Retro Review: How “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” Captured a ’70s City of Champions
In our Retro Review series, we ask our editorial intern Emma Malinak to watch made-in-Pittsburgh flicks from the 20th century — long before she was even born.
The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” a basketball comedy released in November 1979, celebrated a decade of unprecedented athletic achievement by introducing a new team, and a timeless story of teamwork, to the City of Champions.
The stars aligned for Pittsburgh’s sports teams in the 1970s, with the Pirates winning the World Series in 1971 and ’79 and the Steelers winning the Super Bowl in ’75, ’76 and ’79. The stars also aligned for this locally set and filmed sports flick — one that incorporates the powers of the zodiac and a disco soundtrack, of course, because nothing is more ’70s than disco.
In “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” the Pittsburgh Pythons, a fictional professional basketball team, escape a season-long slump by only recruiting players born under the Pisces sign. According to a local astrologer, played by Stockard Channing, players born between Feb. 19 and March 20 are the most compatible with the team’s MVP, Moses Guthrie, played by basketball legend Julius Erving.
With newfound luck and camaraderie (plus revamped uniforms with the symbolic Pisces fish) the newly renamed Pittsburgh Pisces team advances to the championship. But on the night of the big game, the stars are against the players — their courtside astrologer is kidnapped, and a rare astrological alignment is predicted to bring them bad luck.
However, after a season of learning the value of teamwork, Moses rallies his team by saying the star charts never won the games for the players, but rather the players’ “magic is made of sweat and strain and pride.” Buried under the iridescent jerseys and ’70s slang, “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” carries a poignant message — a City of Champions can’t be built on talent (and luck from the cosmos) alone and relies on constructive collaboration to truly succeed.
The setting of the film is just as Pittsburgh as its story of sports champions — the movie was shot entirely in Pittsburgh and Moon Township, with many scenes occurring in the Civic Arena, the stadium affectionately called “The Igloo” that hosted countless sporting events and concerts from 1961 to 2011. The arena was the world’s first major indoor sports stadium with a retractable roof, an engineering marvel that is showcased in the film when the Pisces descend into the championship game in a fish-shaped hot air balloon.
The movie also nods to local history by drawing inspiration from the Pittsburgh Pipers, an American Basketball Association team that won the league’s inaugural championship in 1967. The Pipers were led by ABA star Connie Hawkins, who pioneered adding performance feats such as slam dunks into games. Erving incorporated similar tricks, such as midair spins, into both his professional basketball career and his Pisces character.
A supplemental note to Gen Z readers: As you may have guessed from a movie that incorporates astrology, disco and a rags-to-riches sports saga, “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” is pretty cheesy. While you may cringe at the ’70s humor, this film is worth a watch to experience Pittsburgh’s glory days as the City of Champions and these five entertaining elements.
- The star-studded cast: In addition to Julius Erving, numerous stars came to Pittsburgh to perform in this flick. Stockard Channing, who played Rizzo in “Grease,” plays the team’s astrologer; Meadowlark Lemon, who was a staple of the Harlem Globetrotters for more than 20 years, portrays a Pisces player; iconic comedian Jonathan Winters plays the owner of the Pisces team; and Marv Albert, a renowned sports commentator, plays himself as he announces for the Pisces.
- The music from ’70s hitmakers: This movie showcases an impressive disco soundtrack, with songs performed by hit groups such as The Sylvers, The Spinners and The Four Tops. I guarantee “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” title track will be stuck in your head for days.
- The lovable Pisces team: Marv Albert introduces the Pittsburgh Pisces as a group of “weirdos, misfits and some other guys,” and you can’t help but root for the ragtag team of outcasts, made up of a DJ, a reverend, a hippie and more quirky characters who aren’t your typical athletic stars.
- The style: If you love the sparkles and hot pink hues of the Barbie-inspired outfits that have taken over Instagram, you’ll adore the throwback style in this flick. Vibrant contrasting colors, statement sequins and oversized jacket collars and cuffs define the wardrobe of Pisces players and audience members alike.
- The astrology: While “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” was filmed during a decade when astrology entered mainstream culture, astrology has recently risen in popularity. The Washington Post reports that 25% of Americans claim to believe in astrology now, and as many as 70 million Americans check their horoscopes daily. So if you know your sun, moon and rising signs off the top of your head, you should check out “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.”