Flick & Role: The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh

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 The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh starring James Bond III, Jonathan Winters, Stockard Channing, and a gloriously afro’d Julius Erving. 

As a child of the 1980s, I find it impossible that Julius Erving is fading from relevance, even though it’s inevitable. There are kids who only know Michael Jordan as a silhouette attached to a shoe, who view him the way others look at Red Grange or Babe Ruth—a moldy figurehead from irrelevance.

Dismissing Erving is easy, because he’s a midway point in basketball’s continual evolution. Michael Jordan had a better jump shot—and won six championships. Allen Iverson catered to the hip-hop generation—and had that ungodly handle. LeBron James does everything so well—and at incomprehensible size. With each great new player, Erving gets demoted to the warm memories of grandparents and in-my-day purists. So does every childhood hero.

Erving should be spared. Every basketball fan should sit down and write Erving a thank-you note, or at least an appreciative tweet (@JuliusErving). Because of him, basketball survived after lingering in hospice care for most of the 1970s. He was the leading man in the ABA, which provided innovations—a running style of play; games as entertainment events; the three-point-line—that goosed the stodgy NBA to relevance. Erving’s swooping grace kept the league afloat as franchises and crowd sizes dwindled. If you learn anything from Terry Pluto’s extraordinary oral history on the ABA, Loose Balls, it’s Erving’s importance to the wobbly league.

Basketball lifer Rod Thorn, who coached in the ABA, says there was a league-wide understanding that nothing happened to Erving. “I think that other teams knew what Julius meant to the league,” he told Pluto. “No one ever tried to deck him. A lot of players would rough up Julius, but no one ever wanted to hurt him. You weren’t going to take a punch at Julius Erving. That would have been like fighting in church.” And in an era before every play was chronicled on YouTube, social media, and even SportsCenter, Erving was a marketing hook for two leagues. In one of the countless NBA Entertainment documentaries I’ve devoured, Billy Cunningham, Erving’s longtime coach with the 76ers and an ABA MVP, describes how the crowd felt rewarded after Erving dunked. After all, who knew when you’d see that again.

Erving—along with ABA alumni like David Thompson and George Gervin—began the game’s move toward individual, stylish play. (Larry and Magic showed up in 1979 with their built-in rivalry; Jordan showed that you could build a dynasty on that concept.) And he was the first consistent African-American pitchman for the NBA, the rare athlete whose eloquence and grace extended on-camera. He showed a skittish public that, hey, the black people playing this game were A-Okay. He was O.J. Simpson without the grotesque third act.

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s impossible to stress how important that likability was. Read James Michener’s Sports in America (1976) and you see what an obstacle skin color was for a mostly white audience. One sports fan told Michener that “in basketball you sit right on the playing floor and the men are almost undressed and their blackness hits your right in the face.” Another suggested that since African-Americans (at the time) consisted of 12 percent of the population, that’s exactly the percentage of players that should be represented in the NBA. “From here on out it’s their game, not mine.”

That basketball was played by large black men—many of whom came across, understandably, as moody loners (e.g., Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone)—was a big reason why the sport lacked telegenic appeal, why companies would rather burn their money than advertise a Knicks-Lakers game. Chamberlain vs. Reed sounds intoxicating to anyone with an iota of basketball knowledge, but a TV executive in 1972 looks at that and thinks, “Who can Joe Sixpack identify with?” Football had Roger Staubach, a man who boasted of having sex with one woman—his wife. Baseball had meat-n’-potato straight arrows like Pete Rose, who played the game the right way. Basketball had somber op-eds and grim forecasts. Add drug scandals to the mix later, and you have every racist uncle’s nightmare becoming real.

Erving being a tremendous basketball player, and to use ignorant America’s favorite phrase of approval for black people—well-spoken—pushed the NBA toward relevance. Appearance is everything, and here was Cary Grant in basketball shorts.

