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There is a considerable body of American literature about disappointed middle-aged men reflecting upon their youthful athletic glories. What sets That Championship Season apart and lends distinction to this work by Jason Miller is that in it a group of old basketball players, a team, together tread that path back to their youth. Furthermore, Miller uses his story to examine the crucial role that a high school coach can play in shaping the lives of so many red-blooded boys.
Beyond these fascinating, essentially sports themes, That Championship Season (which won a Pulitzer Prize when it was a play on Broadway a decade ago) takes a 1957 high school basketball team from Scranton, Pa. and uses the cherished sporting memories of its members as a window through which to look at one aspect of American culture, at the changes that have shaken all the Scrantons in the past 25 years. I didn't see the play, but I was familiar with its gist. Still, I wasn't prepared for quite how far Miller, who also directed the film, takes us from the locker room. This isn't a "sports movie"; indeed, if there's one rubric for it, it's "religious movie."
The players, only four of whom appear, won the state title at a public high school, but their shared Roman Catholic upbringing joins them more than basketball. And so when Ward Preston, the production designer, went to Scranton to choose the coach's house, where most of the film takes place, he selected a house that was high and arching, full of stained-glass windows. The cinematography by John Bailey speaks the same liturgical language, illuminating the interiors in flickering half-lights. If not a church itself, then surely it's a rectory that the players return to. And in the spirit of the Eucharist, it seems, they come home to more than mere reunion.
The coach, played by Robert Mitchum, says he almost became a priest; he made sure all his boys—"my real trophies"—went on to Jesuit colleges; he served as a substitute father and worldly pastor for them—the closest thing to God any boy will find on earth. The players are in their 40s, but they defer to him yet. The coach's name is never spoken, he's always "Coach" or "Sir." The characters are permitted to go their own way for a time, and then Coach appears, calling a time-out, so to speak, to assess developments, to direct them in new strategies, deus and deus ex machina alike.
The plot is simple, playing off the '57 title game, when Mitchum's boys beat a Philadelphia school led by "an eight-foot nigger," against a present-day Scranton mayoralty campaign in which one of the team members, George (Bruce Dern, above), is running for reelection against "a goddamn kike." The parallel is all too clear. One minority stole their sport, and now another is threatening to steal their political power. Miller's ethnic Catholics—two Micks, a Dago and a Polack, as they characterize themselves—are frightened of defeat. Fear runs through the movie where one might expect to find only anger and disappointment. "The only sin is losing. Forgive me, Father, I have sinned," Tom (Martin Sheen) slurs, in his cups, to Coach. And the only way to win—again—Coach intones, is to stick together, to hold back the future with the same old platitudes and litanies.
The acting is uniformly excellent. For all his soldiers and cops, this is the part we'll remember Mitchum for. He's a lesson in containment, and, at the end, when he listens to a recording of the final seconds of the title game, his expression is, simply, indelible. Of the two brothers on the team, Sheen, the cynic, is very much still the playmaker, keeping things moving, while Stacy Keach, now a dutiful junior high school principal, makes much of the least attractive role. As the writer, Miller errs in making Phil (Paul Sorvino) so venal. And as the director, Miller never quite succeeds in making George, the mayor, a fathomable character. Then again, perhaps Dern has played so many crazies that it's hard to think of him as anything else. It's funny, I never could visualize how Dern might have looked on the court. I could see Sorvino as a backcourt gunner and Keach playing defense and rebounding. We're told Sheen was the point guard, but Dern...?
That's a quibble, though. That Championship Season is a full and fulfilling work. To be sure, it won't satisfy all tastes. It's intense and grim, and what humor there is, is invariably wounding or scatological. But what an air it has, what a texture. How well it knows its people, and its place, and both its times.