Once the cast was in place, director Kent Alterman put the actors through two weeks of basketball practice and blocking, led by sports coordinator Mark Ellis.
The cast had to figure out how to navigate the court like authentic ABA players. "It was just a different style," Will Ferrell says, noting that basketball in the '70s was markedly different from how it is played today. "We got acquainted with the style of play during that time. The players used a lot more straight-up defense. They didn't guard each other and they weren't as fancy with their dribble. It was a simpler game, and it was really spread out. We were able to get these plays down so that when we started filming, we could hit the ground running."
"It was pretty intensive," actor Josh Braaten remembers of the training camp. "The toughest thing about it was the warm-up. It was a 15 minute warm-up of three-men-weave drills and lay-up drills and getting winded. Once we got into the plays it was more of a real practice. I think I lost somewhere between 12 and 15 pounds in that two week span!"
Though he was challenged by the extreme physical activity, Braaten had a leg up on some of the other players because of his regular involvement with a charity basketball league. "I play in this league with other actors and musicians called the NBA Entertainment League, which is run through the NBA. We get together on Sundays and we wear the respective teams' costumes and then we'll do other events with NBA Cares on the side. Last year we went to Long Beach and helped people rebuild their houses. We also went up to Oakland and did a charity game for Baron Davis' Children's Hospital Charity."
Assisting the actors on screen are some "Special Ability Extras," who were enlisted to make the basketball sequences appear as professional as possible. Many of the Special Ability Extras had basketball and sport backgrounds, even at a professional level. Their skill set helped the actors build upon their existing level of play. Among the more recognizable faces in Semi-Pro is Pooh Richardson, who played professional basketball for eleven years for the Los Angeles Clippers and the Indiana Pacers.
Richardson notes that the actors improved dramatically as their practices and shooting continued. "Most athletic people that go out and play basketball, especially weekend-warriors, are not really under control," he says. "André Benjamin started learning how to play basketball a little bit, started to understand the game. Now when we play pick-up and run up and down, he can definitely make a couple of buckets."
"Woody Harrelson makes shots, he's a real competitor," Richardson continues. "Woody just goes after it. He always wants to challenge you, or he always asking you something to make him better so he can use it against you!"
Harrelson was no stranger to the sport, having famously played the game opposite Wesley Snipes in White Men Can't Jump. "I've been playing since I was twelve or thirteen years old, when someone told me that girls like basketball players," Harrelson jokes. "My motivation was simple. I wasn't really playing varsity ball, though."
Though Pooh Richardson was familiar with the history of the ABA, the experience of working on Semi-Pro enhanced his understanding of the league. "From watching tapes it seems to me that it was a fun league. Some of the players wore different hats. Someone might be the assistant general manager, or the general manager and coach, and one of the players would play and coach. Things you don't really find in today's basketball game with the NBA. The ABA was more colorful. It was more or less a league for showmen. If you were a showman, you flourished in the league."
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