That Championship Season

by Jason Miller

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 949

The Coach, about sixty years old, has lived in his nostalgia-filled home nearly all of his life. In a ritual that he has continued for several years, he and four of his “boys,” as he still calls them, celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their victory in the 1952 Pennsylvania state high school basketball championship. Prominently displayed in the parlor, which provides the sole setting for the play, is the large silver trophy award with the players’ names engraved in it.

George, the current mayor of the town and a none-too-bright former insurance salesman, is facing a reelection battle against a popular reform candidate, Norman Sharmen, who is Jewish. Since George won four years earlier with a mere thirty-two votes—thanks to the Coach’s spirited support—the mayor expects a difficult campaign. Thus, the get-together is also an occasion to map out campaign strategy and solidify the group’s backing. The latter includes the expected financial contribution of Phil, a shady but successful businessman engaged in the toxic practice of open-coal strip mining, a business facilitated by George, who, as mayor, has permitted Phil to have access to lucrative land tracts. Phil seeks release from personal stress by driving his sports car at breakneck speed on the highway and by philandering with various girls and matrons in town, including Marion, George’s wife.

The Coach continues to treat his thirty-eight-year-old “boys” as he has done since the championship season, trying to keep alive the old basketball-court spirit. In fact, even though forced into early retirement for hitting an offensive student, the Coach’s still uses maxims about striving for excellence, enduring pain, building teamwork, and accepting nothing less than success. Initially the group relives the final ten seconds of the championship game, when, one point behind, the absent fifth player, Martin Roads, scored the winning basket. Martin left town soon after, apparently feeling ashamed and guilty for following the single-minded Coach’s order to foul the star black player on the opposing team: Martin was unable to persuade the Coach to return the trophy.

However, soon the magic of the evening is broken as Phil starts to inventory George’s blunders as mayor: higher taxes, more unemployment, an unpleasant garbage strike, and worst of all, an incident involving an elephant that George acquired for the town zoo. The elephant turned out to have been ailing and died one month later. It took ten days to figure out how to bury it, at considerable expense.

With George and the Coach out of earshot, James Daley, who feels both frustrated with the sacrifices he has made for his family, including his ailing father, and insignificant, having attained only the position of school principal, now aspires to become George’s new school superintendent and eventually to achieve even greater political success. He is George’s current campaign manager and takes Phil to task for wavering in his loyalty to George. However, James suggests that with Phil’s financial backing he, himself, could run as an alternative candidate against Sharmen.

George, now back, reveals that he holds a trump card. He and the Coach have discovered that Sharmen’s uncle, now deceased, was a Hollywood writer blacklisted for invoking the Fifth Amendment during Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings on communism in the 1950’s. Phil laughs this off as outdated and irrelevant. Annoyed with Phil’s continued hesitancy about George, James reveals to George the affair Phil is having with his George’s wife. George grabs the loaded hair-triggered gun from a rack on the wall and threatens Phil.

In act 2 a calmer George hands over the weapon to the Coach. Phil continues to insist that George cannot...

(This entire section contains 949 words.)

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win reelection and then accepts James’s challenge to call up Sharmen and offer him financial support. Sharmen laughs off both Phil’s offer and his suggestion of the alleged communist relative. At this point, Tom rolls down the stairs from the upstairs bathroom, unable to handle all the liquor he has consumed. Even though he is a drifter and an alcoholic, financially supported by his brother James, Tom is the only member of the group outside Martin who clearly recognizes the fraudulent nature of their 1952 victory and the emptiness of their lives.

The Coach then tries to explain to James that for former team-mate George to have a chance at re-election, he has to hire a professional Philadelphia public relations firm rather than use James as campaign manager. James threatens to publicize Phil’s affair with the mayor’s wife all over town. George gets so upset that, unable to make it to the bathroom, he vomits into the nearest receptacle, the award trophy.

