’t want to play ball, other schools have said they will.

Along the way, Bell lucks up and finds Neon Bodeaux (O’Neal), a 7-foot diamond in the rough who seems too good to be true. He just returned from a stint in the Army and he’s never played organized ball, so nobody knows about him; he dominates the paint like a young Olajuwon; and, unlike Ricky, who asks for $30,000 in cash, he doesn’t want any compensation other than a free opportunity to see if college is real or bullshit. That Shaq plays the film’s only “good guy” is no surprise: dude’s been a marketing machine ever since he set foot in the league, and playing Neon allowed him to showcase the sense of humor and smile that would score him big-time endorsements and starring roles in the future without tainting his burgeoning brand with the stain of even fictional corruption. Granted, those roles would be in Kazaam and Steel, but still. (Personally, I’m more puzzled by his guest directing the Nickelodeon puppet comedy, Cousin Skeeter.)

Though Shaq is the film’s breakout star, Bell’s ethical dilemma drives the story. On one hand, to cheat would cheapen the game he loves and could jeopardize his future in coaching; on the other, as recruitment specialist Marty (Robert Wuhl) tells him, signing Butch and Ricky means Western is back in the Final Four next year. The appearance of slimy alumni representative Happy (J.T. Walsh) complicates matters, as he tells Pete that the money it would take to buy out his contract is the same amount it will take to get Butch and Ricky to sign letters of intent, and that he’s more than willing to generate that money through “friends of the program.”

Though he’s completely unlikable, Happy’s argument for paying players — they generate millions of dollars in ticket sales, endorsement deals, and television revenues for the university, and yet they can’t legally borrow 10 bucks for Burger King — is convincing enough to make you think twice. It also makes Bell take his first tentative steps down the rabbit hole, wondering if it’s so bad to bend the rules just once.

The film’s answer, of course, is a catechistic yes, and Bell realizes it just in time to ensure his redemption. You kind of want him to be redeemed, just like you kind of want to like Blue Chips. Its heart is in the right place; it wants to air out college basketball’s dirty laundry, remind us that cheating is wrong, and bring us back to the days when we could root for our favorite team guilt-free. (Not coincidentally, the film’s two most affecting scenes — Hall of Famer Bob Cousy’s 15 consecutive made free throws in one take and Bell stumbling across some kids in a playground game and launching into an impromptu clinic on basketball basics — bring the game back to its purest elements: fundamentals and playing for the love of the sport.) Unfortunately, the message is obscured by the flaws of its messengers, making Blue Chips just another prospect long on potential that can’t live up to its hype.