Theatre / That Championship Season

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That Championship Season is a 1972 stage play by American playwright Jason Miller (also known for playing Father Karras in The Exorcist) which won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in its first year of performances.

In 1952, the basketball team of Fillmore High, a small Catholic high school in Scranton, staged an upset victory in the final of the Pennsylvania State High School Basketball Championship. Four of the players - George Sitkowski, Phil Romano, and brothers James and Tom Daley - have had annual reunions ever since with their coach (only ever addressed as Coach) at his house on the anniversary of their victory. The fifth player, Martin Rose, has refused to attend any of the reunions and wants nothing to do with Coach or his former teammates.

Twenty years on, George is a first-term mayor of Scranton fighting a tough re-election campaign against Norman Sharmen, who is younger, more dynamic, and, most galling of all for the bigoted George and his teammates, Jewish. A campaign publicity stunt has gone badly wrong, enhancing the view of both the voting public and his own campaign that George is a buffoon. Phil is a wealthy strip mining entrepreneur who has been donating to George's campaigns in exchange for favourable terms on the land lease for his mining operations; unbeknownst to George, he is also having an affair with his wife, Marion. James is the overworked and underpaid principal of a local junior high school and is George's campaign manager, hoping to be named superintendent of schools if George is re-elected. Tom has become an alcoholic drifter.

At the reunion, the tensions between the former basketball players quickly simmer to the surface. Coach hates dissent in the ranks, feeling it weakens the team dynamic, and tries to rally them as he has done for twenty years, but he can only speak in pep talk platitudes, addressing them as though they are still a basketball team in the middle of the big game, and it is clear that the players' overreliance on his trite guidance is a significant cause of their current unhappiness. James tells George about Phil's affair with Marion, while Phil tries unsuccessfully to abandon the sinking ship of George's campaign by calling Sharmen to offer a donation in exchange for preserving the favourable terms of his lease. James is also outraged to discover that George is bringing in a new campaign team from Philadelphia to salvage his chances for re-election. Tom spends the evening getting more and more drunk and lashing out at everyone in turn, culminating in revealing just why the absent Martin hates Coach and has never attended a reunion.

The play has been adapted for the screen twice, both using scripts written by Jason Miller; once directed by Miller for The Cannon Group in 1982 with Robert Mitchum as Coach and Paul Sorvino (reprising his role from the original stage run), Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach, and Martin Sheen as the players, and once for television in 1999 with Sorvino (who also directed) now playing Coach and Vincent D'Onofrio, Tony Shalhoub, Gary Sinise, and Terry Kinney as the players.

