By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: A college basketball star.
Henry Steele (Robby Benson) becomes the star of his small town high school basketball team, which is enough to get him a scholarship to a university in California on their team. Once there he becomes overwhelmed by the demands of his coach (G.D. Spradlin) as well as the under-the-table ‘business side’ of college athletics. The disappointed coach eventually asks him to rescind his scholarship, but Henry refuses leading to many brutal practices where the coach tries to make life a living hell for him, which he hopes will get Henry to finally quit, but to everyone’s surprise Henry perseveres and shows more grit in him than anyone ever imagined.
The script, which was co-written by Benson and his father Jerry Segal shows a revealing look of the underside of college sports making it quite compelling to watch particularly the first half-hour where Henry gets introduced to many things he hadn’t come into contact before including getting involved with ‘payouts’ to college benefactors, drugs, wild parties, amorous secretaries (Gail Strickland) and even romance with his tutor Janet (Annette O’Toole). The film has a nice year-in-the-life approach where the viewer feels like they are following Henry around by his side and experiencing the same first-hand situations as he does. It also examines the discrimination that athletes go through, which is rarely tackled in other films, dealing with Janet’s boyfriend Malcolm (James G. Richardson) who mocks Henry and other athletes like him for being ‘unintellectual’ and trained to passively obey all rules handed to them by their coaches while unable to think for themselves.
Benson’s performance of a wide-eyed, naïve small town lad works and the viewer can’t help but chuckle at his initial inability to handle the many new challenges he’s faced with while also remaining sympathetic to his ongoing quandary. Many actors may not be able to pull off such a feat, but Benson, who’s a far better performer than people may realize, does so flawlessly particularly the times when his character fights back and grows from a hayseed kid to a full grown man.
Spradlin has the perfect look and voice for a college coach and he coincidentally played a coach in North Dallas Forty, which came out that same year. However, his facial expressions reveal too much of his inner feelings particularly that of concern and worry where an actual coach would try to mask these vulnerable feelings from their players in order to prevent them from ‘reading’ what they are thinking and maintain more control.
Henry’s relationship with Janet comes off as forced. The two clearly were on opposite ends of the intellectual plain and I didn’t see what if anything that they actually had in common. Having Henry read ‘Moby Dick’ one of her favorite novels didn’t seem to be enough of a catalyst to have her suddenly fall-in-love with him. She brought in other athletes into her apartment to tutor and since she was paid $265 an hour I’d doubt she’d give that up, which most likely could cause tensions with their relationship, but this never gets addressed.
The songs by Seals and Croft don’t help and the film would’ve been better had they not been involved. They had some great chart toppers during the ‘70s, but slowing up the film by having a montage with their songs played over it takes the viewer out of the drama and unwisely reminds them that they’re just watching a movie instead. The Seals and Croft sound doesn’t coincide with a spots theme at all and it’s too bad that the Hall and Oates hit of ‘One on One’ hadn’t been released earlier because that song would’ve been a better fit.
The ending has a dreamy/sports clichéd feel particularly the way Henry comes off the bench and scores all the points as the team scratches and claws their way from behind, which could be enough to make some viewer’s eyes roll, but the fact that all the fans run onto the court afterwards is what had me. This was only an early season game and usually fans only do this during a crucial late season contest or championship. Henry’s team was expected to go undefeated and they were losing to a team that they were favored to beat, so if anything the fans would’ve been annoyed that the game was so close and not inclined to rush the court, but more thankful that they had avoided a potential loss and then critical that the squad was not living up to expectations.
Having Henry stand-up to the coach at the end and leave the team may have been emotionally satisfying for a few seconds, but in the long run he’d be better off had he stayed. If he joined a new team he’d have to start all over again proving himself to the new coach and teammates while here he had finally gotten that out of the way. He’d also have to move to a new school, which would’ve hurt his relationship with Janet.
End of Spoiler Alert!
Overall though as sports movies go this isn’t bad and pretty realistic most of the way. Fans of college basketball should enjoy it as it gives one a sort-of behind-the-scenes view of the inner workings of college athletics.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: June 28, 1977
Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes
Director: Lamont Johnson
Studio: Warner Brothers
Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), YouTube