But another basketball film, released a decade earlier, probably maintains a spot in the heart of those same future hoop stars, especially if those players were a bit more mature — and a lot hornier.
One on One starred a young, floppy-haired Robby Benson, who also co-wrote the film (his dad, Jerry Segal, was the other writer). Last night, after midnight, just as I was headed to bed, I stumbled upon the movie on NBA TV. Despite having to wake up at 6:30 in the morning, I stayed up until 2, watching Robby overcome tough odds, an abusive coach, disdain from arrogant hippies, bullying teammates and his infatuation with a red-headed tutor.
The movie came out in 1977. When I was younger, One on One always seemed to pop up on TBS about once a year, usually on a Saturday afternoon, probably before a 4:05 Braves game. Back then, I felt frustrated at the lack of basketball scenes in what I thought was a basketball movie.
Instead, Robby's character, Henry Steele, spends his time on the bench, riding the pine while pining for his tutor, played by a fetching Annette O'Toole. Watch the trailer again. How would anyone even know the movie focused on a basketball player? It looks more like young Mr. Steele stumbles upon a swingers compound. If the movie is a porno, he certainly seems to have an appropriate name for such a role. "The story of a winner." A winner in what?
Benson attends the generically named "Western University" and struggles to adjust to the large campus. He doesn't help matters by speaking in a voice that's one level above a whisper. What kind of guidance did the director give Robby before his scenes? "We need you to speak like a frightened 11-year-old girl. All the great guards, from Maravich to Robertson, do this. Not only is it great with the ladies, but it's a fine way of inspiring your teammates as their floor general."
Yet he becomes something of a ladies' man. At one point an intoxicated older woman gives him head while Robby drives a car and, to paraphrase Lou Reed, he never loses his head, creatively bribing a police officer who had pulled him over for speeding by offering up a pair of tickets to the big Notre Dame game. It's the last time anyone was excited about Notre Dame basketball.
It's Robby's on-court life that proves to be a nightmare for much of the movie. He fights for playing time. The intensity bothers him. During one practice, his friend gives him speed. As a "Say No To Drugs" performance, it ranks up there with the famous Dragnet episode about the dangers of acid. Robby acts like a cokehead as his embarrassed teammate, who provided the drugs, realizes perhaps he should have first introduced the small-town rube to pot. Once he gets back on the court, Robby continues his out-of-control ways, just the type of performance you'd want from a point guard. It does give him a bit more quickness, but at what cost?
Veteran character actor G.D. Spradlin has the best role in the movie. Spradlin portrays the old-school coach, Moreland Smith. Throughout his long career, Spradlin — who worked as an attorney for an oil company before getting into acting - specialized in playing ruthless, uncaring, occasionally evil men. He was the sleazy senator in The Godfather Part II, the leader of an assassination attempt against the California governor in Nick of Time and a corrupt sheriff in the classic Tank.
In One on One he mentally abuses Robby. He allows the other players to do it physically.
To his credit, Robby refuses to back down. He's Henry Steele, damn it, and that means he's strong. Sure, he looks like a 98-pound weakling out on the court with the men - and probably weighed 108 pounds in real life - but he will not allow coach Smith to break him, even as he's occasionally breaking down.
Another classic scene. Weirdly, this is the same speech my junior college coach, Mike Augustine, gave to me. Making it even stranger? We didn't even have scholarships.
In the end, of course, Robby/Steele wins the girl and the big game.
About that game: Overall, the hoops scenes in One on One are to basketball what the kiss between Norman Dale and Myra Fleener was to romance. In the final game, the one where Steele comes in off the bench in the final 3 minutes to rally Western to a rousing victory, the opposing team hits approximately 23 consecutive layups in the final moments. It's shocking to see an intense coach like Smith lead a team that plays defense like the 1991 Denver Nuggets. Steele scores, opposition gets a layup. Steele nails a jumper, opposition gets a layup. Steele dishes, opposition gets a layup. Yet somehow Western narrows the deficit, although they still trail by 5 with less than a minute to play. After Steele slices it to 1, Western again steals it and gets the ball on the sideline with four seconds left. Steele hits the winning layup after an improbable series of events leaves him wide open under the hoop, a sequence that could have only been accomplished in four seconds if the timekeeper from the 1972 Olympic gold medal game manned the scoreboard clock.
The basketball scenes are at least played on a real college court, in a real arena at Colorado State University, unlike so many TV shows and movies, when the action is compressed onto a 30-foot court that makes the athletes look like oafs.
Young Henry feels pretty cocky after those three minutes of stardom. Three minutes. To that point he'd shown next-to-nothing, other than an inability to hold his uppers. His jumper still looks shaky, he needs a year in the weight room or a week with BALCO, and he falls for any girl who looks him in the eye and says hello. But like he was back in his Colorado hometown, he's now the man. And he tells coach Smith what he can do with that scholarship, in probably the best part of the movie.
The first reviews are fun to look back on. Take the one in The New York Times, which says the ending includes a "smashing basketball game." Well, that is one opinion, especially if a British reporter wrote it.
It's impossible - at least for me - to watch One on One, or any basketball movie, and not think about Hoosiers, even if one movie was more about getting laid than layups.
Compare Henry to Hickory star Jimmy Chitwood. On the court, there's not much comparison. While Henry plays for a Division I school and we only see Jimmy at little ol' Hickory, Jimmy is the superior player. There's a decent chance he eventually landed at Indiana, or perhaps Purdue. Better jump shot, better basketball build, smarter player, moves without the ball much better, underrated ball-handler. Off the court, though, Jimmy probably would have dreamed of having Henry's life. Beer! Car! Speed! Chicks!
Both guys labored under a tutor. But while Jimmy studied the War of 1812 under the angry, bitter eyes of Myra Fleener, Henry learns about the origins of World War I from Janet Hays, who wants to explore the finer parts of anatomy while also discussing history. I remain convinced that Jimmy never kissed a girl, much less got lucky with one. Who knows, maybe he flamed out once he landed at Indiana - or Purdue - when he, like Steele, discovered women. Steele proved he could balance women and ball. Jimmy still hasn't.
One on One attempts to show some of the corruption of big-time college athletics, but someone watching this movie 30 years after its release has been desensitized by sports scandals, whether it's money in the mail, point-shaving, payouts, abusive coaches or...tutors who do everyone's homework - but don't hook up with the players. One on One has a message and a good one, but a message never trumps an underdog story, especially one that's still referenced every March anytime a plucky club upsets a superior foe.
One on One is no Hoosiers. In some ways it's hardly a sports movie. But it's a good film for anyone who loved hoops, girls or hoops and girls at the same time.
If you don't agree with that? You can take this blog, find a red-hot poker and, well, you know.