Ivy On Celluloid: Blue Chips

Blue Chips

In honor of tonight’s conclusion of the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid is going to take a look at director William Friedkin’s 1994 college basketball tale, Blue Chips.

William Friedkin is often cited as one of the key luminaries of the New Hollywood era of film, with classic works like The Exorcist, The French Connection, and Sorcerer to his name. However, since the late 1970s, his works have garnered far less critical and popular attention, outside of sporadic praise for films like To Live and Die In LA, Killer Joe, and Bug. Among his less analyzed films is Blue Chips, which connects his film work to his passion for the sport of basketball, through a fictional portrayal of desperately rebuilding college basketball program.

The screenplay for Blue Chips was written by Ron Shelton, who has carved a career niche for writing up sports-based tales like The Great White Hype, Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and White Men Can’t Jump.

Perhaps due to connections through Friedkin and Shelton, both noted sports fanatics, Blue Chips is littered with notable basketball figures, in both character and cameo capacities. The most notable of these are Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, who were then early-career basketball stars, in roles as the eponymous “blue chip” talent prospects.

While Hardaway and O’Neal adequately perform their roles, the heart of the film and focus of the story is Nick Nolte’s portrayal of an aging college basketball coach, facing fading glory and mounting pressures to re-capture success.

Despite best efforts, Blue Chips was ultimately a financial flop, as it only took in $23 million on a estimated budget of $35 million. Hal Hinson of The Washington Post referred to it as “a dreary lecture about ethics and moral corner-cutting.” However, one of its few critical advocates was Roger Ebert, who remarked that it was “a morality play, told in the realistic, sometimes cynical terms of modern high-pressure college sports” in his three star review.

In 2019, Memphis Commercial Appeal interviewed Penny Hardaway, who is now the University of Memphis basketball coach, about his experience with the making of Blue Chips.  Apparently, the reason for hiring basketball players into key roles was because of Friedkin’s staunch desire to feature actual basketball action in the movie, rather than using creative editing, stunts, and camera trickery. Thus, no actors could be found who could pull off the basketball demands of the roles.

“It was a good movie,” Hardaway said. “Not just because I was in it – it was a great basketball movie. I really liked that they just allowed us to play basketball. It wasn’t much acting. It was playing ball.”

Notably, the chemistry between Hardaway and Shaq that was built over the making of Blue Chips ultimately led to Shaq requesting that his team, the Orlando Magic, draft Hardaway in the 1993 NBA Draft.

Friedkin’s dedication to filming real basketball for the film extended to the climactic final game between Indiana University and Western University, which was filmed as a real basketball game with a live audience of extras. Outside of the conclusion, the game was completely unscripted, and just allowed the basketball players to play out the game while cameras filmed the action. Indiana University’s coach, Bobby Knight, known for his competitiveness, caused some issues for the filming behind the scenes, as he apparently wasn’t happy with allowing the fictional Western University team to win as scripted. Towards the end of the game, Indiana had a three point lead, and one of the filming crew caught audio of Knight saying the following:

“Let me tell you something, boys,” he said. “We’ve got 24 seconds to play and fate’s got us up by three. We sure as hell aren’t going to lose to a bunch of (derogatory term) from Hollywood now.”

To begin the higher education analysis of the film, I want to try to establish the higher education setting of the story. As is typically the case, the central institution is fictional – Western University. While there is an institution that goes by this name today in London, Ontario, it is technically the University of Western Ontario, and only took on the new moniker as of 2012. There was once a Western University located in Kansas, but it closed in 1943 due to the economic strains of the Great Depression.

While Western University as featured in Blue Chips is fictional, I believe that it is functionally a stand-in for UCLA. While the campus sequences in the film were shot at the nearby rival school University of Southern California, there are some clues that point to Western being a surrogate for UCLA. First, the location of the school is firmly established as Los Angeles, which narrows down the institution candidate pool significantly. Additionally, the Western University color scheme (blue and yellow) is clearly reminiscent of the UCLA Bruins. Perhaps most compellingly, the established history and legacy of repeated basketball success (vis-a-vis championships) at Western University lines up pretty well with the UCLA basketball dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s under John Wooden.