In act 3, after George is taken upstairs and the trophy is cleaned up, the Coach urges them all to keep the faith. He convinces the returning George that he must “pay the price” to keep Phil’s financial backing. George reports that he has called his wife, who told him that she had done it all to con campaign money out of Phil. George seems to believe this even though Marion was known to be “fast” in high school. The inebriated Tom repeats that the championship season had been a lie and that they are all whooping cranes en route to extinction.

The Coach now replays the recorded radio narration of the final moments of their championship game, which ends with the roar of the crowd. This exorcises the demons out of the shattered team. They sing the Fillmore High School song, make up, and plan their joint support of George’s campaign. The play ends with the team’s ritual of having their photographs taken around the silver cup trophy.

Dramatic Devices

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The Coach’s parlor reeks of nostalgia. The bachelor’s faded, old-fashioned living room—the single set in the play—is richly evocative. There is a Tiffany lampshade, a Stromberg-Carlson radio console, and a gun rack on the wall. Framed pictures of distinguished Americans are in evidence, notably those of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, as well as that of Senator McCarthy, the anti-communist crusader. The large silver trophy is on the table.

The dialogue is fast-paced, sharp, bawdy, and often funny, with its locker-room humor reflecting Jason Miller’s gift for language and his sensitivity to the dynamics of character. The numerous racial, ethnic, and anti-Semitic slurs betray a conservative, even reactionary, bent. There is Jew-baiting, communist hunting, and money-shuffling in a town full of bigotry and shady dealings. Miller’s grasp of small-town mediocrity and attitudes may stem from his formative years in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The actors move in and out of the downstairs living room where all the action takes place. Thus, only Tom and George are present at the play’s opening as the other characters are away buying fried chicken and more booze for the party. In subsequent scenes, the Coach, who recently endured surgery and suffers sudden pain, and George, upset by the play’s sordid revelations, are taken to the bedroom upstairs.

Historical Context

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In 1972, the United States was in serious trouble on several fronts. Though incumbent president Richard M. Nixon was overwhelmingly reelected for a second term, it was later revealed that he used dirty tricks, as he had in previous campaigns. Within a short time, this victory was overshadowed by revelations related to the Watergate scandal. In the spring of 1972, during Nixon’s campaign, five supporters broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee located in the Watergate office building. The five were trying to fix electronic eavesdropping equipment that had previously been placed there. Though the break-in was reported, its importance was downplayed, and Nixon used the presidency to cover-up the crime. When the crime was prosecuted in court, and two Washington Post reporters published a series of investigative reports, more details were revealed. Nixon was facing impeachment over the matter when he resigned in 1974. Like George and Coach in That Championship Season, Nixon was willing to win at any price.

When Nixon was first elected in 1968, one of his campaign promises was to end the war in Vietnam. The United States had been involved in the conflict for many years, and by 1972, their involvement was deeper than ever. In 1972, Nixon pursued means both diplomatic and military to end the war. He bombed land and sea routes to North Vietnam and mined North Vietnamese ports. The United States thought a settlement was near, but they were unable to come to terms with the North Vietnamese. Public and institutional opposition to American involvement had been going on for many years. People were opposed to both the cost and the seemingly endless nature of the war. The war would continue for many more months and would eventually end with the United States on the losing side.

In part because of the enormous cost of the war in Vietnam, the American economy was faltering. Though the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 1,000 for the first time in 1972, the economy was in a recession and had runaway inflation. The federal deficit continued to grow, which also negatively affected the economy. In 1972, the national debt was $436 billion. Economic concerns would worsen within the year as the price of crude oil increased, and the nations of OPEC declared an oil embargo on the United States for its support of Israel. Throughout the 1970s, there was a growing disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans.

Many Americans were unconcerned about such economic disparities. Society was generally regarded as selfish and passive. Many Americans found solace in nostalgia as a reaction to the problems at hand. Many entertainment and artistic genres, including theater, film, and television, featured nostalgic products. Grease (1972), a musical about high school in the 1950s was in the theaters. American Graffiti, also about high school aged characters in the 1950s, was released in 1973. One of the most popular shows on television in the 1970s was M*A*S*H, a war comedy set during the Korean War (1950–53). Movies were also more violent and realistic than in previous decades, reflecting the coarser nature of American society in the 1970s.

