Book Review – That Championship by Jason Miller

  • The Championship Season
  • by Jason Miller
  • Copyright 1972
  • Publisher – Atheneum
  • 133 pages

Rating – 7/10

Summary – It’s been 20 years since the team from Fillmore High School won the state championship in basketball. Four of the five team members reunite with their coach to talk about old times. But there’s dissension, betrayal, and anger beneath the surface. The play is interesting, but it’s a bleak view of middle-class American men.

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Review – The last time I’d read a play was high school – and that was 27 years ago. But I’d always wanted to read That Championship Season. James Michener mentioned the play in his book Sports in America as a work that exposed the dark side of sports. That was enough for me.

Last week, I was over at the university library and checked out their copy. Championship is a quick, easy read that holds the your attention.

Yesterday’s Heroes and Yesterday’s Dreams

In 1952 the Fillmore High School basketball team won the Pennsylvania state championship. Twenty years later, four of the five starters have a reunion with their beloved coach. The players are –

  • Tom – a cynical alcoholic who has fallen on hard times and missed the last three reunions. He is a bomb thrower who often refuses to accept the rose-colored views of the past.
  • George – an insurance agent who has become mayor of the town. He’s viewed by the others as an incompetent and is in for a tough fight for re-election.
  • James – a junior high school principal who wants to be in politics like George. He laments that he had to spend his younger years taking care of his invalid, alcoholic father. James hopes that George will back him for superintendent of schools if he wins reelection.
  • Phil – a successful businessman who owns a strip mine. Phil loves flashy cars and young women.
  • Coach – who is now retired. He never married and encourages his former players to support each other as adults. The team meets at Coach’s home.

Martin, the fifth player on the team, has not been heard from in 20 years. But there’s a tortured story behind his absence and Miller’s just waiting to hit the reader with it.

“It’s high tide before you know it” –  Coach (p. 68)

Viewed 45 years later, That Championship Season is a product of its times. In 1972 Americans were reevaluating everything about the mythical American dream. Championship’s answer to the questions raised by that reassessment seems to be “The American dream is dead – and it never existed anyway.”img_0170

As the play progresses, it becomes apparent that all five men lead lives of quiet desperation. As the four classmates slide into middle age, they feel the frustration of all that they will never accomplish. Their coach – old, alone, and regretful – shows them what they may become.

Perhaps Miller expresses it most bluntly through Phil –

Sometimes I think that it’s the only thing that I can still feel, you know, still feel in my gut, that championship season, feel the crowds… my best memory to date, yeah, nothing matched it, nothing (p. 97).

Miller’s play strips away layer after layer of the men’s “successful” facades. Nothing is as it seems, not in their middle-aged lives nor in their pasts. Miller uses the five men to comment on America’s ills – greed, war, Anti-Semitism, racism, cruelty, cheating, etc. Unfortunately, some of these themes now seem tired because so many other authors have plowed the same ground.

Once you know where Miller is heading, you can anticipate how much of Champioship will play out. By the end, everything is exposed and the men have nothing left to lose. As a reader, you somehow still care about these flawed, hateful, egotistical men. However, you don’t feel that what happens to them in the future is all that important, they have already lost the game of life and are now just running out the clock.

At the Buzzer

Championship is well worth reading if you accept that it is a downer. Miller seemed to worry that people would miss his point if he didn’t apply it with a sledgehammer. But I still enjoyed reading the play and recommend it to those who want to think about life in America.

 

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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