Of all the popular pseudo-sciences calculated to soothe or enhance human vanity, astrology seems the least diverting, dominated by pedantry and equivocation. The question "What's your sign?" is the surest soporific I know.
Given this prejudice, I was not eager to play along with the gimmicky premise of "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh," an uninspired sports comedy about a floundering pro basketball franchise, The Pittsburgh Pythons. The club becomes a chapionship contender the moment the squad is made astrologically homogeneous: all Pisces.
The team's rising young star, effortlessly embodied by Julius Erving, can only perfect his game when surrounded by other Pisces, recruited not within the league but by holding open tryouts, which yield a supporting cast of would-be lovable athletic kooks.
These include a pair of twins, an American Indian, a grizzled master of the two-handed set-shot, a disc jockey, a minister (Meadowlark Lemon), a belligeren Muslim, a spaced-out yokel. As the team's new playmaker, a mute who does magic tricks, Malek Abdul Mansour revives character attributes that used to belong to Nick Cravat when he was Burt Lancaster's diminutive sidekick in the exuberant adventure comedies "The Crimson pirate" and "The Flame and the Arrow."
The idea for realigning the club originates with the ball boy, a studious juvenile whose sister is belatedly paired off with Erving. The youngster sells the idea to the team's owner -- a kindly, prissy simpleton played by Jonathan Winters -- and then retains the services of a professional astrologist, Stockard Channing, whom he finds in a tenderloin district that leads one to believe astrology must be her cover for prostitution, or worse. Since the new team members supposedly click with Erving the instant they take the floor together, the only bostacle to success is a contrived villain: Winters doubling as the nasty brother of the nice proprietor.
The flimsy material leaves director Gilbert Moses few resources to exploit off the basketball court. Even there the exceptional skills of Erving and the other pro players who appear as themselves (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Connie Hawkins, Lou Hudson, Bob Lanier, et al) are compromised by the arbitrary, facetious game situations.
The temptation to overcompensate is understandable, but Moses shoots the court and the baskets from so many bolique, picturesque angles that the extraordinary feats of an Erving become wholly esthetic.
Moses has staged one totally abstract, contemplative sequence of Erving practicing by himself on a playground court at night. The succession of slow-motion, overlapping dissolves of Erving gliding and dunking in solitary grandeur is a rather pretty abstraction, but it seems to stylize his prowess in a misleading way. The transcendant thing about Erving is that he's capable of performing feats in competition and in real time that the rest of us only dream of doing while playing one-on-none.