Literary Style

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SettingThat Championship Season is a drama set in time contemporary with when it was written, 1972. The action is confined to one place, the living room of Coach’s house. The living room is practically a museum to the past. The furnishings are frayed, torn, and of an old style. The curtains are made of lace and are dirty. The walls are decorated with pictures of political figures—like Senator Joe McCarthy and John F. Kennedy—and loaded shotguns. The television set is from the 1950s. The silver trophy the team won in 1952 seems to be the bestkept item in the room. The never-married Coach used to share this home with his mother before she died. He apparently never redecorated. This room emphasizes how much Coach lives in the past, how important the championship is in his life, and how big a role nostalgia plays in That Championship Season.

Dialogue The realism of That Championship Season is underscored by the dialogue. Miller’s characters speak in blunt terms, using the vernacular (common, everyday language). The text is full of slang, vulgarities, and racist and sexist words. The characters also speak in pauses, incomplete thoughts, and sentence constructions used in spoken, not written, language. The realistic dialogue under- scores the time, place, and fraternity these men have together. They are familiar with each other and speak uninhibitedly. The realistic dialogue makes That Championship Season all the more believable to audiences. The situations depicted become more credible.

Monologue Two characters in That Championship Season deliver revealing monologues at key points in the play. Though these monologues are ostensibly spoken to the other characters in the room, in most cases, those who deliver these speeches are really talking to themselves in an attempt to understand their own lives. Coach has most of the monologues in the play, revealing much about who he is. Because the other characters are peers, while the Coach was their teacher, they do not have the same familiarity with him as they do with each other. Miller uses monologues to flesh out Coach’s character, giving him more depth and background. In his monologues, Coach talks about an affair he had with a Protestant woman, and why they never married; his parents and how the Great Depression contributed to his father’s death; his memories of the town; and how important these players were to his life. He also emphasizes how important winning is to him, and how they must win together for him again.

Phil is the only other character that uses monologues in this way in the play. Though his monologues are shorter than Coach’s, Phil also reveals something of himself. While George, James, and Coach regard him as basically a source of money, these monologues show Phil’s problems with being rich. He talks about how bored he is with his life, how he drives his fast cars at full speed—which might lead to his death, and how he enjoys his affairs with married women. In other revealing speeches, Phil talks about how he never knew his father, and how he really loved only his mother. Phil may be the winner Coach so admires, but he is unhappy. The use of monologue in this way also draws a parallel between the two characters.

Compare and Contrast

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1972: The musical Grease opens on Broadway. It is a nostalgic look at the 1950s, and a prime example of the 1970s obsession with nostalgia in entertainment.

Today: Grease has been revived for several years on Broadway. There is now nostalgia for past nostalgias.

1972: There is an enrollment decline in Catholic schools in favor of public institutions. Numerous parochial schools close, in part because of funding problems. Those that remained have problems finding staff. Many believe that a Catholic school does not offer as good an education as a public school.

Today: Public schools are under fire for not providing a solid education for students. Many parents turn to parochial schools, charter schools, and other private institutions, believing they offer a better education and better discipline.

1972: The Watergate break-in occurs. Five men break into the Democratic National Committee’s offices to spy on the committee, an event covered- up by President Richard M. Nixon. This scandal eventually brings down Nixon and his government, creating a distrust of government. In 1974, Nixon resigns office before he can be impeached.

Today: President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, and his subsequent attempts to cover-up the relationship, leads to the impeachment of the president. Though Clinton is impeached, he is not voted out of office.

1972: Broadway theater is seen as in decline. All taboos have been broken, and plays like That Championship Season are seen as the hope for the near future. Soon, Broadway emerges stronger than ever with reality-based musicals like A Chorus Line.

