Back in the more innocent era of the 1970s, pro basketball was a bootstrap operation rather than the billion dollar industry it is now. The National Basketball Association was fairly well established, having been around approximately 30 years, but it was facing competition for talent from the underfunded upstart known as the American Basketball Association.
ABA teams generally played in second-tier markets such as Louisville, Indianapolis, San Antonio and Norfolk and had trouble drawing fans even when they were the only pro sports team in town. Even the league’s flagship team, the New York Nets, played in a dump called the Island Garden in West Hempstead. Will Ferrell’s latest film, “Semi-Pro,” pays tribute to the quintessential underdog sports league that against all odds survived nearly a decade and was able to see four of its franchises be absorbed by the NBA.
Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, the owner of the fictitious Flint Tropics. (Flint, Mich. was chosen as the locale because director Kent Alterman is a close friend of Flint’s most famous native son, controversial filmmaker Michael Moore.) Moon is a Flint celebrity because he scored a novelty disco hit, “Love Me Sexy,” a few years earlier. Not only does he own the misnamed Tropics but he is the team’s starting power forward and head coach so that he can save some salary.
Moon doesn’t care about making money, he just enjoys the adulation of being part of a professional sports team in a city that doesn’t have much else to offer. When he receives word from the ABA commissioner that his team will not be part of the merger with the NBA, Jackie throws a major temper tantrum even though he would become wealthy by agreeing to the deal.
Wins and losses do not matter much to Jackie as long as he is having fun. His lackadaisical attitude angers the team’s grizzled veteran, Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson), who was once part of a Boston Celtics’ championship team even though he rode the bench. Monix wants to be a coach and is determined to show the Tropics players, particularly their lone legitimately talented player, Clarence “Downtown” Brown (Andre Benjamin from the hip-hop duo Outkast), how basketball should be played.
To its credit, “Semi-Pro” has taken careful pains to recreate history as the films uses the old official red, white and blue ABA basketball and the players are wearing exact replicas of ABA uniforms. Even the radio stations that used to broadcast ABA games such as WOAI in San Antonio are represented with banners at the courtside press table. Ferrell even pays tribute to one of the ABA’s greatest players, Rick Barry, by shooting free throws underhanded.
The ABA was one of the first sports leagues to understand the importance of using entertainment to lure fans. Staging Broadway-style dance numbers and having someone wrestle a bear at halftime, as Ferrell’s character does in this flick, was representative of ABA promotions.
Even more typical was giving a lucky fan a chance to shoot a basketball from the other end of the court in the hopes of hitting a shot for $10,000 or giving away free food to patrons if the team scored a certain amount of points in a game.
“Semi-Pro” works because it comes in at an economical 90 minutes and the cast meshes well together. The film, however, does borrow too many plot devices from one of the great sports comedies of all time, 1977's “Slap Shot,” that starred Paul Newman as a has-been hockey player who is the player coach of a down-on-their-luck minor league hockey team.
Harrelson and Maura Tierney try to recreate the rocky romance between Newman and Jennifer Warren, but it comes off as an afterthought here. Just as Andrew Duncan nearly stole “Slap Shot” as the radio announcer for the Johnstown Jets, so do Andrew Daly and Will Arnett here.
They play the local yokels who call the action for the Flint Tropics. And of course there are the usual gratuitous fights between the opposing teams.
The soundtrack is outstanding as it showcases such ’70s nuggets as War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” the Blackbyrds’ “Walking In Rhythm,” Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” and Chairman of the Board’s “Give Me Just A Little More Time.”