I stumbled across “Blue Chips” the other day on some movie channel. I hadn’t seen it in a while, and with Shaq’s Meryl Streep-esque movie career on my mind after his retirement, I decided to invest the hour and a half and dust off the old gem.
Now “Blue Chips” is no “Shazaam,” but I still got quite a lot out of what I forgot to realize was a very underrated sports movie. “Blue Chips” also isn’t “Hoosiers,” but it definitely keeps you interested, and holds up surprisingly well almost two decades later. Seeing Shaq as Neon Bodeaux – the unknown giant from the swamps of Louisiana who has absolutely the best and most appropriate name for a fictitious basketball player from Louisiana – is worth it by itself. On top of that, you have a Larry Bird cameo, a made-up team (L.A.-based “Western University”) that is eerily similar and foreshadowing to USC, Penny Hardaway when he was still Penny Hardaway, and a great ending speech that I wish would actually happen once in my lifetime.
If you haven’t seen the movie at all in or a while, here’s a quick recap: Pete Bell (played by Nick Nolte) is a legendary college basketball coach at Western University (think: Bob Knight still at Indiana). Pete has won national championships, has his own TV show, and is generally revered as a living deity in the college basketball world. He has three losing seasons in a row because it is getting harder and harder to recruit athletes without cheating (side note: this is 1994). Pete has always done it the right way and is morally hard on his stance. He finally gives in during the recruitment of three top-level recruits played by Shaq, Penny, and some slick-shooting, farm-boy white forward from French Lick, Indiana (hence the Larry Bird cameo). Pete finally gives in to some “friends of the program” to help him pay off these recruits. Everything goes well; they all come to school and the team eventually plays number one ranked Indiana and the real Bob Knight. Pete starts to hear some things about some of the “friends of the program” getting to some of his other players and starts to regret his decision about cheating. Western takes down number one Indiana (with Shaq dunking over multiple Hoosiers an estimated two hundred and forty times during the game), and in the post-game presser, Pete delivers this movie-validating speech in which he quits.
Watching Blue Chips and hearing the speech blew me away. One more time – this was 1994. Seventeen years ago, this was the underlying theme of the movie: you cannot win in college sports without cheating. This quote did me in more than any:
“Y’know, someplace, someplace in America right now, there’s some 10 year old kid. He’s out there on that playground, and he’s playin’, he’s dribbling between his legs, he’s goin’ left, he’s goin’ right, he’s already above the rim, he’s stuffin’ it home. You know what’s gonna happen to this kid? Five minutes from now, he’s gonna be surrounded by agents, corporate sponsors and coaches. Y’know, people like me. Just drooling over this kid because he holds our future employment in his hands. I mean, that’s what we’ve made this game. That’s what we’ve done.”
That was seventeen years ago. Six years after Southern Methodist got the infamous “Death Penalty” from the NCAA in 1988. In college sports, you had no major headline-spanning scandals except point shavings until Southern Methodist in 1988. I was born in 1986. So when I was two years old, major college sports was exposed. Considering my age, I was not able to experience the shock and disbelief that those who followed sports at the time were able to feel. I didn’t look up from my cereal bowl with dried cheerios all over my face and say “wow for those first two years I really thought college athletics were a pure and untainted part of my life.”
I’d say probably any major sports fan or just casual onlooker born between 1980 and 1995 has no ability to put college athletics in the proper perspective because of how prevalent this stuff has been. Maybe they can be less cynical, but I have no foil. I have no ability to say “it’s not how it used to be.” And it took a most-likely half-drunk Nick Nolte in a blue sweater to make me realize this.
It made me realize that I have no moral resentment towards anyone who gets caught cheating in college sports. I’ll take interest in the salaciousness of the story or the particular details, but in the back of my mind – I have yet to find myself angry or disgusted.
I find myself asking the question of “how dumb were they to get caught” more than I say “wow, I didn’t expect that.”
Most of the popular sportswriters and analysts who cover this subject today are of a different generation. Those who spread across the pages of the major media – print and online – and those who fill up our televisions grew up in a different era. They grew up without the omnipotence of scandals, cheating, illegal text messages, and returned championships. They were the children of an age when every recruit, every program, and every season wasn’t mired with suspicion. They weren’t guilty until proven innocent. You didn’t have to win a championship and still hold your breath for the five years after to make sure you kept it.
When there is a changing of the guard in the generation of sports personalities, when those born after 1980 become the elder-statesman, we will be a sports media culture that is numb to the cheating.
The men who fill the ranks as big-time college football and basketball coaches are some of the most competitive men you will find anywhere in sports. And in an atmosphere where there are no drafts, there are no salary caps, and there are more rules you are expected to follow than there are restrictions that you simply can’t get around, they work 24/7 and still have to circumnavigate some of those rules to stay competitive.
This is why no coach is safe. No record can be perceived too spotless, no closet can be assumed skeleton-free. Sometimes the ones at the head of the mob with the biggest pitchforks turn out to be Frankenstein themselves.
This was the case with Pete Bell, and unfortunately in real life it was personified by Jim Tressel. This was a guy who was Pete Bell: The books about integrity and being honest. The pristine reputation. The national success and the respect of his peers. The difference – in an obvious way – was that Pete Bell couldn’t morally stomach his actions. He was sickened by his hypocrisy and he broke down within one season of committing his transgressions. Tressel covered things up for who knows how long and was forced to shamefully resign.
No real-life college coach has ever pulled a Pete Bell before. Would we love to see this happen? Aboslutely. We view this man as a martyr of sorts, immediately forgive him, and hold the rest of the coaches to this kind of standard. The pre-SMU generation would respect the old-school morality and the rest of us would appreciate knowing some of these guys actually have a soul.
Until that happens, I’ll go back to the self-sustaining apathy and wait for the next scandal to come down the line. The only thing that could really surprise or shock me at this point is if I found out that Coach K had his players running a meth lab in the basement of Cameron Indoor (settle down Tarheels, I know you all just went six to midnight).
I’ll continue to be content making jokes about players getting busted and speculating about the teams and coaches I don’t care for. This stuff has been the same now for two decades and I just realized I have no reason to know any better. Plausible deniability. Thank you, Nick Nolte.