This play contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Tom's drinking problem, a mirror of his father's alcohol addiction, has prevented him from holding down a steady job, and he simply drifts from place to place. He spends the entire play drinking heavily, at one point being so unsteady on his feet that he falls down the stairs of Coach's house (he is uninjured). When drunk, he becomes increasingly candid, calling out the other four for their various self-deceptions.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Although the characters make up after their fights over the course of the play, it is clear that all of them (with the possible exception of Tom) are still very much living in the past, mentally retreating to what is still the greatest moment of any of their lives twenty years earlier.
  • Broken Pedestal: After twenty years, some of the players, Tom most of all, are starting to realise that Coach, on whom they have relied so heavily for life advice ever since their days on the basketball court, doesn't have many useful answers for the problems they are facing in adult life, and that he is, in fact, a bigoted, bullying fraud.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Coach has been a father figure for the four players ever since they were in high school (in some cases, more so than their own fathers), but Tom has become increasingly aware of how hollow his pep talks have always been, and near the end of the play, he lashes out at him and says that Martin Rose told him at the time why he hates Coach and everything he represents; at half-time in the 1952 championship game, Coach told Martin to go after their opponents' star player, and Martin ended up putting him in hospital. The next day, overwhelmed with guilt, he begged Coach to publicly refuse the championship trophy, but Coach wouldn't hear of it; that was the last straw for Martin. Coach tries to deny responsibility for what happened, but Tom makes it clear that his coaching philosophy with its heavy emphasis on winning above all else was the root cause of the incident.
  • Chromosome Casting: The five characters in the play include four members of a men's basketball team and their coach.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Phil has made a fortune in the strip-mining industry and drives fancy cars, but much of his fortune is built on kickbacks to local authorities (for example, he donated copiously to George's original election campaign to secure favourable terms on the land lease for his mines).
  • Corrupt Politician: George, in addition to being an inept mayor who has failed to address the city's high unemployment and has instead raised property taxes by 4%, can be bought by anyone for the right price. He is particularly willing to accept Phil's considerable donations in exchange for making special allowances for the lease terms for his strip-mining operations. His opponent, Norman Sharmen, is not so easily bought, as Phil discovers when he tries switching sides.
  • Down to the Last Play: Fillmore were trailing by 21 points at half time in the 1952 championship, but with seven seconds to go, they were down by just one point. After a timeout, they set up Martin Rose to score the winning basket just before the buzzer.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: James works hard as a junior high school principal, but makes barely enough money to support his wife and five children, and the students at the school regularly scrawl graffiti on the walls insulting him. He is distraught to discover that George holds him responsible for his foundering campaign and is considering bringing in a new management team from Philadelphia to give it a shot in the arm. He has spent a large part of his adult life trying to prop up his alcoholic brother Tom, and has never been so much as thanked. Late in the play, he tries putting himself forward as a mayoral candidate instead of George as a way to get the respect he feels he deserves, but no-one is interested. Coach is particularly unsympathetic toward James, dismissing him as a whiner.
  • The Dutiful Son: Deconstructed by James; his father never deserved his devotion but he kept at it, but then the old man died so James will do anything to get someone's respect.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Coach is only ever addressed as such by the players. In the film adaptations, even the other residents of his neighbourhood address him as Coach.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Tom and James, respectively. Tom drinks heavily and has never held down a steady job or even a steady address, while James has become a junior high school principal. Deconstructed in that James toils away for little reward, financial or otherwise, while Tom is the only one who begins to acknowledge how his teammates have been deluding themselves about where their lives have been heading for the past two decades.
  • Formerly Fit: The basketball players haven't aged gracefully, and are not nearly as fit as they were in their championship season.
    George: I used to be the most popular kid in school. I used to have a six inch waist. Everything about me is in the past tense.
  • The Ghost: The fifth member of the 1952 championship-winning team, Martin Rose, was the team's star player, but he refuses to have anything to do with Coach or the other four players, and he is conspicuous by his absence at the reunion. In the first half of the play, the other characters wistfully comment on what a talented player he was, and how sorry they are that he has never attended a reunion, but Tom eventually reveals the dark truth behind Martin's animosity toward all of them, especially Coach.
  • Glory Days: Though George, James, and especially Phil have ostensibly achieved professional success, none of them are truly happy, and none have really measured up to their moment of glory in the 1952 state basketball championship, a moment they have been re-living as often as they possibly can. George and Phil even remark that they are prouder of their heroics on the basketball court twenty years earlier than they are of anything they have done since.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: James thinks he could have been a successful congressman by now had he not been so busy taking care of his father, despite having no political experience.
  • In Vino Veritas: As Tom gets more and more drunk, his frustration and cynicism rise to the surface, resulting in him calling out his teammates on their delusions and Coach on his ultimately detrimental influence on how they have turned out as adults.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: James still doesn't know if people like him for his money or himself.
  • Only Sane Man: Although he may be fall-down drunk for most of the play, Tom is the only one of the former players who even begins to acknowledge that they are living in the past and are completely unable to deal with the present. While George, Phil, and James earnestly seek Coach's increasingly worthless advice, Tom punctures the balloon of their delusions at every opportunity.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: The protagonists in the play are deeply flawed on many levels, one of which is their collective bigotry against non-Catholics. Over the course of the play, they use racial slurs to refer to Afro-Caribbeans, Latin Americans, Jews, and Italians (the last used by some of the characters to insult the Italian-American Phil).
  • Raised Catholic: George is a Polish Catholic, Phil is an Italian Catholic, and James, Tom, and Coach are Irish Catholics. The importance of their faith is highlighted in the play by the presence on Coach's wall of a framed picture of Father Charles Coughlin, a notoriously bigoted Catholic radio preacher in the United States in the 1950s.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: There are several of these throughout the play as the characters' resentments toward each other bubble to the surface, but the play climaxes with the only one delivered to Coach, as Tom tells him how destructive his coaching philosophy really is and why it has resulted in the 1952 Fillmore team's star player, Martin, refusing to have anything to do with him for twenty years.
  • Red Scare: George reveals that he and Coach (who has a framed picture of Senator Joseph McCarthy on his wall) have discovered that Norman Sharmen had an uncle who was put on trial for being a Communist in 1951, and they plan to use this information to discredit him. The other characters point out that the McCarthy era was long ago, and no-one cares about Communists in the family anymore. When Phil phones Sharmen to offer him a campaign bribe and is turned down, he tries blackmailing him with the knowledge of his uncle's political inclinations, but Sharmen just laughs and says it was his cousin, not his uncle, and hangs up.
  • Rhymes on a Dime: Coach's pep talk platitudes are frequently based around short rhymes, such as "Never take less than success," or "Don't lose your poise, boys," or frequent invocations of the phrase "lean and mean".
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Phil has managed to increase the profitability of his strip-mining business by throwing judicious amounts of money at various local authorities. He tries this tactic on Sharmen when he decides George has little chance of being re-elected, but since a central plank of Sharmen's campaign platform is the damage Phil's strip-mining is doing to the local countryside, he refuses.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: James never got the approval of his worthless father.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Phil is in the middle of a long-term affair with George's wife, Marion; he tries to justify it by saying that Marion is sleeping with him to help George's political career. Phil and his wife Claire are eventually revealed to have a functionally open marriage, with both pursuing numerous affairs.

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