High school basketball takes on an importance in certain Midwestern states that other parts of the country cannot imagine. I grew up in such a place in Quincy, Illinois—a downstate city that "lived and died" with its Blue Devil basketball team during the season, especially during March Madness days of the state high school championship where streams of cars would wind their way along narrow central Illinois highways to the next tournament game.
Back when I went to high school, there was only one state champion. That meant that occasionally a small school like the Cobden Appleknockers with less than 100 students would make it all the way to State, setting up a potential David vs. Goliath battle for the championship. Of course, they'd be sentimental favorites. One time, the David actually won—over fifty years ago, the 1952 Hebron team defeated Quincy for the state crown. Those days are now historic relics because Illinois has adopted a class system, so each year crowns two state champions.
Yet, as basketball crazy as Illinois is, the definitive high school basketball scene is found across the border�in Indiana. They have a similar history with tiny Milan High School winning the title in 1954—a feat never to be duplicated again since the single state title era ended in 1997.
To star on the local high school basketball team in such a place is virtually equal to being a god—the town's entire social life revolves around the team, and young kids look to the high school players as heroes. Capturing the spirit of Indiana high school basketball is Hoosiers, arguably the definitive fictional film about basketball and one of the best sports movies of all time. Call it sentimental and pure sports formula with its classic David vs. Goliath storyline, but Hoosiers works for the most part because of its authenticity, great basketball action, and excellent acting.
From the initial sunset shot of the flat Indiana landscape with Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) driving his gray Chevy along the narrow highways, bathed in yellow and oranges of Fall, you get a sense of the 1951 period. Confirming its Indiana base are glimpses of boys tossing basketballs at hoops fixed to barns and old-timers casually conversing in the small town—probably about the weather or the Hickory basketball team.
It seems that the only thing community folks want to discuss are the prospects for the high school locals—after all, they went 15-10 last year and all the boys are back. Well, there's a question about Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis), the star player who may be the best ever—seems his former coach was like a dad to him, so he doesn't feel like playing for the team out of mourning or from listening to his next door neighbor/teacher Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey). She encourages his academic side, and doesn't want him to settle for the "glory days" of high school as the highlight of his life—never mind the logic here since a sure-fire basketball scholarship would easily finance Jimmy through college.
Coach Dale�s arrival in Hickory isn't exactly welcome. On his first day Fleener practically interviews him on the high school steps (looking for details about his qualifications), the untrusting local basketball pundits want to know why Principal Cletus (Sheb Wooley) drug his old bones to Indiana from the Navy, and even the minister wants to know his religious beliefs—whether he believes in the zone or man-to-man defense. If you think this is over the top, you haven't been to rural Indiana in the height of basketball season. This treatment only qualifies as dry humor, because it hits the mark so well.
One of the best aspects of Hoosiers is how well the local community spirit and attitudes are portrayed. These people are fanatics and love their high school basketball—the local men want to crash the practice sessions, they pack the crackerbox gym and hit the roads for away games, and the barber gives free trims after victories. The team bus is a nice touch—the town minister drives the team in the church bus, painted Hickory Husker red during the season before transforming it to summer white for the Revivals.
The plot will fill no one with surprise although Coach Dale certainly shocks the locals from their paradigms. After kicking the town sports hack, George (character actor Chelsie Ross, who also appears in Rudy and Major League), from practice sessions, Dale sets his sights on creating a disciplined team that works together as a unit, focusing on fundamentals and even leaving the team a man short by benching one of his better players. Without Jimmy and initially uncomfortable with Dale's team philosophy, his Hickory team stumbles at first, but the eventual outcome is never in doubt. This is Hollywood and Hickory high school (population of 64 students) is destined to face defending champion South Bend Central high school (population 2,800 students) in the climactic David vs. Goliath game.
Coaches across America in similar situations recall Gene Hackman's ingenious solution (credit screenwriter Angelo Pizza, who also crafted the screenplay for Rudy) to lessen the intimidation factor. Going from the tiny Hickory gym to Butler Field House was like going to the moon for the team, and you sense their feelings of awe when they walk into the spacious empty gym. With some measuring tape, Coach Dale finds a concrete way to let his boys know that they really are "at home" on the court—of course under his breath, he whispers to his assistant "Sure is big!"
Except for a lame one-minute romantic moment kissing Barbara Hershey, seemingly tossed in under Hollywood orders to create something for female audiences, Hackman delivers with sincerity and honesty. He looks and acts like the veteran coach, working his players through drills tirelessly, focusing his players on his team philosophy, and believably getting angry when referees screw his team over. Hackman even looks like he's enjoying his job when the team responds well on the floor, and his quietly uttered "I love you guys" doesn't even sound sugary or false.
Another remarkable performance is turned in by Dennis Hopper as Shooter, the town drunk, who once lived through momentary basketball glory in high school, only to see his potential winning shot at the Sectionals bounce off the rim—he often remembers this instant during one of his drunken binges. One thing that makes Shooter different from the other town basketball pundits is that he actually knows the game and understands its finer points. He also has a son on the team, so Pizza writes scenes that get to the heart of the father-son conflict and eventual tear-jerking resolution. Hopper plays a great drunk, both while in a stupor or when suffering from withdrawal, in a role that no one could have brought off better—it parallels his own real life struggles with substance abuse. Looking at his pinched and pained look on his first tentative entry as assistant coach is plenty to justify his Oscar nomination without his telling Hackman, "I don't feel so good."
But face it, this is a basketball movie and the film simply wouldn't work without some good game footage. Hoosiers has an abundance, obtained by using real high school basketball players. They don't have a lot of lines to say, especially the mostly quiet star Jimmy. They are primarily cast for physical acting on the basketball court, and the footage is as good as it gets in sports movies.
Of course the dramatic moments are staged, and nearly too perfect to be believed. But audiences would feel ripped off and heartbroken if the ending was different, and the joy and tears on the screen often pour out to audiences. There once was a little Hebron high school that won the Illinois state championship in 1952 and there really was a Merin high school that took the ultimate prize in Indiana high school basketball in 1954, so miracles really do happen. It's not just Hollywood. Essential viewing for sports fans, Hoosiers contains enough pleasures to make anyone without a heart of stone put aside cynicism and root for the underdogs.