"Hey, man, you wanna groove on over to the arena and watch those jive basketball cats the Tropics put on a show?"
If someone asks you this question, and you happen to live in a fictional overlay of Flint, Mich., circa 1976, politely decline and sprint to the nearest bus station. Trust me: Outside the possibility of winning a corn dog, there's no reason to watch this hapless American Basketball Association franchise in action. The Tropics' gameplay is about as entertaining as a good, thorough flossing.
Oh, sure, the Tropics have their attractions. That Clarence "Coffee" Black is a pretty good player. And they just traded their washing machine for Ed Monix, who spent time riding the pine for the Boston Celtics. Then there's Jackie Moon, a singer who used the money from his solitary hit to buy the Tropics and now serves as owner, promoter, coach, power forward and PA announcer.
Don't decide to attend a game out of pity, either. So what if the ABA is about to go under? Some of the league's more financially solvent teams might wind up being part of the National Basketball Association if that happens. But the Tropics? Pretty doubtful. You can't wow the NBA with a team that draws about 80 fans a night and treats games like unwanted bubble wrap around halftime.
Jackie Moon doesn't care that much about winning. But he does love his dearly departed mother. He pulls his team off the court when a referee insinuates she didn't go to heaven. And he wants the team to succeed, at least financially, to honor her memory. As a consequence, he's willing to go to tremendous lengths to draw new fans to the game—from wrestling a bear to jumping over the team's "ball girls" on roller skates, Evel Knievel-style.
Monix, meanwhile, does want to win. And when the players vote to make him the "offensive and defensive coordinator," this ragtag bunch of showboaters quickly learns the value of teamwork and togetherness. Indeed, the team Monix forges becomes so functional that, when Clarence is traded to the NBA-bound San Antonio Spurs, he's compelled to rejoin his Tropics comrades for their last hurrah.
The spiritual heart of Semi-Pro, such as it is, revolves around Jackie's relationship with his dead mother. Before a critical owners' meeting, he mutters a prayer to her, saying, "Don't worry, Mom, I won't let you down." When he throws a tantrum on the court, a referee tells him that he's got half a mind to call his mother. "You'd need a phone to heaven to do that," Jackie says.
Later, when he's knocked out cold on the court, Jackie—who compares himself at one point to "that nun over in India"—has an out-of-body experience and visits with his mother in heaven. Though Mom gives Jackie a blueprint for a revolutionary, game-winning play (the alley-oop), Jackie is reluctant to leave heaven because it's "so fluffy." When he regains consciousness, he tells the referee that "heaven wants us to win this game!"
The referee, by the way, is a priest who wears his clerical collar underneath his garish ref uniform. One of the players is shown praying over a Bible.
Semi-Pro stages a full-court press in this area. Playing center? Monix. His relationship with his old flame, Lynn, ends because Monix had (Lynn says) two affairs. "I cheated on you once," Monix amends. "There just happened to be two girls there." Of course, this being a ribald and raunchy comedy, they can't go for long without sex. And while in the throes of it (both remain clothed) Lynn's boyfriend sneaks in to watch—and prepares to masturbate under a table.
Audiences are doused with much more sexual content than that, a good deal of which I won't even bother reporting here. (The review would be too long and nobody'd read it.) We see a lingering shot of Jackie's (clothed) crotch. We hear how Jackie grabbed several players' critical parts during an on-court fight. We see a breast-obsessed movie marquee. We hear how the Swedish are "excellent purveyors of pornography."
There are crass verbal references made to oral sex and masturbation. And tawdry tales are told of players' sexual exploits, desires, girlfriends and wives. On-air, the Tropics' radio announcers discuss the merits of penis size.
The Tropics' "ball girls," meanwhile, parade about in skimpy white bikinis. "I always thought I'd sleep with a couple of you," Jackie tells them, then he mourns his procrastination. Jackie's hit song (titled "Love Me Sexy") is played at the beginning, middle and end of the film, and contains a host of crass sexual images within its lyrics.
