For most of the summer, each week we have taken a deeper look at a basketball movie. Some you knew, some you didn’t. We conclude this column with a movie you’ve probably forgotten—and with good reason: 1996’s abysmal Celtic Pride. The comedy stars Damon Wayans, Daniel Stern, Dan Aykroyd, and Deion Sanders for a confounding reason.
In 1996, the NBA was indisputably a global phenomenon, thanks to the success of the first Dream Team and the return of Michael Jordan. Jordan was older, but a crop of young stars were waiting, including an MJ clone from a suburban Philadelphia high school and a small, scrappy kid who left Georgetown early. With such a strong base, it’s hard to explain Celtic Pride, an interminable, laugh-free comedy with Daniel Stern, Dan Aykroyd and Damon Wayans, three actors whose stars were dimming or never aglow. The movie should have come out when the NBA was a radioactive property beset by drug problems in the ’70s.
A closer look reveals that the NBA was in the last phase of achieving self-awareness. Space Jam, starring Jordan and a ton of merchandising opportunities, was released several months later. NBA-related media projects now are savvy, slick, dependent on promoting its own talent. You can see the motive, even in something as benign as Thunderstruck, which painted Kevin Durant as a kid-friendly role model or Trainwreck, which sought to stake LeBron James as an entertainment brand. (Space Jam 2 will help immeasurably.)
Sports grow more sophisticated with each passing day, further ossifying the past. It doesn’t just sweep players like Connie Hawkins and Elgin Baylor into history’s dustpan; it wipes clean every memory that the NBA was once a struggling, small-time enterprise. The League was not born a behemoth. We’re so devoted to the right now that we condemn development. Skills take time to ripen. That comes into view when we learn that Judd Apatow (yes, the man who directed Trainwreck) is Celtic Pride’s screenwriter. Remember how James, Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal had to find the right teammates, the right system and the right coach? The same applies in Hollywood. And everywhere else. It is unfair to possess that expectation of someone who is 18 or even 28, whether it’s Michelle Williams post Dawson Creek or your cousin who can’t find his footing two years after graduating college.
What you look for is progress, and in Celtic Pride some of the serious leanings that became Apatow’s trademark flicker before vanishing in high-concept stupidity. The timing was off as well. In 1995, audiences gravitated toward cynicism and comedy with feelings: Seinfeld and Friends ruled TV. Apatow was three years away from fine-tuning his comedy-pathos formula with Freaks and Geeks. Even after the beloved show abruptly ended in 2000, he was still waiting for his ring, so to speak. The 40-Year-Old Virgin wouldn’t hit movie theaters until 2005.
Stripped of this context Celtic Pride is still dreadful. The plot: two sports-obsessed New England chowderheads, Mike O’Hara and Jimmy Flaherty (Stern and Aykroyd, respectively) desperately want to see the Celtics win a final championship before the Boston Garden is demolished. What’s deferring that dream is the Utah Jazz (pretty clairvoyant, as the Jazz would make consecutive Finals appearances in 1997 and ’98), led by Lewis Scott (Wayans), who is torching the Celtics. With Game 7 looming, the two friends are tipped off to Scott’s postgame whereabouts. They quickly concoct a plan: befriend Scott at the club and get him so plastered he can’t play Game 7. The plan works a little too well. Lewis wakes up duct-taped in Mike’s bed. A little hair of the dog has growled into a legitimate, incredibly boring crime.
After watching Celtic Pride, I kept thinking this would have been amazing as a drama, where the three men could play cat-and-mouse games, with Apatow commenting on the corrosive side of fandom—race, money, loyalty. (Big Fan, with Patton Oswalt as a hopeless, adrift New York Giants fan, went this route years later. It’s worth your time.) Those topics get grazed before we return to a standard tie- ’em-up fare that does…not…move. Director Tom DeCerchio relies on the outlandish premise of two superfans kidnapping their team’s nemesis before the big game. And that’s it. There’s no attempt to embellish the physical comedy or the psyches of these three men. DeCerchio proceeds as if his three funny actors will elevate the material, but there’s nothing at stake. Mike’s wife (Gail O’Grady) threatens to leave him, but she’s such a dishrag and he’s such a glory days oaf, that we zone out. Jimmy’s borderline-autistic stats-happy man-child is another wrinkle of what Aykroyd has done since The Blues Brothers. And the reason we’re supposed to hate Scott is because he’s: cocky? Makes a lot of money?
That indifference applies to Boston, as DeCerchio ignores the city’s difficult racial history and its reputation as a petri dish of sports zealotry. The Boston Garden is central to the plot yet we don’t know what makes it so beloved. Its fans are painted as superstitious kooks who forego rent to play Larry Bird in horse. Yet there’s no wink at the camera, no deeper dive into the who. Say what you want about Bill Simmons, but he conveyed how Boston fans consider sports a religion, how they fold the games into their lives. (Even the god-awful Fever Pitch—the movie, not the book—did that well.) But, man, there is nothing in Celtic Pride to get this above the cartoon range. And it’s not even that, because it’s shot so basically and with zero comedic rhythm. A boardwalk caricature tossed in the attic under a pile of old yearbooks is a more apt description.
Celtic Pride actively hates the audience it’s parodying, inviting non-sports fans to recoil at the jersey-wearing variation of the wine snob or the pedantic art gallery denizen. Sports movies that cross over capture the drama and beauty of these games, how they color the world around us. You don’t need to be a collectible-loving, hot-take spouting goon to enjoy sports. Marvel at Steph Curry pirouetting his way around defenders? Gape at Aaron Rodgers throwing laser beams in a two-minute drive? Do you admire the unquenchable competitiveness—both on and off the court—of Serena Williams? Guess what? You’re a sports fan!
The gaping stupidity of Celtic Pride is a reminder of how little that attitude has changed. More Websites—including Fox Sports and VICE Sports—are “pivoting to video,” further cementing the idea that sports fans can’t handle any nuance beyond factoids or spittle-flecked screaming. Yet The Best American Sports Writing comes out year after year. ESPN: The Magazine just won a National Magazine Award. The best American writers—from Steinbeck to Faulkner to Updike to John Edgar Wideman—turned to sports. Even Twitter has added instant commentary to games. Sports fans are not cats batting at a ball of yarn.
Celtic Pride mocks us for appreciating sports on a deeper level. Living life and being a sports fan are mutually exclusive. Those who don’t embrace that fact are not in a comedy, but starring in a tragedy of their own creation.