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‘Basketball Jones’ move was so hot, it was off the charts

Times Staff Writer

If the NCAA basketball tournament ever adopts a theme song, a 34-year-old hit by the comedy duo Cheech & Chong would be a worthy contender. “Basketball Jones” is a bracket-buster, to be sure -- not to mention a gut-buster -- and worthy of a No. 1 seeding.

Like March Madness itself, “Basketball Jones” is madcap fun, over the top and in your face. It’s loud and boisterous, freewheeling and frivolous.

It speaks to obsession.

“I need someone to set a pick for me at the free-throw line of life,” wails teenage hoop junkie Tyrone Shoelaces, voiced by Cheech Marin in an exaggerated falsetto, in one of the song’s more memorable lines. “Someone I can pass to, someone to hit the open man on the give-and-go and not end up in the popcorn machine.”

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Later, Shoelaces urges Bill Russell and Chick Hearn to sing along, tells Chris Schenkel to keep quiet and boasts, “I could stuff it from center court with my toes; I could jump on top of the backboard, take off a quarter, leave 15 cents change; I could dribble behind my back; I got more moves than Ex-Lax.”

Believed to be the highest-charting song of the rock ‘n’ roll era about a sport other than surfing, according to chart historian Joel Whitburn, “Basketball Jones” climbed to No. 15 on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1973, its popularity enhanced by an ahead-of-its-time animated promotional video.

A spoof of “Love Jones,” a 1972 soul hit by a Chicago group of mostly high school students known as Brighter Side of Darkness, the Cheech & Chong parody was produced by basketball fan Lou Adler, who sits next to Jack Nicholson at Lakers games, and charted one rung higher than the song it mocked.

“It was just stupid enough,” says Marin, who played basketball at Mission Hills Alemany High but never made it onto the varsity. “Everybody kind of knew the song ‘Love Jones,’ and that was stupid. It was like a very hip stupidity because it was a takeoff on a funny, dimwit song, and that made it smart.”

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Says Tommy Chong, the other half of a duo most famous for celebrating and lampooning the ‘70s drug culture, “It was just a good song that hit at the right time. It had nothing to do with dope and everything to do with basketball, and especially the obsessions of the players. Tyrone Shoelaces was a good example: a guy who loved the game so much that he slept with his basketball.”

Though Chong was born in Canada, where hockey is king, “I’ve always been a basketball guy,” he says. He and Marin were regulars at Lakers games, and Marin says they played a lot of basketball while touring.

As Chong remembers it, their tongue-in-cheek ode to the game had its genesis one night during a mad dash to a Lakers game at the Forum, Chong and Marin riding in a car with Nicholson. They were running late, Chong says, and Nicholson was behind the wheel of his Mercedes, driving erratically.

In the back seat, Chong says, Marin nervously mimicked the 12-year-old vocalist who sang “Love Jones,” changing the lyric to, “I got a basketball Jones.”

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The next day, Chong and Marin wrote out the rest of the lyrics, according to Chong. Marin, however, said in a separate interview that he remembers most of the lyrics being ad-libbed in the studio.

Perhaps by happy coincidence -- though Marin notes, “Nothing is happenstance with Adler” -- a “super session” was being recorded in the studio next to where Cheech & Chong were recording. A demo was played for the more serious musicians and an all-star backing band for “Basketball Jones” was hastily recruited.

“Adler knew all the guys so he just went over and played them the track,” Marin says. “Everyone cracked up and then they played on it.”

The song’s guitar intro was played by George Harrison, and among the many other well-known musicians credited were Carole King, Billy Preston, Tom Scott and Nicky Hopkins. The backup singers, billed as cheerleaders, were Darlene Love and, from The Mamas and The Papas, Michelle Phillips.

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Still, the song was a surprise hit.

“ ‘Basketball Jones’ became way more famous than ‘Love Jones,’ ” Chong says, laughing. “In fact, the guys that did ‘Love Jones’ were a little mad because we took a serious love song and turned it into comedy.”

Cheech & Chong continued their run of success through the 1970s, but they retired their act in the early ‘80s and went their separate ways, citing creative differences. Marin, 60, hit it big with another parody called “Born in East L.A.,” based on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” He is an actor, a celebrated collector of Chicano art and an avid golfer. The 68-year-old Chong, jailed for nine months in 2003 and 2004 for selling a bong, is an actor and standup comedian in an act also featuring his wife, Shelby. He and his wife are trying to sell a reality show.

“Basketball Jones,” meanwhile, was featured in a memorable scene in the 1979 Peter Sellers film, “Being There.” And a remake by Chris Rock and Barry White was featured in the 1996 Michael Jordan movie, “Space Jam.”

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The original, though, deserves to cut down the nets.

“It’s really iconic,” Marin says. “It’s one of those things that stuck in people’s memories. It hit a cord, it hit a note, and people got it.

“It’s a fun, very kind of intelligent take on stupidity.”

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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