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Exposing Intercollegiate Sports

One on One directed by Lamont Johnson at the Sack Beacon Hill, Tremont St., Boston


THE BEST SPORTS MOVIE I ever saw was Pride of the Yankees, the 1942 tribute to Lou Gehrig featuring Gary Cooper as the ill-fated Yankee great. It was hokey and soapy, almost completely unrelated to the realities of major league sports, but it was still a lot of fun. That, in the long run, has to be the main criterion for judging sports movies. With a very few exceptions, these films don't aim at bringing any important theme to an audience. In an era of incredibly mindless films, sports movies remain in the fore of anti-intellectualism. The people who go to these films have to be sports fans, and jock-sniffers as a general rule aren't very concerned with internal meanings, just the final score.

Every now and then, however, a sports movie comes along that tries to grapple with some issue facing the sporting world besides the stacked-I formation or the intricacies of swatting a slider. One on One, currently packing them in at movie theaters all over America, makes a decent stab at exposing the high-pressure, win-at-all-costs nature of intercollegiate sports, a topic deserving of much scrutiny. On that level, One on One is fine; unfortunately, it descends to the level of mawkish boredom in detailing the march to maturity of its main character, a hotshot basketball player portrayed by Robbie Benson.

Benson apparently intended One on One to be his tour de force, the film that would firmly establish him in Hollywood. He will probably succeed in this venture, since the folks who make movies look only at the box office receipts. That which sells is good; that which bombs, no matter what its artistic merit--well, too bad. Benson not only starred in One on One, he co-wrote it with his father, a professional screenwriter. The family that makes films together gets rich together.

Benson, who doesn't even look like a jock, plays a heavily recruited high school hoop star who chooses fictional Western University in Los Angeles, a perennial basketball power. Any parallels to UCLA, it seems, are purely intentional. The coach, played by one W.D. Spradlin, even clutches a rolled-up program during games, a quirk college hoop fans will immediately recognize as the trademark of John Wooden, UCLA's fabled Wizard of Westwood.

ONCE HE GETS to Western (after a very funny scene in which he is ripped off by a comely hitchhiker), the naive hero quickly finds out the truth about intercollegiate sports in the big time. He is given a cushy job watching grass grow in a stadium, slipped a lot of cash by an alumnus, introduced to the jock party scene complete with willing coeds and exposed to a maniacal head coach who has to have things his way. Things do not go well, alas. The coach doesn't like his style of play and waxes antagonistic, finally having him beaten on the court, ostensibly to teach him a lesson. Finally, he is asked to renounce his precious athletic scholarship; when he refuses, the fun starts in earnest. This part of the film, at least, is fairly realistic. Big-time college sports are really professional sports in the guise of amateur athletics, and survival is dependent on both talent and an ability to accept a system that reduces athletes to little more than meat on the hoof, brainless creatures expected to deliver on the field and shut up, letting the athletic department worry about everything else, including the business of their education.

Unfortunately, no film about a youngster seems complete without drug addiction or romantic interest, and One on One opts for the latter, wholesome, all-American production that it is. Perhaps it would have been better going for the junkies. Benson falls for the tutor assigned to him by the athletic department, played by the appealing Annette O'Toole. She hates jocks, hates them with a passion, as does her hip psychology professor boyfriend. But Benson's earnestness soon makes her give up the obnoxious prof for her tutee, who convinces her that sports in themselves aren't all bad at the same time she initiates him to the pleasures of reading more than a playbook. The two make a sickeningly cute couple, and from their togetherness Benson finds the strength to surmount his difficulties. Eventually, he beats the odds and the neo-fascist coach, winning the big game with some last-minute heroics. Ordinarily a reviewer shouldn't give away details like that, but this one is telegraphed from about the first five minutes of the film. You just know it's going to happen eventually, and the scene, when it finally comes, is among the weakest in the film because it is so predictable; besides, it just doesn't look real.

UNDERDOG FILMS seem to be the rage these days, no doubt owing to the tremendous success of last year's Rocky. They do have an undeniable appeal. Everyone loves the little guy who overcomes tremendous odds to become a hero, right? If any more of these films are made, the theme will be beaten to a hasty death, which seems inevitable (and desirable) since Hollywood will only risk money on a proven formula; witness the endless sequels to witless movies that bring in the bucks. Benson will probably come up with Son of One on One next year and follow that with One on One Meets Godzilla, or something equally inane.

Still, One on One is a fairly decent movie, even it if lacks redeeming artistic value. It succeeds mostly because it does entertain, despite the predictable romance and occasionally banal dialogue. The film is fast-paced and even funny upon occasion, as in the scene which features our hero driving a drunken, nymphomaniacal athletic department secretary home from a party. He has his eyes on the road, but her eyes are on something else, leading to a rather embarassing situation.

ANOTHER MEMORABLE SCENE has Benson, whose bloodstream is described by his roommate as "purer than Rocky Mountain spring water," taking a hit of speed at practice to, er, liven up his game. Of course, he goes absolutely wild, running around and jumping up and down like a madman while his teammates stand around and giggle helplessly. Benson is a fair actor, but his part doesn't demand all that much besides wide-eyed innocence, with an appropriate burst of emotion. Spradlin turns in a solid performance as the fiendish coach, and O'Toole is passable as the lover. The worst thing about the film is a pitiful score written by that misbegotten little nitwit, Paul Williams, and performed by those masters of Muzak, Seals and Crofts.

If you like sports and sports films, you should check out One on One. It is nowhere near great, or even very good, but it features a definite appeal despite its many shortcomings and, at times, the ring of truth about the sham that intercollegiate athletics can be.

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