This summer, each week we have taken a deeper look at a basketball movie. Some you’ve known, some you haven’t. Today brings us our final flick, Semi-Pro, the 2008 ABA comedy starring Will Ferrell, André Benjamin, Woody Harrelson, a fighting bear, and a lot of very funny people.
I’ve reached the point in my life as a sports fan where I am incapable of animus. With time comes perspective. During my teenage years as a Knicks fan, I hated Michael Jordan, who seemingly devoted every May and June to making my life miserable. The downside to being in a permanent froth was that I could not enjoy Jordan, which is perfect logic for a 15-year-old without a girlfriend and a clue.
As my free time grows more limited, I’ve learned to lighten up. Now, to quote the late Donald Hall, the game is the thing. I cherish Klay Thompson’s jump shot and Manu Ginobili’s craftiness. I savor Hubie Brown’s basketball advice masquerading as grandfatherly patience (“Plenty of time here now.”). There’s so much to appreciate that the score can be irrelevant. I spent years watching the 76ers before Sam Hinkie became martyred. What a treat it was to watch a series of young, hastily constructed squads play hard for Brett Brown while Marc Zumoff offered smooth play-by-play and peppy encouragement. The journalist in me marveled at how sideline reporter Molly Sullivan asked poised, insightful questions—that could never be answered with a “yes” or “no”—while a t-shirt cannon launched overhead.
Sports and movies share a similar strain of fandom that inspires a benign delusion. LeBron has gotta win more championships! How dare Michelle Williams star in a Marvel movie! That’s so beneath her. (I lack the stamina to delve into the Star Wars and superhero movie sects.) It’s easy to assign principles and expectations to someone else’s life. We also lose any sense of appreciation. LeBron’s cyborg body will eventually malfunction, so savor the freakish talent combined with a sky-high basketball I.Q.: Plus, you get to see him all the time. (Ask your parents and relatives how many times they got to see Oscar Robertson or Bill Russell or Jerry West.) As for Williams, she has delivered intense, multi-layered performances in excellent but dreary, less-than-popular indie fare. If she wants to take a role that can pay off her mortgage and not leave her drained at the end of each day, wonderful. A great performer always gives you something to appreciate. Even in junk like that nostalgia-clogged Marilyn Monroe biography, where she dragged wispy Eddie Redmayne and his fainting couch, Williams conveyed 1,000 words of emotions with a frown. It was like watching LeBron take a rebound and go coast to coast. Something special never gets boring.
Semi-Pro, Will Ferrell’s 2008 basketball comedy set in the final days of the crazy American Basketball Association, provides an opportunity to practice this lesson. It’s not even Ferrell’s best movie of that year—the now-revered Step Brothers hit theaters a few months later. But Semi-Pro provides a good forum for Ferrell’s brand of absurdist-faux angry comedy, which features everything from him drunkenly eating pancakes in a dumpster to having an emotional meltdown while wearing a giant sun costume. The movie isn’t transcendent, but there’s plenty to leave fans satisfied. Think of it as LeBron putting up 20, 10, and two highlight dunks against the Clippers in February.
Jackie Moon (Ferrell) is the owner of the fictional Flint Tropics, a team that like most ABA franchises is teetering toward insolvency. A big part is that few people attend the games, which are more a salute to Moon’s egocentric showmanship than a competitive sport. He not only announces the opening lineup—“From South Bend, Indiana, this guy has a heart of gold. His brother’s a retard!”—he sings his “long-ago hit” “Love Me Sexy” as a pregame warm-up. The Tropics are not serious about competing: After all, Moon, who is built like Will Ferrell, also coaches and starts as power forward.
Like many ABA franchise owners, Moon longs for the league to merge with the far more stable NBA. The good news for him is that will happen next season. And that’s it. The San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and the New York Nets will make the jump. In his fury, Moon proposes an idea. The teams with the four best records should enter the NBA. Amazingly, he convinces the other owners to go against the previously agreed-upon arrangement. There’s just a small problem: The Tropics are terrible. A solution arrives. For the team’s washing machine, Moon lands Ed Monix (Woody Harrleson), a combative veteran who gets the team to run plays instead of choreographed numbers.
Semi-Pro is less of a movie than a series of funny moments strung together, a hallmark of Scot Armstrong’s scripts (Old School, Road Trip). But the cast is so good beyond the leads that I didn’t care: Veep’s Matt Walsh as Father Pat, the beleaguered referee; Andrew Daly as the Tropics’ absurdly straight-laced announcer; Will Arnett as his perpetually hammered and politically incorrect broadcast partner; Andre Benjamin as the under-utilized Clarence “Coffee” Black. It’s like watching an All-Star Game. There’s nothing at stake, but it’s fun to see the players have a good time. Even better, Semi-Pro is only 91 minutes long.
The tacit admission that there’s no plot—the Tropics wind up playing for the worthless Flint, Michigan Mega Bowl, which ends in the streets of Flint erupting in chaos and the ABA commissioner mauled by a bear—gives us permission to sit back and appreciate Ferrell’s brand of lunacy in short-shorts and a mountainous perm—without wishing for something more.
- The Tropics are an obvious homage to the Miami Floridians, whose cheerleaders (or “ballgirls’) also donned bikinis. (The clip starts at 4:25.)
- For anyone who doubts Ferrell’s talents as a ballplayer, check out this ESPN segment of him playing H-O-R-S-E with Bill Walton. Who knew that Ferrell had such a feathery touch from the perimeter?
- One overlooked aspect of Semi-Pro is how it gets little details right. When the Tropics play a game in St. Louis, one of the banners features the radio station KMOX. That’s where a young broadcaster named Bob Costas called games for the Spirits of St. Louis.
- Though he’s fine, 10 years later, I still have no idea why André Benjamin is in this movie.
- Future stars in small roles here: Kristen Wiig (as the inexperienced trainer of a fighting bear), Jason Sudeikis (as a nacho-eating fan who draws Moon’s ire), and Ed Helms (as a reporter).
- Whoever cast Jackie Earle Haley (Kelly Leak from The Bad News Bears) as the “especially dirty hippie” who hits the halftime “Moon Shot” deserves an Oscar. P.S.: It’s probably my favorite scene. “He just won a giant check that says 10,000 dollars!”
- A simple, but effective sign of a good comedy is how quotable it is. Semi-Pro has a bounty of great lines. I’m a big fan of “And this crowd is going crazy! Crazy for corn dogs!”
- If you want to learn more about the ABA, pick up two classic books: Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls and David Wolf’s Foul!