As a rule of thumb, the more play-by-play announcing required to move a sports story along, the worse the movie. With that in mind, it should be sufficient to let you know that in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh by far the largest role belongs to Chick Hearn, the Lakers' play-by-play man. He is forever being heard, a disembodied golden throat, a voice from above. This is the only movie I ever saw that stars a voiceover. When Mr. Hearn's mellifluence is put on hold we are inundated by a disco sound track that makes up for its mediocrity with unrelenting repetition.
In film, as Flip Wilson (who makes a brief and useless appearance here) might say, what you see is what you get. And what you see in Fish smells. I cry for the honorable municipality of Pittsburgh, the noble city of champions, that its good name should be so violated. For Pittsburgh fans I would suggest that the Coca-Cola commercial starring Mean Joe Greene and the little boy has more good acting and action in 30 seconds than does this entire woebegone aural-exploitation flick.
If you must know, this Fish tale is about a basketball team, the Pittsburgh Pythons, that gets taken over by the water boy (the young actor is James Bond III, above, left) and an astrologist, played by Stockard Channing (above, right) on the cusp of her acting nadir. Because the Pythons' star ( Julius Erving, above, center) is a Pisces—that is, born under the sign of the fish—they decide to acquire a whole team of Pisceans. This might have made for a funny one-joke TV skit, but unfortunately Fish goes on for another hour or more with no jokes. Occasionally, in order to avoid a sissy G rating, somebody says an unnecessary dirty word, and the audience titters childishly. But is it fair for me to be so critical? I'm a Sagittarian with my Toyota ascending into the second house of Fresno, which means that at this time I am especially tasteful and intelligent.
Nobody ever said that Julius Erving was rich in facial expressions, and in Fish the Doctor's part has been wisely kept to a bare minimum off the court. As an actor, Erving ranks somewhere above Muhammad Ali but far below Meadowlark Lemon, the ex-Globetrotter and inveterate ham who invests Fish with its rare moments of hope. A number of other pro players run about the court to occupy the screen when either Chick Hearn or the disco sound takes over.
I don't know why, but in Hollywood if a white athlete is called for, an actor is invariably cast and taught how to play, while if a black athlete is needed, a black athlete is cast and taught how to act. Is this racist? Box office? Foolish? A union rule? Are black actors presumed to be bad athletes? Are white athletes bad actors? Never mind, it is of no consequence here; Fish is a bi-racial disaster. Or, as you no doubt will see it in your daily newspaper ads: " 'Bi-racial disaster!' Deford, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED."
One more thing, in the art-follows-life department. As I dutifully fought to keep my eyes open, I began to take notes on the interminable game sequences. Now keep in mind that these were selected by show bizians intent on providing the most entertaining footage for a broad audience. Well, almost all of the baskets were dunks—maybe 90%—and most of the remaining 10% were Meadowlark scoring with old Globie tricks. Furthermore, a whole playground scene, whose only possible purpose was to exhibit Dr. J's elegance and style at basketball, did little more than show him dunking time after time. Nothing else.
Is this really the popular perception of basketball? The thought has nagged at me before this, but it really came home in the darkened theater. So long as the basket is 10 feet high and the players can spring 12 feet, you cannot legislate against the dunk. Ah yes, and if you give sticks to young men skating about at 30 mph, it is only natural that they will club one another. A dunk in basketball, like a punch in hockey, is the same sort of thing: it is strength and intimidation, not skill or grace.
A lot of the people in the theater where I saw Fish loved the dunks, as they loved the disco, as they no doubt would be entertained by the hockey thugs. Disco is obviously a fad, and I doubt that dunk ball can survive for long, either. Fish shows that, like punching people on ice skates, no matter how proficient you are at it, the dunk becomes horribly monotonous after a while. Or, as you might read: " 'Horribly monotonous!' Deford, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED."