Full disclosure, I feel a little weird about this movie because it was released three days after 9/11. But it is a masterpiece.
I will preface this summary with saying that this movie inspired me so much….to learn about sports gambling. Yes, there are sports in Hardball and yes there are small children learning meaningful lessons, and yes there is one scene in particular that makes me bawl my stupid eyes out against my better judgement- but mostly this a PSA about gambling. The two main characters are Keanu Reeves (aka Conor) and Crippling Gambling Addiction. Not being familiar with the rules to most sports, and having never personally gambled on sports, this movie for me was an education, an enlightenment, and an epiphany. Join me as I explain this movie and along the way try and explain what I have gleaned about sports gambling.
Keanu Reeves hasn’t changed much since The Matrix. Or Point Break. Or Bill & Ted. Still the perpetually confused, dark-haired, debatably attractive stoner type who teams up with unlikely partners to accomplish the impossible. In this case, he is a pathetic loser who can’t help himself, living in Chicago squalor with his best friend, Crippling Gambling Addiction. He’s got multiple bookies on his jock, a clingy best friend, and to beat it all he’s broke and his dad’s dead! Poor Keanu, just makes you wish Gary Busey was there to make him look better by comparison.
To start this bad boy off, the opening credits are this cheesy horror font? I don’t consider myself a graphic designer but I have a hard[ball] time believing that multiple people agreed on this font choice. The movie opens on a rainy night with Keanu brown-bagging a brewski into a church to pray about sports, as one is want to do. The priest, a bloated Friar Tuck, asks him what’s up- is rain-drenched Keanu looking for forgiveness? HELLLLL NO (not til the 3rd act); he’s just lookin for the Bulls to cover the spread. (SIDEBAR: I immediately had to look up this jargon, as never have I gambled a day in my life- spread betting, as defined by wikipedia, the only source of millennial information, is any of various types of wagering on the outcome of an event where the pay-off is based on the accuracy of the wager, rather than a simple "win or lose" outcome, such as fixed-odds (or money-line) betting or parimutuel betting. In other words, it’s risky business and for shaboy Keanu the stakes have NEVER BEEN HIGHER.)
CUE TITLE CREDIT (god, that font is truly terrible! I want heads and I want them now)!
Smash cut, Keanu races into a crowded sports bar (still drenched), eagerly positioning himself in front of a shitty TV playing the basketball game. The bartender is all “hmmm what are you doing at this particular establishment, that is a questionable choice if you do not satisfy your current outstanding balance with the book maker that runs the very bar in which you are currently standing in. Said book maker could harm your femurs if your balance remains overdue” (I’m paraphrasing). Keanu shrugs him off, he can’t stop watching the game, as the stakes have never been higher. He’s gonna have the money...as long as things go his way on THIS game. See, he’s made another bet with another bookie (the Barber, Bookie #2) to pay Bookie #1 and if he doesn’t win this bet, he’s in the hole with not one but TWO undesirables. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which stakes are higher.
At this point, literally 2 minutes into the movie, I found myself completely at a loss. Now, I understand the rules of most sports. I understand the win/lose aspect, but Keanu, mumbler that he is, is very hard to understand and I did not have subtitles available, much to my chagrin. So this is what I could glean; the Bulls are down by 4 points. Keanu mumbles something and I feel like the entire plot of the movie hinges on whatever garbled nonsense he’s spewing, but whatever, not important. I surmised that he took the “under” on this spread, meaning that depending on how many points the bookie gives him, the Bulls need to lose within that range? I think? and the Bulls keep scoring points; first a basket, then some foul shots, and uh oh he BUSTS. He suddenly owes money to two bookies and the fact that he’s in the hole $6k is enough to make him turn heel and sprint the hell out of Bookie #1’s dingey little sports bar. Of course bookie #1 catches him and says “YOU ALWAYS PAY ME FIRST [PUNK]” and beats him up a lil’ bit. Keanu then gets spooky and punches his own first through a car window, proclaims that “no one can kick my ass better than I can” and rams his head through the bar window and he collapses on the pavement. To add insult to injury he lands in a puddle.
Smash cut, Keanu’s waking up in jail and his deadbeat hustler sidekick is there to bail him out. JK. No he’s not. He’s there to scam Keanu out of some basketball sport tickets that he’s gonna scalp and THEN get Keanu out. Keanu goes home to his visibly dirty- and surprisingly spacious- Chicago apartment and showers. Then his hustler sidekick buddy knocks on his door but uh oh it’s Bookie #2’s collection agency coming in hot, complete with baseball bats. They talk about gambling stuuuuufff, as bookie henchman are want to do; basically Keanu’s dad had an account with Bookie #2, AKA the Barber, and Keanu tried to pretend the account was his but uh oh Keanu’s dad has been dead for four months so that math doesn’t check out … so Bookie #2 is double pissed. Keanu gives him everything he has, all of 47 of his hard earned American dollars. They work out an amicable repayment schedule for the $6600 he owes and the enforcers are on their merry way. The stakes are as high as they've ever been!! What is Keanu to DO?!
Find a rich friend, that’s what! We all have a rich friend, greasy and suited up in an office with space enough for a floor standing fern. At first rich friend is like “i don’t care, get out of here, poor person” but then he’s like wait, I can pay you to do poor people work I don’t want to do. Coach this kid’s baseball team I don’t want to deal with and I’ll give you $500 a week for 10 weeks. Ugh, Keanu’s gotta do whaaaat? Surely the stakes are
Smash cut (10 minutes in and there are still producer credits being flashed in that shitty font; this was poorly executed and I hope all parties involved were scolded appropriately). The baseball field is by the housing projects, and oh boyyyy is this a rough and tumble bunch of ragtag ruffians. Rich friend drops off the equipment and then it’s all “you’re on your own now, Keanu, these kids be your problem and oh boy will they be a problem.” Keanu calls roll and they are sassy and you can tell coach mumbling whitey is going to clash with this group of spirited African American boys. The league organizers come up to Keanu and say his team is too small and they take that shit seriously! He needs to get a roster to them and they need enough players! They don’t have enough players!! There are two kids that have a teacher, Diane Lane, who won’t let them play on Keanu’s team unless they do better in school!!! Keanu’s gotta fix it!!! Ugh, he’s gotta do whaaaaaat??? Can the stakes get a little lower cuz right now they be so high!
Keanu goes to school to try and get Diane Lane to change her mind. Let me describe these kids to you; they’re all adorable lil’ potty mouths just doing their best to get by in this crazy city. Let me describe Diane Lane; she has the kind of haircut that makes loud boys shut the fuck up and do their homework. She looks like a...how you say? Stuck up bitch. Keanu mumbles his way around her classroom, and she strong arms him into doing her job for her; he’s gotta get those two kids to read or they won’t be able to play on the team.
Smash cut, Keanu’s back in Bookie #1’s bar; ughhhh turns out Bookie #1 had to tell HIS boss (what is this chain of command?!) that Keanu owed some cabbage and now there’s a second set of thugs that Keanu’s gonna have to reason with- oops. What a conundrum. He has $500 coming in, and Bookie #1, reasonable financial advisor he is, says to keep paying the Barber but don’t come around his bookie bar- he can’t keep covering for Keanu.
Smash cut, Keanu is back on the ol’ baseball diamond. These kids are dicking around and Keanu is dicking around in the bleachers while they goof off. Practice ends and the stoutest lil’ boy is frantic because it’s getting late outside, and he has to walk home alone; he begs Keanu to walk with him and Keanu’s like nah, not my problem. This poor kid has to walk to the projects alone in the dark past the crackiest of crack corners, there is literally a CAR ON FIRE as he pants in fear while hiding in old playground fixtures for the coast to be clear. And he still gets beat up and his backpack gets stolen. Ugh, poor little guy- you’re not even that fat! He ends up in the flipping HOSPITAL and Keanu swings by to apologize in his leather jacket.
Keanu meets up with his grubby little sidekick who’s hocking Bulls tickets. Keanu is pissed because he’s gotta make money fast but no one’s giving him any action, presumably because there is some informal bookie credit check that he can’t pass. Keanu wants to make a HUGE bet, $12,000, to a THIRD bookie to pay bookie 1 and bookie 2. Oh boiiiiii. Back to coaching baseball, these kids are adorable and being rude as hell to each other, and to sum up the entire middle part of this movie, Keanu slowly morphs from a hapless, selfish gambler to a semi-responsible leader trying to do his best who occasionally eats pizza and make a winning team out of his buncha poor losers (and he is still a gambler who occasionally eats pizza, so in that way he doesn’t really change because people rarely do). He becomes beloved and he’s better at talking to children than bookies, that’s for sure. He puts a lot of effort into practices and gosh darn if those kids don’t start to win! Keanu starts awkwardly hitting on Diane Lane (she starts warming up and eventually they make out but you don’t see them fuqqq). The team makes it to the finals and the stakes have NEVER been higher!!!
Full disclosure, I stopped re-watching this movie at this point, and didn’t remember the specifics of the final third of this movie, so I attempted to watch it on HBOGo, where I had seen it featured a few months ago, only to find it had been removed and it’s not available to stream on Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, or any of my other current streaming subscriptions (and I of course refuse to pay to see this movie when on any given day it is on seven different deep-cut TV channels). What gives??? I thought we would never forget a movie that was released 3 days after 9/11, but apparently not so. I cannot (will not, really) verify the accuracy of the third act of this movie, but if memory serves, the tiniest member of the baseball team, who in fact was so tiny and young he was not an official team member but received a jersey because he was a whiny little cry baby and Keanu couldn’t bear to disappoint him- gets shot. It’s sad. It really is. I actually cry every time I get to this part. I can’t remember if he gets shot as a direct result of something Keanu does, but it’s Keanu’s fault and I think he starts drinking again? Maybe not, maybe he just goes back to gambling. Anyway, this kid is dead, everyone’s sad and then Keanu somehow finds a bookie that will take his action, and he places an outrageously large all-or-nothing bet on a basketball game. He wins, and I think he jumps into his friend’s arms and he’s super super happy because now he’s not an alcoholic forever and he can pay back his debts. Oh, and then the kids low-key win their championship. They have pizza, and I’m sure Keanu and Diane Lane bone under Chicago’s Tuscan sun. Basically, the lesson is always gamble, and always make the odds impossible because the worse the longer the odds, the better the payoff and nothing can ever go wrong when you put everything on the line. THE END!