A poker game turns ugly when somebody calls the Tropics' color commentator (Lou Redwood) a "jive turkey." Them's fightin' words for Lou, so he pulls a gun, threatening to shoot his mouthy rival. After a few tense moments, Lou bursts into laughter, saying the gun's not loaded. The players at the table then take turns pointing the weapon at themselves, other people and various body parts while pulling the trigger, laughing uproariously—until, of course, the gun goes off, shooting a guy in his already broken arm.
The Tropics get into a massive rumble with a rival team, and audiences see a host of punches, kicks and professional wrestling moves during the melee. One of the referees is dragged across the arena floor while holding tightly onto someone's legs.
Occasional hard fouls get screen time. (They're no different from what's shown in most basketball movies—or in some rough basketball games.) Basketballs themselves are recipients of some serious violence: Monix actually stabs one with a knife.
Jackie threatens to "murder" a referee's family. He bites himself and kicks tables during an owners' meeting. He also wrestles a bear named "Dewie," who later escapes and rampages through the arena. A panicked Jackie suggests that frightened fans use small children as potential shields. The bear runs loose for the rest of the film, occasionally attacking random characters.
Crude or Profane Language
When I sank into my seat to watch Semi-Pro, I thought I was settling into a typical Will Ferrell-variety PG-13 film (Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory, Anchorman). Within the first two minutes and the first three f-words, I realized that either the rating system had finally crumbled altogether, or Semi-Pro was seriously R-rated.
Before it's over, the f-word tally stands above 20 and the s-word's above 30. (One of the latter expletives is spray-painted in a child's nursery.) Extremely crude words allude to oral sex and are assigned to anatomical features. And mountains of milder swears include "a--," "b--ch" and "d--n." Characters also abuse God's and Jesus' names with regularity, sometimes pairing them with other curse words.
Drug and Alcohol Content
When the Tropics' play-by-play man cautions the chain-smoking Lou that smoking isn't all that healthy, Lou shrugs it off by saying, "I like to smoke when I drink," and he takes a big swig of some sort of mixed beverage. Indeed, we never see Lou without both a drink and a lighted cigarette around his person. And the rest of the Semi-Pro cast isn't above imbibing various substances, either. We hear that Monix never takes the court unless he's drunk, and the entire team tends to frequent a variety of bars and nightclubs.
Jackie and the rest of the owners may guzzle mixed drinks during an ABA owners' meeting—though it's possible the scotch glasses in front of them are filled with watered down Pepsi. There's also a reference to "goofballs and grass," related to an apparently drug-addled hippie who wins a halftime contest.
Other Negative Elements
What, you want more?
OK. Jackie makes several references to wetting himself. Monix drills his players until all of them literally puke. When Jackie's still on the court, unable to throw up, Monix punches him in the gut, and we're led to believe that Jackie then vomits in Monix's face. Commentators commentate on how one of the players' brothers is "really retarded." Jackie compares himself to Bambi's mother—a certain deer the players later remember was shot early on in the story.
We learn that Jackie actually stole "Love Me Sexy" from his mother just weeks before she died. And, as the team's future looks less and less promising, we see a despondent Jackie coming up with new, maudlin lyrics for the song while lying in a dumpster. "I'm going to get an extension cord and hang myself sexy," is one of the new lyrics. After the Tropics win their last game, fans riot, and policemen turn over their own cruiser.
Semi-Pro may seem outrageously improbable. But really, its scriptwriters had to look no further for inspiration than the documented history of the ABA, a second-class basketball league that existed between 1967 and 1976. The concept of the "ball girls"? That came from the Miami Floridians, whose own young ladies were more famous than the team. It was the Indiana Pacers who hired a bear named Victor to tangle with wrestlers, local media celebrities and fans during a halftime show. And the Denver Rockets sponsored a "halter-top night," and once hired a woman named "Robota, the Wicked Witch of the West" to place a hex on an opposing team. (It didn't work.)
Which makes me wonder why Will Ferrell didn't just step around to the other side of the camera and put together a serious ABA documentary instead of floundering around in one more lamely gratuitous comedic farce. Semi-Pro commits so many foul fouls and lobs so many brash bricks that it's nearly unwatchable. Sure, the film spends a good 30 seconds on the importance of teamwork, but with the stop-the-game-right-now good-taste buzzer getting activated early on in the first quarter, I couldn't hear much over the din it was making.