Given Erving’s historical significance, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, the 1979 basketball comedy starring Erving. It’s not because Fish is a bad movie—oh, it is. The movie doesn’t treat its star with any reverence. He’s just an attraction in a circus act, another prop to support the zeitgeist. Jordan played basketball with the Looney Tunes. Shaq’s first movie was directed by William Friedkin, who helmed The French Connection. Erving is barely the star of his own movie, which is fitting and sad.

Welcome to…some vague basketball league, which features the Pittsburgh Pythons. The Pythons are led by Moses Guthrie (Erving), whose superstar status and million-dollar contract causes a mutiny. As so often happens in professional sports, after a blow-out loss, everyone on the team quits, save for Guthrie. The reason behind the discord is simple, says 14-year-old Tyrone (James Bond III), who contributes to the team in some unknown capacity that doesn’t violate child labor laws. Astrologically, the team is a mess and needs a makeover.

Tyrone ventures to the seedy side of Pittsburgh and enlists the help of an astrologer (Stockard Channing, sporting a massive mound of hair and Stevie Nicks’ wardrobe). A tryout is held, producing a new, more astrologically compatible unit. There are lots of odd characters—a mute who does magic tricks, a DJ who rhymes, a Native American who dresses like a Bonanza extra—but it works. This collection of Village People rejects and charming stereotypes becomes a team. That means wins, a new name (the Pisces), and lots of highlights set to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of disco songs.

I watched Fish droopy-eyed after a long day of travel, which is probably the best state to replicate the mind-altering conditions for Fish to be truly appreciated. It didn’t take. The film’s nutty tone is undercut by basic structural and continuity issues. The example that has come up is Abdul-Jabbar, who stars for the creatively named Los Angeles Team before vanishing from the movie’s crucial final game. (The reason, according to Erving: Kareem stormed off the set after director Gilbert Moses challenged him on the shape of his goatee.) That’s just the start.

  • We are introduced to two female fans (one of whom is Debbie Allen of Fame fame) who we think we’ll be the face of the crowd. They disappear after two scenes.
  • Tyrone has a friend on the Pythons who works with him. The kid’s name is never uttered. Sometimes he’s around, sometimes he’s not.
  • Comedian Jonathan Winters plays two roles: the Pisces’ child-like owner and his dastardly, envious brother. The latter wants to ruin the former’s success. We never find out why or what he gets from it.

There are so many characters coming and going, we don’t connect with anyone on screen. Good luck trying to figure out who the protagonist is: Tyrone, Tyrone’s sister (who displays a borderline o-face to Moses’ seduction technique: dunk in slo-mo to a slow-jam), Moses (who is more a vehicle for the success than a hero)? The film is in a high-concept hurry to please the kids—slam dunk, song, slam dunk, song—that detail after detail gets glossed over.

It becomes noticeable. The film’s presentation is flatter than Erving’s abs. Gilbert employs no edits or shots to emphasize tone or to elicit a reaction. In the crucial final game, Tyrone instructs the halftime act to stall. We see a straight-ahead musical number followed by Marv Albert commenting about how the halftime was so long. Think of how that scene could have been improved: the opposing team, stiffening in the locker room, tapping their feet in frustration; a referee comically waylaid from getting the performers off the court; the increasingly tired performers improvising lyrics to stretch. I’m hard-pressed to think of any shots with Erving that include his whole body. The man looks like he’s dunking on a Nerf hoop, not an artist whose canvas is 94 feet of hardwood. Sports movies are all about how this is more than a game. In Fish, you’re constantly reminded that you’re watching a game, and that ESPN, NBA TV, and various local networks do a better job at capturing emotions than this movie. Heck, Chick Hearn’s sporadic announcing is more colorful than anything, including the Scarface-meets-Dr.-Timothy-Leary softball uniforms the Pisces wear.

Of course, basketball was evolving not just on the court. Eventually, CBS Sports would realize that the game could be presented with personalities, with Magic and Larry serving as headliners. Rick Welts came up with the concept of All-Star Weekend. David Stern, a die-hard hoops fan, became NBA commissioner in 1984 and summoned a new marketing mindset. The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh is partially a victim of its time, but Erving’s presence shows how far the NBA had come. The movie should be forgotten, but not the player who saved Pittsburgh. And the NBA.