Flick & Role: Blue Chips

For the remainder of the summer, each week we will take a deeper look at a basketball movie. Some you know, some you don’t. Next up is 1994’s Blue Chips, a solid college basketball drama starring Nick Nolte, Mary McDonnell, J.T. Walsh, Alfre Woodard and future Adam Sandler player Shaquille O’Neal. You might remember him. He was OK at basketball. 

Before he became everyone’s favorite uncle, Shaquille O’Neal entered the NBA as a player and as a brand.

Charles P. Pierce captured this in his terrific O’Neal profile for The New York Times Magazine way back in 1992. Shaq’s rookie season wasn’t even a month old, and the monstrous 20-year-old was already taking steps toward “being a multinational corporation—wholly owned by himself.” He had an endorsement deal from Reebok. His own basketball (from Spalding) and action figure (from Kenner) were about to be rolled out.

“The NBA is counting on him to lead it into the next generation and a continuation of the spectacular personality-driven growth of the last decade that has made the League the most astonishing success story in the history of professional sports,” Pierce wrote. “’He’s a little mini-entertainment complex,’” says his agent, Leonard Armato, “’before he ever steps on the floor.’” O’Neal’s arrival was to the NBA’s immense benefit. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were gone; Michael Jordan was months away from announcing his first retirement. Pierce observed that the NBA’s personality-driven marketplace required “constant renewal” to keep up the popularity “while it continues to finesse the problems of race and class that bedevil every institution today.” He also observed how likable O’Neal was: “He has a quick smile that instantly takes five years off his age.”

For me, a 15-year-old NBA fan, I was tired of Shaq after a month.

He was foisted upon me like a homework assignment or a household chore. Nope, I couldn’t just like Patrick Ewing and call it a day—I was forced to try something new. A movie starring O’Neal was another prong in an endless marketing ploy, alongside the rap albums and whatever soft drink he was peddling, rammed straight in my eye. The passage of time has improved O’Neal’s profile and 1994’s Blue Chips, his first movie. Its so-so box-office ($22.3 million) is not the result of a Shaq hangover. Jordan’s surprising 1993 retirement meant that O’Neal was the biggest star in an ascendant sport. Blue Chips is a Nick Nolte movie, which is good for movie buffs—but not what most NBA Inside Stuff devotees wanted. Though his name was splashed on the poster and he starred in the trailer, O’Neal first appears 39 minutes in, after his on-screen teammates, Penny Hardaway (now coaching high-school ball in Memphis) and Matt Nover (who’s on LinkedIn), are introduced.

As overlooked Louisiana bayou basketball prodigy Neon Boudeaux, O’Neal’s boyish charm is a nice complement to Blue Chips, a reminder of why beleaguered college coach Pete Bell (Nolte) loves the game and why his path toward buying success (and players) will end badly. The movie benefits from Nolte’s typical piss-and-vinegar approach and a stacked supporting cast: the late, great J.T. Walsh as the school booster who darkens Bell’s soul; Mary McDonnell, sexy and sweet, as Bell’s exacting ex-wife; Bob Cousy as the sympathetic athletic director; Alfre Woodard as Hardaway’s all-business mom. William Friedkin (The French Connection), unlike many of the directors whose work have been profiled here, is a craftsman. He moves the camera around. He provides different shots. He layers sound to capture the crowd, the commands from the players and coaches. The film has a ragged energy that feels like we’re playing a basketball game. (Note: Friedkin drew his basketball footage from three games featuring pros that were played in Frankfort, Ind.)

Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Nolte flanked by his three blue-chippers: Matt Nover, Shaq and Penny Hardaway

Where Blue Chips stumbles is Ron Shelton’s script—it doesn’t match the fire and depth of the performances. College basketball is corrupt; coaches face immense pressure to win were themes covered in an inch of dust in 1994. Blue Chips desperately needs an external conflict—beyond Walsh’s slick menace or a few quick scenes of a reporter (Ed O’Neill) catching on to the deception—to feed Bell’s churning soul. Nolte’s memorable, inflammatory speech at the end aside, Blue Chips never boils. It slowly simmers toward earnest professionalism. It’s a heck of a Sunday afternoon time-killer, which is great. But, like He Got Game, it could be more.

O’Neal would get a chance to shine in movies like Kazaam (1996) and Steel (1997), both spectacular flops. His basketball career was the opposite, though I’m not convinced he fulfilled the role the NBA envisioned. Any success he had was heavily associated with another player, namely Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Larry, Magic and Michael were always and indisputably the leads. All three had a competitive edge that delighted hardcore NBA fans. (As Bill Simmons pointed out in 2009’s The Book of Basketball, O’Neal “only took basketball seriously for one entire season [1999-00].”) O’Neal was known as an overgrown kid—and still is. Check out his work in Grown Ups 2 or Shaqtin’ the Fool. It’s why he’s adored today. That he won four championships keeps him from being our generation’s Wilt Chamberlain; a talented behemoth who wasted his gifts.

Shaq had quick feet and terrific lateral movement, but his game—a buff 30-year-old dad backing down his portly 8-year-old-son in the post—didn’t inflame the imagination. It’s hard to attach your hoop dreams to a guy who plays like you on a Nerf hoop. Jordan and Magic possessed a sense of glide and grace; Bird was the working-class poet of the hardwood and a hero to gravity-bound white folks everywhere. O’Neal was pure, tear-the-backboard-down power. He was the ’90s Chamberlain, who once remarked that nobody roots for Goliath. People, though, are still rooting for Shaq. “It’s fun to see Shaq. Shaq is the sort of person who makes you feel like you’re doing something interesting simply by being in the same room with him,” writer Will Leitch recounted in a memorable I-met-Shaq post. “Everyone was talking about how Shaq was on our flight, and everyone was smiling about it.” It turns out O’Neal didn’t need a marketing plan or even a movie to be loved, he just needed to be himself.