Published on July 3rd, 2014 | by Clint Davis
That Championship Season 
Summary: A stage-to-screen adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning play that leans heavily on its cast and gets a lot out of them. Every performance is outstanding and the story is full of truths about friendship and the power of nostalgia.
R | 110 min.
Director & Screenplay: Jason Miller (based on his play)
Starring: Martin Sheen, Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach, Paul Sorvino, Robert Mitchum
Distribution: Cannon Films
Nostalgia can be a powerful drink.
You get enough like-aged folks in a room talking about the good old days and they may never come out, with the length of the chat being inversely proportional to how fulfilling their current days are. When actor Jason Miller penned That Championship Season for the stage in 1972, he understood this truth completely.
Miller, an actor best known for playing Father Damien Karras (the young priest) in William Friedkin’s infamous film The Exorcist, won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama with his play and, following a successful run on Broadway, decided to turn That Championship Season into a movie. Along with adapting the script, he would handle directing duties for the first and last time of his career.
Since 1982, That Championship Season has been revived on stage and made into a made-for-cable film version with varying actors but for this review we’ll take a look at Miller’s original big screen adaptation, which featured one hell of a strong cast.
The plot follows an aging group of teammates from the 1957 Pennsylvania State High School Basketball Championship as they reunite for the 24th anniversary of their big victory. The players, brought to life by Martin Sheen, Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach and Paul Sorvino, still look up to their gruff old coach, played by the legendary Robert Mitchum (Cape Fear, The Night of the Hunter), in one of his last marquee roles. The men are mostly stuck firmly in 1957, but seeing as the movie takes place in 1981, that’s a bit of an issue and causes tensions to rise as the characters’ growing disappointment in their own lives begin boiling over.
That Championship Season is set in Miller’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which is shown as a quaint town in the picture’s opening scene. It appears that most of the city’s population is at the local park for a gathering celebrating Mayor George Sitkowski, played by Dern. The crowd of mostly senior citizens wave American flags and eat hot dogs while watching a routine put on by the local high school’s cheerleading squad. It’s idealized Americana at its purest, until we get to hear what Sitkowski and his council talk about away from the town square.
“Remember that 8 foot nigger they had that jumped like a kangaroo?,” Coach Delaney asks the boys when they are laughing together over glasses of champagne. When talking about a mayoral candidate who is threatening to end George’s run at city hall, advisors Phil Romano (Sorvino) and James Daley (Keach) refer to him merely as “The Jew.” Meanwhile, George brags to his pals about his safety record, saying, “There’s no niggers mugging in my city streets, I’ll tell you that.”
Miller’s study of these flawed characters goes much deeper than simply having them recite offensive epithets though, as the men get gradually more drunk, the deeply buried fear and insecurities begin to flow out. These lifelong friends begin to turn on each other quickly, as the melodrama piles up.
“I carried everybody my whole life,” Keach cries during a wonderfully played scene between he and Dern, who would meet again in Nebraska over 30 years later. Of the characters, Sheen’s Tom Daley appears to be the most well-balanced from the outset, as he notes, “Nothing’s really changed around here. Nothing,” upon returning to Scranton after living out west. However, that air of superiority disappears fairly quickly.
As tensions begin to rise between the men, it’s Tom that reveals an alcohol problem by getting completely hammered and becoming an obnoxious loudmouth. He eventually takes a head-first tumble down a flight of stairs, before slowly sobering up. Tom is revealed as a cynical jerk, making jokes while the other guys begin expounding very personal stories. Even so, Tom is still more upfront and honest than his compatriots, who seem to talk behind each other’s backs a lot.
This revelation is one of my favorite parts of Miller’s script for That Championship Season, as it shatters any illusion the audience had about there being a white knight in this story. None of the five central characters in this movie are honorable but as a result, all are given a layer of reality often not seen by an entire cast.
Sticking with the typical stage-to-screen adaptation format, Miller keeps the movie light on scenery, heavy on dialogue. Technically there are only about five or six scenes in this entire nearly two hour picture, giving each actor a lot of screen time to get into their parts. If you need action, That Championship Season will bore you to tears but for people who simply love to watch acting, you need to see this one. Keach and Dern deliver the most gratifying performances but it was Sorvino who stood out most to me. The man who later became famous for his role in Goodfellas is so natural here I felt like I knew his character best at the end.
Phil is a construction outfit owner who’s likely earned his wealth through shady channels. The guy has gotten to his position of wealth riding largely on his legacy as a member of the championship basketball team, as most of his teammates have. Sorvino plays Phil with a level of confidence that only an ex-jock could possess. His character is the type of guy that still hits on 20-something women in his fifties, and likely takes them home. “We gotta stop sitting around and fingering the past,” Phil says as an extremely uncomfortable situation winds down, showing a new level of self-realization for this egotistical character.
That Championship Season‘s themes of resting on one’s laurels, living in the past and the lifelong sense of entitlement that accompanies success at a young age continue to resonate in the me-first social media age. The film’s characters each yearn for the old days at times, although they seem to have it pretty good in their current lives. At times I was confused by the message of the movie, as it seemed to say that if you’re old you might as well give up and die, or get a Porsche and pick up a cocaine habit.
I applaud Miller for not beating the audience over the head with a preachy message about bigotry, as he seems to expect the audience to recognize their backwardness and judge them accordingly. Nobody dies at the end of That Championship Season, the guys merely mend fences by watching their old game film one more time on George’s living room television.
Cannon Films, the studio that brought you such wide-ranging fare as the 1984 B-boying movie Breakin’ and 1986’s Chuck Norris & Lee Marvin ass-kicking vehicle The Delta Force, bankrolled That Championship Season. And while this is the type of picture that gives a fledgling studio some legitimacy among critics, Cannon ended up filing bankruptcy later in the decade. I was unable to find specific box office statistics from That Championship Season, only anecdotes indicating the movie was not a financial success.
Miller ends the film on a something of a triumphant note, even though we know these guys all deserve to tumble. From the closing shot we see that lifelong friendships will endure, provided the memories are strong enough.