A number of other higher education institutions are also represented in the film, both fictional and real. One in particular blurs the line between the two – Texas Western. In the film, this team is referred to as the Texas Western Cowboys, and are coached by controversial college basketball figure Rick Pitino. In reality, today’s University of Texas – El Paso Miners were once referred to as the Texas Western College Miners until a formal name change in 1967. Interestingly, this was implemented just one year after the Texas Western Miners won the NCAA basketball championship, and cemented the name in college basketball history.

Another higher education institution that is shown in competition with Western University is never referred to by name – however, the uniforms identify the school by the abbreviated nickname, “Coast.” This is most likely a loose stand-in for Coastal Carolina University, which often uses the abbreviation “Coastal” on the front of their basketball jerseys. The team is notably shown coached by Nolan Richardson, who is known for his coaching success at multiple levels of the sport.

The one definitively real university athletic team featured in Blue Chips is the Indiana University Hoosiers, who are shown coached by Bobby Knight, whose tenure at the school stretched nearly 30 years.

As with the majority of higher education institutions in the film, the National Collegiate Athletic Association itself has a fictionalized stand-in: the NCSA. While the initialism is never defined, its prominence on championship banners and referee uniforms makes it clear that this is the fictionalized NCAA.

Western University’s athletics teams are known as the Dolphins, and are accompanied by a dolphin mascot. While this is certainly a curious choice, it is by far not the most bizarre. That said, I was curious if any other universities have embraced the “Dolphins” moniker – as it turns out, there are a handful. According to The Los Angeles Times, California State University – Channel Islands teams go by the name “Dolphins,” though there doesn’t appear to be much athletic activity at the school. Likewise, the College of Mount Saint Vincent has also embraced the Dolphins name, along with Jacksonville University, which also has a humanoid dolphin mascot named “Dunk’n.”

During the recruiting sequences in the film, a player’s parent asks whether student-athletes wind up taking easier classes than other students. While the coach insists this isn’t the case, a number of college athletics scandals have involved just that situation. Most famously, the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill was caught offering effectively fake courses for athletes that  essentially guaranteed that they would remain academically eligible for play.

Early in the film, one of the student-athletes on the Western University basketball team confesses to struggling in “TV class” – one of his courses. While this might sound like a joke at first glance, a number of real college courses have centered on various television shows, the impact of television, or television criticism. Georgetown University has offered courses in philosophy centered around shows like The Wire and Star Trek, Whitman College has offered a course titled “Mad Men: Media, Gender, Historiography,” and I took an American studies course on The Twilight Zone when I was in college at the University of Alabama. Mental Floss put together a list of 25 other fascinating television-based courses at a variety of higher education institutions, which includes studies of South Park, The Colbert Report, and Twin Peaks.

In a blurring between fiction and reality, Blue Chips star Shaq confessed in 2016 to receiving monetary bribes to attend Louisiana State University and play for the school’s basketball team, not unlike the eponymous blue chip prospects featured in the film.

Nick Nolte’s character is shown to have a hot temper and contentious relationship with both officials and media, which at one point culminates in the punting of a basketball and a subsequent game ejection. At times, he is shown bordering on verbal abuse of his players during games and practices. Unfortunately, these sorts of behaviors from college basketball coaches are based in reality. Mike Rice, a former coach as Rutgers University, was fired after recording surfaced of his verbally and physically abusing his playersA number of NCAA basketball coaches, including Indiana University’s Bobby Knight, have developed reputations over the years for their quick tempers. Like Rice, Knight was ultimately fired after video of his physical abuse of players surfaced. cementing his reputation as “college basketball’s greatest villain.”

Much of Blue Chips is dedicated to portraying the recruiting process to bring new players into a college basketball program. In particular, there is a specific emphasis on recruiting practices that violate regulations. As mentioned previously, the real NCAA has a fictional stand-in in the form of NCSA – however, the regulations of the two organizations appear to be the same. The violation most prominently featured is the explicit ban on “extra benefits” offered to athletes beyond their scholarship, which are defined as:

“any special arrangement by an institutional employee or a representative of the institution’s athletic interests (including fans) to provide a student-athlete or the student-athlete’s relative or friend a benefit not expressly authorized by the NCAA legislation.”

