Monday, August 15, 2011

Robby Benson, a tutor, a basketball, and a red-hot poker

Any child of the '80s who dreamed of becoming an NBA star, or even only fantasized about hitting a game-winning jumper in the state tournament while under the guidance of a crusty old coach who just got off a boat, surely watched Hoosiers dozens of times. It remains the standard-bearer of all sports movies, and is certainly the best hoops movie ever made.

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.


Mary said...

I can borrow you "Ice Castles". I have it on VHS in a box in the basement. Steve and I had a song from it for our wedding. hee hee

Shawn Fury said...

Ice Castles! Yeah, have thought of watching that, but...well, haven't. But I can see Robby Benson as a figure skater, more than I can see him scoring 40 points in a game. Was the song Through the Eyes of Love? Did you and Steve go to the Fulda lake to recreate the movie?

Karen Marie said...

Shawn, this is what both you and i get for me having Robby Benson on my google alert:

Robby wrote the Warner Bros. basketball classic ONE ON ONE (1977) at 18 years old, not only to expose the issues surrounding the inequities in ‘amateur’ college athletics, (he was the first to do that -- years before Sports Illustrated wrote their first article about it), but Benson wrote One on One because HE LOVED TO PLAY THE GAME.

FYI: Benson’s basketball skills at the time were lauded by everyone from John Wooden to Red Auerbach (Robby was offered a spot personally by Auerbach for Celtics rookie camp) to Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Bradley, Doug Collins, Michael Jordon, and scores of other top college and NBA players and coaches through the years.

Just last year in Feb. 2010 when Reggie Miller was doing press at Sundance for the documentary Winning Time, journalist Peter Travers asked him which Hollywood film got Basketball right? Miller answered: Robby Benson's One on One.

(Not Hoosiers. BTW Miller's record-holding bball playing sister Cheryl also raved about Robby's playing and how about One on One inspired her years ago in another round ball documentary. Guess they 'got' Robby bball talent in the Miller household.)

Cast as the surfer in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Robby had to buy out his contract when Warner’s gave his script for One on One the green light.

As an actor/athlete Robby Benson was the real thing. (Billy Mills — the only USA 10,000 meter Olympic Gold Medal winner, personally chose Robby to portray him in Running Brave. Watch the Olympic race -- Robby was a real marathoner, running with world class runners in the film).

Shawn, I know you might be bored in hot NYC in it or hate it -- from the '70's and with those cute shorts they used to wear, it's hard to not feel it's dated -- but don't trash Robby Benson's ball handling talent.

Shawn Fury said...

Karen, Thanks a lot for taking the time to read and to comment. I appreciate it.

Still, I'd offer up some friendly rebuttals:
* I actually like the movie. I wrote that it was a good film. I don't think it's as good as Hoosiers, which isn't really a controversial opinion, Reggie and Cheryl Miller's thoughts notwithstanding. If you took a vote of basketball fans and movie fans and asked them to choose one, Hoosiers would get a higher percentage of the vote than Kim Jong II gets in North Korean elections. That said, One on One...good film.
* I really didn't denigrate Robby's hoops skills much. I was comparing his character against the fictional Jimmy Chitwood (for all I know, Robby could kick the ass of the actor who played chitwood, although I sort of doubt that too, considering the jump shot exhibition the kid put on in the playground of Hickory). Henry's the one that struggled to adjust. Robby was probably a fine player. But the movie wasn't a biography.
* Red Auerbach's comment about rookie camp. I don't know, haven't read the stories, but the words publicity stunt come to mind. For instance, Garth Brooks has gone to spring training before but he's not going to be batting cleanup for the Padres. And even if Robby had gone to camp, I don't think he was going to be unseating Tiny Archibald for the Celtics.
* I don't know what Michael Jordan thought of Robby's playing skills but it's worth noting Michael Jordan did think Kwame Brown was the best player in the 2001 NBA draft.
* By the sound of it - surfing, running, hockey, hoops - Robby was sort of the Jim Thorpe of the 1970s. Since I never actually did see him in the Olympics, I remain skeptical. If I can make one comment on Robby's hoops skills, I can see him as a marathon runner. But marathon runners don't necessarily make great basketball players. He looks like a great runner. On the court, he looked like a 9th grader.
* As far as getting basketball right, I stand by my thoughts on the actual basketball scenes. The last three minutes of the final game are...a tad implausible. Which is fine. Even my beloved Hoosiers has scenes that look corny or ridiculous when compared to reality, it's a part of the movies. and as I wrote, they at least played it on a real court with 10 players. It's just that I've never seen a team score layup after layup by breaking the press in the final 3 minutes of the game, and yet that same team never calls a timeout when it squanders a lead. And the last 4 seconds take like 6 seconds, and end with a little lob that somehow travels practically half the court.
* Robby exposed amateur athletics before Sports Illustrated. That I can't go with. And is sort of absurd. Again, it does do a good job of showing those things, I was just saying that for viewers today who are so jaded by the stuff it wouldn't have the same impact as it did back then, which would have certainly been greater. But...SI was doing it long before then. Here's a story from 1954.






And countless more.

Robby wrote a nice script. Bob Woodward, he was not.

* And here, the final game. Hoopsters, judge for yourself the realism. "35 foot jumpers?" A guard's taking 35-foot jumpers? And look at this porous Western defense! Count the layups!

Anyway, thanks again for the comment Karen! I did enjoy the movie. But in the end, it's more about love than hoops.

Shawn Fury said...

And did I just write like 5,000 words on One on One? Yes. And I'd only do that for a movie I enjoyed.

Dobian said...

I just stumbled onto this blog. Haha, One on One was one of my favorites from the 70s when I was a teenager. I don't think anyone is trying to make Robbie Benson out to be the Jim Thorpe of his era, but I remember back in those days that he was highly respected as an amateur athlete and would compete in amateur and exhibition events. And in those scenes where Henry is doing all the ball handling, that's really him and not some stand-in. The guy could play. He couldn't act his way out of a paper bag, but he could play!