Today: While Broadway’s box office is not strong, the emphasis is on family entertainment with musical productions based on Disney movies. There are fewer dramas being produced.

Media Adaptations

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That Championship Season was adapted as a film in 1982. This version was written and directed by Jason Miller. It starred Bruce Dern as George, Stacy Keach as James, Robert Mitchum as Coach, Martin Sheen as Tom, and Paul Sorvino as Phil.

A made-for-television version of That Championship Season was aired in 1999. This version was directed by Paul Sorvino. It featured Vincent D’Onofrio as Phil, Terry Kinney as James, Tony Shaloub, as George, Gary Sinise as Tom, and Paul Sorvino as Coach.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Barnes, Clive, ‘‘Stage: That Championship Season,’’ in The New York Times, September 15, 1972, p. 43.

———, ‘‘Theater: That Championship Season Is a Winner,’’ in The New York Times, May 3, 1972, p. 34.

Campbell, Karen, ‘‘Compelling, if Dated Championship Season,’’ in The Boston Globe, April 5, 2000, p. F16.

Hershey, Jonathan, in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Gale, 1981, pp. 112–115.

Hewes, Henry, ‘‘That Gentile Good Night,’’ in Saturday Review, June 3, 1972, p. 66.

Hughes, Catharine, ‘‘Oh! Broadway!,’’ in America, October 7, 1972, p. 264.

Kauffmann, Stanley, review, in The New Republic, June 3, 1972, pp. 22, 33–34.

Kerr, Walter, ‘‘Suddenly, There’s a ’Champion’ in the Ring,’’ in The New York Times, May 14, 1972, section 2, p. 1.

Kroll, Jack, ‘‘Winner Take All,’’ in Newsweek, May 15, 1972.

Miller, Jason, That Championship Season, Atheneum, 1972.

Oliver, Edith, ‘‘Mr. Jason Miller (& Co.),’’ in The New Yorker, May 13, 1972, p. 99–101.

Papp, Joseph, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in That Championship Season by Jason Miller, Atheneum, 1972.

Watt, Douglas, ‘‘That Championship Season A Fine, Tight- Fisted Drama,’’ in Daily News, May 3, 1972.

Watts, Richard, ‘‘Basketball and Bigots,’’ in New York Post, May 3, 1972.

Further Reading Amdur, Neil, ‘‘That Championship Season,’’ in Sporting News, February 28, 1983, pp. 26–27, 29. This article describes a championship basketball team from the same era and place (Scranton, Pennsylvania) featured in That Championship Season. The team may have inspired the play, or at least it shares many parallels with the fictional team.

‘‘On the Set,’’ in The New Yorker, May 20, 1972, pp. 32–33. This article provides biographical information about Miller and background on the inspiration for and original productions of That Championship Season.

Peck, Ira, ‘‘From Unemployment Insurance to Championship,’’ in The New York Times, May 21, 1972, section 2, pp. 1, 10. This piece discusses Miller’s background and describes the inspiration for That Championship Season.

Warren, William E., Coaching and Winning, Parker, 1988. This book is a guide for coaches on how to motivate athletic teams to win.


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Sources for Further Study

Guernsey, Otis L., Jr., ed. “That Championship Season.” In The Best Plays of 1971-1972. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972.

Kim, Yun-cheol. “Degradation of the American Success Ethic: Death of a Salesman, That Championship Season, and Glengarry Glen Ross.” Journal of English Language and Literature 37 (Spring, 1991): 233-248.

Miller, Jason. “On the Set: An Interview with Jason Miller.” The New Yorker 48 (May 20, 1972): 33.

Shelton, Frank W. “Sports and the Competitive Ethic: Death of a Salesman and That Championship Season.” Ball State University Forum 20, no. 2 (1979): 17-21.

Simon, John. “That Championship Season.” Hudson Review 25 (1972): 616-625.

Vanderwerken, David L. “‘We Owe It All to You, Coach’: Teaching That Championship Season.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature 14 (Fall, 1996): 241-245.


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