Semi-Pro: What You Need to Know About the 1970s Context

“Semi-Pro” is the comedic story of the Flint Tropics, a fictitious ABA team that didnt quite make it. The Tropics bear similarities to some of the defunct teams of the ABA–the Kentucky Colonels, the Anaheim Amigos and the Spirits of St. Louis. Though these teams are no longer in existence, they have a brief cinematic reprieve in “Semi-Pro,” as their logos and uniforms were painstakingly reproduced for the films game sequences.

From 1967 to 1976, the American Basketball Association was a renegade basketball league that nipped at the heels of the NBA. Despite contributing some impressive innovations to the game and a style of play that emphasized flair and showmanship, the ABA was ultimately absorbed by its well-established competitor. Four of the ABAs most successful teams remained intact following the merger the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, New York Nets and Indiana Pacers.

ABA's Famous Players

Perhaps the most famous player in the ABA was Julius Erving, better known as Dr. J, who played for the Virginia Squires and the New York Nets. Other famous ABA players who went on to NBA glory include Artis Gilmore, George Gervin and James Silas (Erving and Gervin went on to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame).

Artis Gilmore

Though four of the ABAs teams were adopted by the NBA, the leagues were very different. There were a number of things that were different, says Artis Gilmore, who played for the Kentucky Colonels. Probably one of the most unusual was the basketball, the colors of the basketball itself. The ABA basketball was red, white and blue, and it was a bit smaller than the NBA regulation-size ball. The three-point shot, now a mainstay of NBA games, was also an invention of the ABA.

Then, of course, the environment that we had to play in, adds Gilmore. Depending on the size of a team, ABA franchises would often share a court with a local high school or college. The huge stadium arena was not part of the ABAs identity.

There were a number of franchises that were not totally established, says James Silas. The San Diego Conquistadors, for instance, played at San Diego State. There were a number of other teams you played a game with one day and then a few weeks later you might find out theyd disbanded. That happened with the Floridians during the year that I was drafted. Stability was certainly a challenge.

George Gervin

The players supplemented their stability with ingenuity and creativity. George Gervin, whose nickname is Ice, remembers: We used to have marketing ploys. When I would travel into different cities, the opposing team would have try and hold Ice Gervin under thirty points. If they were successful, everybody would get free McDonalds or free Kentucky Fried Chicken Needless to say, they were never successful at holding Gervin down. My goal was to go in there and get 40 points and walk out of there saying, Nobodys eating on Ice!

Some of these unusual marketing strategies are manifested in Semi-Pro via Jackie Moons trademark flair. Moons soul hit, Love Me Sexy, has its own parallel in the real ABA world: singer Pat Boone owned the ABA team the Oakland Oaks.

Woody Harrelson

Woody Harrelson, who plays Tropics teammate Monix, remembers his childhood experiences watching the ABA. I remember watching the ABA when I was younger and really liking Dr. J, of course. He was the guy who really made the ABA explode. There were other big players but Dr. J was the one for me at the time. At the time I didnt know the difference between the ABA and the NBA, but Ive learned a lot since.

The NBA was really where everybody wanted to be, George Gervin recalls. That was the best basketball in the world, but we felt that we could compete against them with our talent. We couldnt compete with them as far as sponsorship and marketing, but we felt we had some very talented basketball players in the ABA.

We had our own style, Gervin concludes. We were a community, like a family. We went out to eat together, we played cards together. It was a family atmosphere. Once we had our chance to merge with the NBA, we took that same community and friendship with us.

Screenwriter Scot Armstrong first pitched the idea for Semi-Pro when he was in Los Angeles working on Todd Phillipss Old School, which Armstrong co-wrote and which co-starred Will Ferrell. Initially, he couldnt find a home for the story. Whenever I pitched the idea I would hear, Its too crazy to recreate the 70s, or Itll be too expensive or Can you do a modern version I wanted to do a real version of the ABA, which is what makes it special. Armstrong ultimately found supporters at New Line Cinema and the project was set in motion.

For Armstrong, “Semi-Pro” is the culmination of a lifelong affection for basketball. As a kid I loved the ABA stuff. I even had a Dr. J ball. I liked the NBA, but the ABA invented the three point line and the slam dunk. They were the funkier, cooler league and I liked them better.

He took the independent, free-spirited sensibility of the ABA and the relaxed lifestyle that characterized the swinging 70s and found opportunities for comedy to flourish. It seemed like a big idea and a big world, says Armstrong. We recreated a league in the 70s with all the exact same logos, the same league, the same teams.

Although Armstrong made a concerted effort to infuse the script with authenticity, everything about the Flint Tropics of Michigan is fictional. Nevertheless, the Tropics are similar in spirit and game attendance to many of the teams that made up the ABA. The Flint Tropics dont get very many fans, Armstrong says. In fact, in the first game there are about ninety people in the stands. Will Ferrells character, Jackie Moon, is the owner, coach, player and the best promoter in the league or at least hes the most flamboyant. It doesnt always work but hell go to extremes to get people into the seats.

Those extremes gave Armstrong many opportunities to create the enthusiastic, proud and sometimes goofy character of Jackie Moon. Will Ferrells seemingly limitless comedic abilities inspired Armstrong to come up with inspired dialogue and situations. Theres nothing more fun as a screenwriter than writing in the voice of Will Ferrell, Armstrong says. Id be typing and Id start cracking up because Id get a picture of him doing whats written. He can do things that other people just cant do. You can write a really simple scene and he takes it to the next level. He makes you look good as a writer.

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