The extra benefits rule is applied to items as minute as flowers and apparel discounts and as grand as automobiles and housing. A University of Minnesota wrestler lost his eligibility due to selling an original song because the NCAA ruled that he financially benefited from his reputation as an athlete. Numerous college athletes have been the subject of NCAA scrutiny for benefiting from the sale of autographs or memorabilia, such as the University of Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. A simple Google search will yield numerous lists of bizarre and seemingly nonsensical NCAA violations from institutions around the country.

In the film, a number of extra benefits are shown, including duffel bags of cash delivered by “friends of the program” (typically referred to as boosters, defined by the NCAA as  “representatives of the institution’s athletic interests”), mysteriously delivered tractors and Lexus automobiles to students and their families, family employment opportunities, and fully-financed housing, all of which have some basis in the reality of NCAA recruiting violations. The University of Mississippi’s recent recruiting scandal alone featured cash payments via duffel bag, car payments, and free lodging to athletes’ families.

What is most interesting about the portrayal of recruiting violations in Blue Chips is that each of the families has an expectation of payment from the outset, with full knowledge that this is in violation of rules. One prospect’s mother justifies her financial requests by stating that “a foul is not a foul unless a referee blows a whistle,” and another athlete’s father succinctly claims that “they ain’t my rules” after requesting a new tractor. The high-profile nature of NCAA recruiting violations have, in a way, apparently created a normative expectation of special privileges for star athletes and their families, which is arguably reinforced through popular culture portrayals like Blue Chips. Every time a school like Baylor University or the University of Louisville is caught in an athletic scandal that gets covered extensively in the media, the message is sent to aspiring prospects that opportunities for payment and compensation exist if they look for them.

At one point in the film, Western University’s coach mentions Proposition 48 when approaching a basketball prospect who scored poorly on their SAT. This is a real NCAA regulation that governs the minimum academic qualifications for college student-athletes, which takes into account both high school grades and standardized test scores. In this case, the student’s SAT was too low to qualify, which prompts his retaking of the test after receiving tutoring.

The electric conclusion of Blue Chips sees Western University’s basketball coach publicly confess at a press conference about a litany of recruiting violations, after which he resigns. The closest parallel to this event in real life was actually in response to the film, when Coastal Carolina University’s Russ Bergman was inspired by Blue Chips to confess to his coaching misdeeds to a local reporter. However, both he and his program were already the subject of an NCAA investigation at that time, and the walls were likely already closing in.

Prior to the events of Blue Chips, the Western University basketball program was at one point embroiled in a point shaving scandal. Point shaving is the the willful act of manipulating the score through intentional play for the purposes of promoting a specific outcome that has gambling implications. In the 1978-1979 season, a number of Boston College basketball players were bribed for the purposes of point shaving, in order to benefit a mob-orchestrated gambling scheme. A documentary about the scandal, Playing for the Mob, was released in 2014, and a comprehensive book about the incident, Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball, was published in 2001. In 2015, former criminal and FBI informant Henry Hill, Jr., who was intimately involved in the scandal, co-authored a book that went into more detail about the planning and execution of the plot.

On the whole, Blue Chips is in an intriguing portrayal of a college basketball program. If anything, it is a bit oversimplified and glossy in its characterizations and portrayals of the dynamics between players, coaches, administrators, and boosters, but is done so for the purposes of the story. As a portrayal of college athletics, it certainly touches on a number of real issues, though some of them are framed oddly. For instance, the idea that student-athletes should be paid is scoffed at off-hand, and the portrayals of the players focuses on wanting money exclusively for luxuries rather than necessities, which simplifies the very real issue of student-athletes struggling to live on their scholarships alone. In order to portray boosters as villainous, the position that work merits compensation is explicitly frowned upon with melodramatic flair.

That said, I think the film merits critical reconsideration – while not a masterpiece, Friedkin’s attention to detail and focus on the fidelity of the basketball portrayal comes through in the game sequences. In the same way that Friedkin has conveyed the frenetic energy of car chases in his career, he catches lightning in a bottle in putting basketball to celluloid in Blue Chips. While the higher education portrayal is perhaps a bit spotty, the film as a whole is not bad, and is an interesting counter-narrative to many college sports films in its morally-conflicted central character portrayals and de-emphasis on competitive glory as the ultimate ends.

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