In the 2023 film “Champions,” Assistant Coach Marcus Markovich, played admirably by Woody Harrelson, decks his boss and coach of their basketball team, the Iowa Stallions, during a game, and his life takes a dramatic trajectory. A DUI conviction follows and he is assigned community service to coach the Friends basketball team. Marcus is totally out of his depth with this team of adults with intellectual disabilities. He even asks, “If I can’t say the r-word, what do I call them?” The answer: their names.
He may know the game of basketball, but he is so self-absorbed he doesn’t even try to connect with the players. The team members are a loveable, mischievous group and it is impossible not to get drawn in. The players show so many great moments and traits, and you are guaranteed to chuckle with them at their antics. Wait for the backwards half-court shot to appear at critical junctures throughout the film. I personally had a special fondness for spunky Costantino and charismatic Johnny. While there are some vignettes into the players’ personal lives, I wish they would have showcased them more off the court to give a more realistic perspective. Cheech Marin makes an appearance as the recreation center manager Julio, who exudes a quiet wisdom.
When the team doesn’t adapt well to taking the city bus to away games, Alex, played by Kaitlyn Olson, steps up and transports them in her Shakespeare camper van. The film goes into quite a bit of detail about Marcus’ relationship with Alex, which started on Tinder, but it turns out she’s the sister of one of his players. There’s a disastrous Meatloaf Monday event when Marcus goes to meet the family.
With no plans to stay in Iowa after time served, and dreams of coaching in the NBA, Marcus doesn’t realize how deeply the team has affected him until well into the story. You will be happy to know that he doesn’t end up where you’d expect, and his personal life is dramatically impacted for the better.
With the team having advanced so far, Marcus doesn’t even realize that his mandatory 90-day sentence is up. Leading the team to the Special Olympics North American Regional Championship in Winnipeg, Canada, he learns what makes a true champion. He and Alex even end up teaming up to solicit creative funding for the trip, which had seemed prohibitive at first.
I must admit to loving Woody Harrelson since his days as the loveable bartender on the television sitcom “Cheers.” In this film, it takes a while for his likeability to emerge as he is changed by the Friends. Oscar-nominated, he has played a variety of comedic and serious roles over the years and is well known as Haymitch Abernathy in “The Hunger Game” films.
“Champions” is a take-off of the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones,” based on the true story of the Aderes basketball team that has been aiming to win the Valencian Special Olympics. Harrelson was also a producer on this film and was told to not follow the script from day one of filming, but rather improvise and go with the player’s reactions. Overall, this was a feel-good movie, but I would have liked some more personal life connections of the team and less of the sexual innuendoes as the story evolved.
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Director: Robert Farrelly
Actors: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Ernie Hudson, Cheech Marin
Running Time: 2 hour 3 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for strong language