As March Madness kicks off, people go into a tailspin worrying about their NCAA brackets and who was closest to guessing the Sweet 16 and the Final Four. For a weeks, employers accept the fact that their employees are constantly checking scores, updating their brackets and secretly watching games on company time. To not be a part of March Madness makes you an outsider. I am one of those outsiders. I really don’t care if Gonzaga beats Kansas, or if UNC beats UNI. None of it matters to me in the end. College hoops have always been somewhat of a bore to me. However the one team I know I can get behind (besides Iowa State) is the Western University Dolphins.
You haven’t heard of the Dolphins? They were a huge team in the 90’s. They were one time college homes of NBA greats Penny Hardaway and Shaq. Well- at least in the movies they were. The Western Dolphins are much like the Minnesota State Screamin’ Eagles- fictional. Their head coach is the legendary Pete Bell, played by Nick Nolte in the William Friedken directed 1994 film, Blue Chips. Bell is the type of coach who has always played by the rules, loves the game and has two national titles to show for it. However, when his prospects have dried up and is faced with back to back losing seasons he begins contemplating using under the table bribes to bring to prospects to his squad. Knowing it’s against NCAA regulations Bell begins to bite the hand that feeds him, turning to the “friends” of the program to launder everything from new cars to new houses to players and their families for their commitment to Dolphin basketball.
While on many levels Blue Chips is just a mediocre mess of a basketball flick, it does bring up the constant debate of ethical recruitment procedures and if college athletes should be paid to play ball. However, it’s hard to believe that William Friedken is behind the camera in this flick. Here’s a man who’s claim to fame are great films such as The French Connection and The Exorcist and he’s directing Shaq and Penny in a basketball flick? It seems silly. And silly it turns out to be. Friedken just never quite finds his comfort behind the camera and Blue Chips is a bit of a visual mess, despite having an engaging story.
Perhaps the best part of Blue Chips is the performance by Nick Nolte. The actor channels his best Bobby Knight (whom he coincidentally shows down against in the film’s climax) and can be one ranting and raving, ball of rage when he needs to be. His short fuse makes for some awkward moments, but also explains his back and forth morality/ethics challenge between the desire to win and the desire to do it the right way. Perhaps some of my favorite scenes of the film are Nolte on the road recruiting, as he does the “dog and pony” show convincing parents he comes from a good Catholic, Pentecostal, and First Baptist upbringing.
If you’re expecting quality performances out of Shaq or Penny don’t start here. I guess in many ways Shaq is better in Blue Chips than he is in let’s say...Kazaam, or Steel, but he’s a minor character who stuffs a ball in a hoop. He should be good at it. That’s kind of what he does for a living. There’s probably a reason Penny Hardaway stuck to his on court skills and never returned to acting; and it’s not because Little Penny took his acting gig away from him. (Please tell me I’m not the only one who remembers Little Penny- the puppet friend of Penny Hardaway in shoe ads.) Penny can’t act. Hardaway seems lost on screen, and the only time he truly seems at home is when he is on the court playing the game.
Is Blue Chips the epitome of fine film making? No. Is it fun watch? Yes. Nolte is the All Star of this film and puts up a MVP worthy performance in this film that is otherwise just kind of mediocre. During the time of brackets and NCAA finals, you may not want to think of bought and paid for teams and under the table deals, but it’s part of sports and films like Blue Chips shed some light on the ugly truth. Should athletes be paid to play in college sports? That’s up for debate. But should they be bribed to go to one team over the other? No. But has it happened, and it will continue to happen. But then again that statement only depends on who you ask and if you really want to know.