There is something wonderfully funky about basketball in the 70’s. Big hair, knee socks…somehow the sport was a perfect fit for the disco era. One of the big stars of the NBA at the time was Julius Erving…aka Dr. J. He became a big enough celebrity that someone even decided to try and make him a movie star. He was cast as the star player of a troubled team in the disco hoops extravaganza, 1979’s The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh.
As our story begins the Pittsburgh Pythons are the worst basketball team in the league. So much so, in fact, that after one particularly embarrassing game the entire team, including their coach (Flip Wilson), decide to walk out. Everyone, that is, except for the one star player on the team, Moses Guthrie (Erving). This doesn’t dampen the spirits of the team’s number one fan, young Tyrone (James Bond III). Along with Moses he manages to convince the childlike owner of the team (Jonathan Winters) to assemble a new team using astrology as their guide. Basically, they realize that since Moses is a Pisces, they should assemble an entire team of “fish.” They also employ an astrologer named Mona Mondieu (Stockard Channing) to help give guidance.
Half of Pittsburgh shows up for the try outs and a team of ragtag players ends up being assembled. This includes a short in stature shooter called Setshot (Jack Kehoe), a Silent Bob-ish player named Bullet Haines (Malek Abdoul-Mansour), and a preacher turned player Rev Grady (Meadowlark Lemon). Strangely enough, the team quickly ends up becoming the hottest thing in the league and eventually decides to change their name to the Pittsburgh Pisces. When it all comes down to the big championship game, however, the stars are out of alignment and Mona ends up kidnapped by the opposition. It’s up to Tyrone and a group of dedicated fans to delay the game until the stars are in their favor.
There is a lot working against The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh. Let’s face it, it’s got a ridiculous premise and a cast full of basketball players…in other words: non-actors. The film manages to be an awful lot of fun, however. Part of it is the wonderfully weird disco soundtrack. Some sequences of the film border on moving us into the musical genre with songs that describe the events in the film. There’s even a funky half-time show featuring disco act The Sylvers.
There’s also a lot of fun in the game sequences, which is a good thing considering they take up a large portion of the film. With Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon on the team, it’s a given that there would be some great moments. It brought back childhood memories for me of when we would always try to tune in for ABC’s Wide World of Sports’ annual broadcast of a Globetrotters game. It also helps that we get a pretty good mix of crazy characters making up the team
There is a lot of room for improvement, however. Though the characters are fun, very few of them are given much of a chance to develop. On a whole, the film is very hurried. Once the new team is put together, before we know it they are out there playing…and playing perfectly. It seemed like this oddball group of players should’ve had some personality clashes and a few disastrous practices before everything ended up coming together. The team excels right from the beginning and just keeps going up. They have a few rough moments here and there, but we never see them lose a game. So the film doesn’t end up having much in the way of tension, but it’s still a pretty fun ride.
The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh is not a great cinematic achievement by any stretch of the imagination. Believe it or not, Julius Erving was not any kind of threat in the 1979 Oscar race. The film is little more than funky 70’s fun…and sometimes that’s enough.