Hoosiers, the best basketball movie ever made and easily one of the top five sports movies ever made. Where it might take a couple hours to explain how much Indiana love their basketball heroes, it's easier to say this. Just check out the movie.
Based very loosely on the 1954 Milan state championship team, Hoosiers paints a picture of what life in small-town Indiana was like in the 1950s. In the same way that Friday Night Lights showed what high school football means to Texas, so goes high school basketball to Indiana. In a town where there's little to do and not much in the way of excitement, the basketball team was a top priority in entertainment. On Friday nights, the town packed the gym to root on their boys. When they traveled, the town did too. Naturally there's a huge amount of pressure that goes with that on the coaches and players. In telling this story, director David Anspaugh creates one of the more emotional, powerful, and enjoyable underdog stories, a perfect example of what can be right about sports.
After 10 years away from coaching, Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) accepts a coaching position in Hickory, Indiana, a small high school with just under 70 students. He quickly meets resistance on just about every front possible including the acting principal, Miss Fleener (Barbara Hershey), the townsfolk who expect their team to be perfect, and worst of all, the team's best player, Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis) has decided not to play in honor of the last coach's passing. Undeterred, Dale goes about his business of trying to coach his 7-man squad to be the best team they can be. A weird thing starts to happen even as everyone objects to Dale's strategy, Hickory starts winning, and it looks like nothing is going to stop them.
There's so many positives going on with this movie I really don't know where to start. A hugely under-appreciated actor, I don't know if Hackman was ever better than he was here. His Norman Dale has been given a second chance to do something good after an incident from his past hung over his head all these years. He clearly knows what he's doing coaching on the sidelines, but he has to convince everyone else he knows what he's doing. As for the necessary 'coach' moment, listen to this speech and tell me that wouldn't get a team fired up. I love so many of Hackman's parts -- good guys and bad guys alike -- but this may be my favorite.
As for the basketball, it's handled well in scenes that always allow you to keep up with the action. Local high school and college athletes filled out the Hickory squad, and with the exception of Valainas as Chitwood, none of the players ever acted again. You never get a sense of someone putting on a show or overacting. These were kids in their late teens playing themselves. And even down to a set-shot jumper or style of play, they look like they could have played in the 1950s. The basketball scenes are instrumental in getting that 1950s feel to the story. We're not talking massive gymnasiums for playing, we're talking tiny, claustrophobic places where the crowd is right on top of the action.
I'm going to say SPOILERS here, but if you don't know how Hoosiers ends where have you been these last 24 years? Chitwood rejoins the team and saves Dale's job, sparking the team all the way to the state title game at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis against a powerhouse team from South Bend. An absolutely inspired scene has Dale measuring the basket and the free throw line at Hinkle to show that the venue may be much bigger, but the court is just the same. The ending of course is obvious, Hickory has to win, but that doesn't take away from the power of the moment. Valainis says maybe 20 words the whole movie, but none speak larger than 'I'll make it.' Done, and game over. Gives me chills just thinking of it.
Beyond the underdog story, sports movies are so often about second chances and rising to the occasion. In many ways, they're about people coming to together in a situation out of their comfort zone. Dale butts heads with Hershey's Myra Fleener for his tactics but ends up wearing her down. Dale takes on the town drunk and one of the player's fathers, Shooter (Dennis Hopper, Oscar-nominated for his role), because he knows basketball like few others do despite his drinking problems. Chitwood wants nothing to do with basketball at first, only to realize how much it means to him and more importantly, his town. The sports aspect is key, but the interpersonal relationships that develop are as big a part of the sports flick above all else.
Comparing sports movies though, a key element is that one moment, that special scene that does send chills down your back. Hoosiers has too many to even count, most of them aided by Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score. Give it a listen HERE and HERE. There's the entrance at the fieldhouse, Ollie hitting two underhanded free throws to win the regional title game, Hackman sending four players out and stating 'My team is on the floor,' or Hopper's Shooter forced to coach and lead his team to victory. It is the moments like that which make sports movies special.
I don't intend this as a cop-out, but you watch Hoosiers and just know it's a good movie. It lives on in Indiana -- people still talk about Milan, and are angry that with the class system there'll never be another Milan -- as if this story was the true one. Every so often in movies, every little thing fits perfectly together in a way that is hard to express or explain. It's just good, and that's what counts.
Hoosiers <----trailer (1986): ****/****