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Friday, January 16, 2009

Nothing But Net (originally published 1/05)

In many ways, the game of basketball seems ideally suited as a backdrop for a movie. Given the fast moving and visually stimulating nature of the game, you might assume that it would have proven irresistible to filmmakers down through the years, but it isn't so. In fact, the upcoming release of "Coach Carter" is a bit of a rarity. The history of the cinema includes baseball movies as far as the eye can see, but relatively few basketball films. And of those few, fewer still are available on video. Does that mean that you roundball fans are stuck with old game tapes until "Coach Carter" makes its way to home video? Not on your high tops. Here are some titles you can look for at the corner video store right now.

"Tall Story" (1960). Anthony Perkins plays a college basketball star who is amorously pursued by a co-ed (Jane Fonda, in her movie debut). The young athlete is pressured by gamblers to help throw a game against a visiting Russian team. Meanwhile, the distraction created by Fonda's character, however pleasant, has interfered with his studies. To maintain his eligibility he must pass an ethics exam. (Get it? He's trying to pass an ethics test while he's deciding whether to throw a game.)

"One on One" (1977). Robby Benson co-wrote and starred in this Rocky-esque film, dramatizing the unsavory practices that have too often tainted the reputation of collegiate basketball. His story of a naïve high school basketball star who gets recruited by a high-powered college team deals openly with the sleazy underside of college athletics. Ultimately, the film pulls most of its punches, but, even so, it was potent enough to cause USC and UCLA (Hollywood's hometown campuses) to refuse to cooperate in the filming.

"Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938). This one isn't really a basketball movie, but the classic Jimmy Cagney - Pat O'Brien vehicle belongs here just the same. The plot centers around old pals Rocky Sullivan (Cagney) and Jerry Connelly (O'Brien), who were kids together on the wrong side of the tracks. Rocky grows up to be a hood while Jerry grows up to be a priest. When Rocky blows into town after serving a jail term, the neighborhood kids are mightily impressed with him. Jerry is glad to see his old friend, but leery of his potentially bad influence on the street-wise kids Jerry has been struggling to win over. Later in the film, of course, there will be conflict along those lines, but initially Rocky chooses to help Jerry with the kids. The scene in which Rocky referees a basketball game for Jerry is a classic. The street roughnecks know nothing about the rules, and wouldn't care if they did. They think nothing of shoving, tripping, and even punching the opposing players. Rocky responds with some street-style officiating. Shoving another player elicits a punch in the breadbasket from the ref, while a right cross to the opponent's jaw is rewarded with an uppercut instead of a whistle.

"The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961). This Disney comedy features Fred MacMurray as the title character, Ned Brainard. Professor Brainard has discovered a rubberlike substance with a remarkable property. When you drop it and let it bounce, it actually rebounds higher with each bounce, gaining energy instead of losing it. He calls the stuff "flying rubber," which he shortens to "flubber." He uses his college's losing basketball team to test the usefulness of flubber by applying it to the soles of the players' shoes. The result is an absolutely spectacular basketball sequence, with players springing 20 and 30 feet in the air.

"Cornbread, Earl, and Me" (1975). Right in the midst of a spate of black exploitation films came this quiet, humane little film about a young African-American man whose talent for basketball is about to take him out of the ghetto and on to college. Two weeks before he leaves for school, two policemen gun him down, mistaking him for a fleeing suspect. In his film debut, 12 year old Laurence Fishburne is outstanding as the slain youth's admiring younger friend.

There are other hoop movies that I'd love to point you toward, including two Harlem Globetrotter films, but they aren't available on home video. Instead we have "Scooby-Doo Meets the Harlem Globetrotters" -- a clear technical foul, but what can you do?

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