This plot has been tread and retread in countless feel-good sports comedies: A down on his luck jerk of a coach is matched with a ragtag group of underdog players. Then, to everyone’s shock and fist-pumping delight, said coach whips them into winners, and they, in turn, make him into a better person. Heard that one before? I know you have!
In this case Marcus (Woody Harrelson) dreams of coaching in the NBA, but he still manages to get fired from his assistant coach position by shoving another coach in the middle of his minor league game in Des Moines. After a night of drinking, he adds to his misery by rear-ending a parked cop car. He’s lucky to get 90 days of community service, and even luckier to get assigned to coach basketball at a rec center… until he meets his players. To his great surprise, the team is a ragtag group of intellectually disabled adults who can’t seem to hit a basket to save their life. Heavy sigh, Marcus.
But you know where this is going… Initially you feel a little hesitant and nervous, because the cast of players are actually intellectually disabled actors, and this could go very wrong if not handled respectfully. But the cast is awesome, and it truly feels like Woody is getting a kick out of sharing the screen with such a goofy gaggle of comedic actors. Among the endearing players are Showtime (Bradley Edens), who only does a backwards granny-shot (never successfully) but loves doing a victory jig afterwards; Cosentino (Madison Tevlin) who is all-caps SASS, bringing spirit to the team, while putting Marcus in his place; Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), the sweet and proud soul of the team; and the one with my favorite comedic timing, Marlon (Casey Metcalfe), whose motor-mouth pronunciations cracked me up every time. There is always a reluctant star player. In this case its talented Darius (Joshua Felder), who staunchly refuses to play for Marcus. When he finally says why, it’s a surprising punch to the gut.
Rounding out the cast is the fabulous and sharp-tongued Kaitlyn Olson, stepping up to the plate (or the net?) as Alex, making the most of what starts as the requisite love-interest role. Despite being introduced as an occasional hookup for Marcus, it turns out Alex happens to be Johnny’s very protective older sister. Through her no-nonsense perspective, Marcus (and the audience) gets schooled on how these folks, just like everyone else, have regular day to day lives can be kind of messy. Like Johnny wants to live independently, but doesn’t want to be “the man that leaves” like his father did. Benny (James Day Keith) has to miss games because of his job and his reluctance to stand up to his boss. And the others have their own jobs/homes/hobbies outside of basketball. The movie makes a clear point to show them all as individuals, not just as this special group of “Friends” (as their team is named).
My smiling friend probably said it best as the credits were rolling, “I don’t know, it just made me feel good!” This is the kind of movie where you know exactly where the plot is going during the whole enjoyable ride… but that’s exactly what viewers sign up for when watching a sports flick like this. The hijinks of the Friends basketball team and those around them DO make you laugh and feel good… ultimately making you feel a little better about humanity. By that definition, Champions easily wins.