‘That Championship Season’ Is a Theatrical Slam Dunk

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

That Championship Season
Bernard B. Jacobs Theater
242 W. 45th St.
New York, N.Y.

Every year for the last twenty years, four of the five starters for the small Pennsylvania high school basketball team that won the state championship in 1952 gather at their coach’s home to celebrate the victory. At the annual re-union, the coach reminds them, and they remind each other, that they were champions on the court and now, as men approaching forty, they are champions off of it.

They are not.

Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, ‘That Championship Season,’ first staged in 1972, was enormously popular when it debuted and was produced by hundreds of theaters across the country. It was an ensemble acting hit parade and, over the years, produced entertainment superstars such as Paul Sorvino and Danny Aiello.

Now, nearly forty years after its debut, and sixty years after the epic high school championship game, the play, that opened last night, is not stale at all. It has aged like fine wine, or should I say good passing and rebounding, and is a powerful statement about life – and sports. It is also a sharp, perceptive look at sports people, as ‘Lombardi’ was earlier in the theater season. People involved in sports, and those who watch it, learn much about life from it. ‘The Championship Season’ is a big lesson in life, as well as an eye-opening study of sports history.

The drama is one of the best to open in New York this year. It is a success because of the richness of Miller’s script, but also because of the dynamic acting delivered by a quintet of America’s top performers, led by television stars Kiefer Sutherland (‘24’) and Chris Noth (‘Law and Order,’ ‘The Good Wife’).

Noth plays Phil Romano, a wealthy local entrepreneur who is bored with his life and a very lonely man. For excitement, he beds his old teammate’s wife and drives for hours on Pennsylvania highways, then turns around the drives home, his eyes dead while his car races at 140 mph. Noth is superb as the small town businessman. He is very physical, always up and down from the sofa, edgy in his speech, provocative in his language. Sutherland plays James Daley, a junior high principal saddled with five kids, who has gone nowhere in life but has big political plans for himself – shared by no one. Sutherland plays Daley as a low key keg of powder for most of the play, and shines at the end when the keg explodes.

The pair is surrounded by a trio of marvelously gifted actors. Brian Cox is persuasive as the bombastic coach, a lovable character at the start of the play and a despicable one by its end. He bellows and flaps his arms, stalks across the large, handsomely designed living room set and waves his ’52 championship trophy whenever he can, as if it explains his life and the lives of his ‘boys.’

Jim Gaffigan is George Sikowski, the community’s bubble headed Mayor, nicknamed ‘Sabu’ by the newspapers when a circus elephant died in town. The two big issues in his upcoming re-election campaign are that his opponent is Jewish and his opponent’s cousin is a communist. He is as wonderful a dunce as a dunce can be.

Jason Patric plays Tom Daley, a thin, cherubic looking alcoholic who, inebriated most of the play, is the only man who can see the truth and recognize the moral collapse of each of his old teammates. Patric, the son of the playwright, is marvelous as he glides about the stage with a tiny smirk on his face.

The men, on this memorable re-union, have little to show for twenty years of living beyond a hollow silver basketball trophy. They may have won on the court, but they have all failed in life. Director Gregory Mosher does a splendid job of moving his people about the stage and keeping the pace sometimes fast and furious and at other times  somber and reflective. His sturdy ensemble cast never fails and creates, moment by moment, a sad portrait of a corroded championship season from long ago.

The history of small town Pennsylvania basketball in the play is nowhere near as complete as it might be. There is electricity in the air in any small town whose high school team plays for a title, as displayed in the movie “Hoosiers.” So, given that, I think they should have updated the film to 2011, looking back twenty years to 1991, in order to get much, much more basketball history into the story.

Basketball was a minor professional sport in ’52, when the NBA was just five years old, scoring was low and crowds were small. By 1991, pro basketball was a huge worldwide sport. It was a sport so big that its stars were all known just by their first names or nicknames: Michael, Pearl, Magic, Bird. If updated, play could connect easier to more fans in the audience. Who connects to 1952? Eisenhower wasn’t even President yet. The update would not eliminate the strong storylines of the play, all still as fresh and troublesome today as they were in 1972.

Each of the men in ‘The Championship Season’ has become a moral wreck in the twenty years since their memorable victory. They drink, chase each other’s wives, cheat on taxes, double-cross each other, lie and pretend to be the pillars of their community, which they are not. It takes the entire re-union night for them to see each other for what they have become. At the re-union they not only rehash the old days, but, in an awkward way, plan Sikowski’s re-election campaign. The coach craftily brings them all on board in the election in the spirit of ‘the team.’

In a final rage, the racist coach, his own terrible secrets and shame revealed, tells his ‘boys’ that “you have to hate to win.” No, you don’t. Hate does not produce victory: hard work, skill and determination produce victory.

Finally, Tom Daley, the drunk, bursts everyone’s memory bubble and blurts out the real reason why they won the championship

The play ends with the weather beaten old coach positioning the men, drinks in hand, together for their annual re-union photo, the championship trophy held proudly in their hands. He tells them, quite sadly, that he doesn’t watch much basketball anymore because it is “no longer a white man’s game” as it was in the 1950s

It is not, coach; now it is an American game.

PRODUCTION: Producers – the Shubert Organization, Robert Cole, Frederick Zollo, the Weinstein Company, Second Chance Productions, others. Set: Michael Yeargan, Costumes: Jane Greenwood, Lighting – Peter Kaczorowski, Sound -- Scott Lehrer. Directed by Gregory Mosher.

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