Director: David Anspaugh
Producers: Carter DeHaven, Angelo Pizzo
Writer: Angelo Pizzo
Photography: Fred Murphy
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper, Sheb Wooley, Fern Persons, Chelcie Ross, Robert Swan, Michael O’Guinne, Will Dewitt, John Robert Thompson, Michael Sassone, Gloria Dorson, Maris Valainis
In 2007, ESPN ran a commercial where the Boston Celtics “Big 3” of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce watch Hoosiers during a long road trip. At the conclusion of the film, Garnett turns to his teammates and says, “Now that’s a great movie,” a claim immediately echoed by head coach Jeff Van Gundy. One problem: Van Gundy is supposed to be driving the RV, which has since begun swurving all over the road, all because Hoosiers is so damn captivating. Though a comic ad, the commercial reveals the deep admiration for this film throughout the sports community.
When ESPN celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 2004, the network released two separate lists of the greatest sports movies of all time. One was compiled by the so-called “experts” at ESPN (the critic side of the film spectrum). The other was compiled by ESPN’s SportsNation internet users (the public side of the film spectrum). And guess which film finished first on both lists? Hoosiers. It was a clean sweep for an uplifting underdog film from the same director, writer and musical composer who brought you Rudy (1993).
Based on the true story of the Milan High School basketball team’s 1954 Indiana State Championship upset, Hoosiers keeps its action in the “Hoosier Hysteria” of Indiana, but moves its setting to the fictional Hickory High, where kids can tell you as much about a corn combine as they can a zone defense. Into this atmosphere drives Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), a former college coach from Ithaca, N.Y., who’s been recruited by the Hickory A.D. (Sheb Wooley) to replace the town’s late great basketball coach.
From the very beginning, Dale is smothered by skepticism from school officials who question a controversial past that’s kept him out of basketball for 20 years: “A man your age comes to a place like this, either he’s running away from something or he has nowhere else to go.” Viewers are able to revel in Hackman’s changing of the guard, dismissing a former coach, cutting players for talking while he’s talking, closing practices to the dozens of parents wanting to watch, and working the boys like they’ve never been worked before — pop-passing drills, machine-gun footwork, slalom dribbling between ball racks and end-of-practice wind sprints, commonly called “suicides.” When a player pants, “It feels like we’re in the army,” Dale responds, “You are in the army. You’re in my army, everyday between 3 and 5.”
Dale’s biggest setback, however, is not a lack of discipline by his kids, but that the most talented player in the school, and probably the state, Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis), has decided not to come out for the team. In truth, Jimmy’s neighbor and school teacher Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) has decided it best for him not to play, wanting him to pursue an academic scholarship instead. Her talk with Dale about Jimmy’s future may be the most poignant moment in the entire film:
“You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god. How could he ever find out what he could really do? I don’t want this to be the high point of his life. I’ve seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were 17 years old. … Gods come along pretty easy nowadays don’t they? You become one by putting a leather ball in an iron hoop. And I hate to tell you this, Mr. Dale, but it’s only a game. … Just stay away from Jimmy. I don’t want him coaching in Hickory when he’s 50.”
This is the magic of Hoosiers. Perhaps more so than any other movie, it provides a real, honest look at the world of high school athletics, presenting both Fleener’s warning of glory-day losers and Dale’s retort that “most people would kill to be treated like a god, just for a few moments” and that a basketball scholarship could work dually for both their aspirations for the talented boy (athletic and academic). The film also defines just how important basketball, and sports in general, can be to a community, captured in a “We’ve Got Spirit” chant back and forth across a court.
Granted, such cheers also reveal a certain datedness to the film, not just in the booty shorts, knee-high socks and mechanical game clocks of the era, but in the athletic ability and game speed of these ’80s country boys compared to the post-Jordan era. Still, any datedness is overcome by the timeless sports truths that the film is so brilliant in capturing. At each turn, the film passes along Dale’s infinite coaching wisdom: “Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit,” “Absolutely no shots until you’ve passed off four times” and “15 feet to the foul line, 10 feet to the basket, the same measurements no matter which hardwood you play o.”
Norman Dale has no doubt influenced more real-life coaches than any other character in movie history. He has a renegade coaching style, be it making his team place four-against-five to prove a point, or getting ejected from games on purpose. Thus, he has provided the blueprint for every Gordon Bombay (The Mighty Ducks) and Herman Boone (Remember the Titans) we see on the silver screen.
Not only did the film influence sports characters, it also changed the way sports movies were presented. The way the game action was cut together revolutionized the genre (large improvements over Teen Wolf), with director David Anspaugh often cutting from a player’s shot release to the ball going in the hoop, sometimes letting the camera roll for the full live-action equivalent, and occasionally relying solely on the crowd’s reaction to tell the story (earning an Eddie nomination from the American Cinema Editors).
Enhanced by Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score, the film follows a beautifully-patient pace, epitomized in the team’s final mid-court celebration, a reporter’s flashbulb fading into a sunset, a jumping crowd becoming swaying cornstalks. It’s an approach rare for a popular sports movie, but a welcome rarity. Stand-out moments include the team’s Rocky-like arrival into the empty state championship gym (shot in the same location as Milan’s real-life upset) or Dale’s debut entrance into the Hickory High gym, a tracking shot placing viewers in Dale’s shoes as he nervously presents his product to an already skeptical crowd. Hoosiers has this way of immersing us in the feelings of these characters, making the inspirational climax all the more heartfelt, and earning this Cinderella story a No. 13 spot in the AFI’s 100 Most Inspirational Films of All Time.
But the inspiration does not come simply in the on-court underdog tale. Hoosiers packs its biggest inspirational punch in its characters’ ability to grow, to make good on a second chance. A five-foot-nothing, “half a player” named Ollie steps up big for his team. Fleener learns to find love in her life. And in a realistic subplot, a town drunkard named Shooter (Dennis Hopper in an Oscar-nominated turn) is given the chance at rehab.
Most importantly, Dale is delivered from his own controversial past by finding a loving relationship with his players, immortalized in his famous speech before the regional finals, “Don’t get caught up in winning or losing this game. If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners!”
Cue the slow locker-room clap, a now-cliche device unthinkable to anything but a spoof, except that Hoosiers was the original, a movie whose final image reminds us that a job well done — on the court or on the silver screen — can echo for all time.