The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies
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Hoosiers - 1986

Gene Hackman had his doubts when he was first hired to play embattled coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers.“No basketball movie had ever made it commercially,” he recalled. “And we’re going to make a high school basketball movie?I thought, ‘We should have our heads examined.’ ”

Likewise, Dennis Hopper, cast as town drunk and hoops savant Shooter Flatch, was dubious during filming. He and Hackman wondered why Anspaugh kept focusing on “all those damned basketball games.”

“[Gene and I] were sitting on those wooden benches saying,‘Here’s the big money. Why aren’t they shooting us?’ ” Hopper mused.

It’s said that during the filming of The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola fretted that he had a disaster on his hands. If Hackman and Hopper had similar concerns, their fears were equally unfounded. Just as Coppola produced a masterpiece, so too did Hoosiers director David Anspaugh. The little Cinderella story about the Hickory High Huskers is a nearly perfect sports movie.

Hoosiers is a predictable David vs. Goliath tale without being cliché. It is emotionally stirring without being manipulative. It is heart-stirring without being mushy; a feel-good film without being preachy. It boasts brilliant performances—from Hackman and Hopper right down to the flannel-shirt-wearing bit characters in bad haircuts who seem like they just walked out of small-town America, circa 1952.

Add to that some rousing sports action, plus the fact that the film is based on a true story and, well, you’ve got an enduring classic on your hands.

We surveyed more than 100 prominent people for this book,asking them to name their favorite sports movie. No film was cited more than Hoosiers. From legendary golfer Arnold Palmer (“It had a lot of heart. It was a great portrait of America in the 1950s.”) to SuperBowl XXXIV MVP Kurt Warner (“They weren’t supposed to be there and they won it all. It is really like my story.”). From Colorado Avalanche left winger Ryan Smyth (“Small-town people rising to win a championship in the big city.”) to WNBA star Sue Bird (“Back in CYO we used to watch it before games to get psyched up.”). From Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell (“I love that Jimmy Chitwood never misses a shot.”) to University of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan (“How could anyone involved in basketball not love it?”).

To, yes, even President Barack Obama, who calls Hoosiers “truly inspirational.” We can almost imagine the president’s next State of the Union Address to Congress: “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.”

Okay, maybe not.

On the surface, Hoosiers is a simple tale about tiny Hickory High (just 64 boys) which sends its team all the way to the state title game against a school 20 times its size. Its template is the true story of the 1954 Milan Indians, who won the Indiana championship in a game that ranks up there with the U.S. Olympic Hockey “Miracle on Ice” in terms of improbable victories. Anspaugh and screenwriter Angelo Pizzo—Indiana U college buddies from the 1960s—embellished history with the subplots that any textured film needs. (By the way, the old frat brothers peaked here in their first collaboration. Their second film, Rudy, was afew notches down. Their third, The Game of Their Lives, was a bomb.)

In Hoosiers, Anspaugh and Pizzo take you to a time and place where high school hoops means everything to a small village. Sometimes that’s positive—as when the caravan of townspeople cheerily follows the team bus to road games. Sometimes it’s not—as when suspicious local hicks cross-examine the new coach on everything from his religion to his attitude on zone defense. Regardless, there is an organic sense of a real community throughout the film.

And there’s something more, because Hoosiers isn’t just about basketball or a long-gone America.It is also about redemption. The comeback of the small team sets the plot arc for the comeback of its coach, a puzzling 50-ish man with a shadowy past who seems a little too qualified for this outpost. It’s also the chance of a comeback for Hopper’s village drunk character. Once, 20-plus years ago, Shooter had his own chance for glory. But he missed the winning shot in a high school title game and his life since has been on a downward spiral. He is a disgrace to his son Everett (David Neidorf), one of the current players.

Coach Dale offers Shooter rebirth—over everyone’s objections—in the form of an assistant-coaching job. The catch is that Shooter must remain sober. He manages for a few games and then stumbles into a critical semifinal contest bombed. It’s a great scene, as the rowdy drunk humiliates his son, who then injures himself in a fistfight borne out of embarrassment. Hopper asked Anspaugh for a 20-second warning before his entrance into the scene. He then spun in circles so that he’d be able to reel around the hardwood like a true drunk.

Two other characters are worth mentioning here. The fabulously named Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) is the flinty teacher (and “flinty”is an extremely kind way of describing her) who has a lifelong grudge against high school hoops and seems intent in taking it out on Coach Dale.

Myra:“A basketball hero around here is treated like a god. . . . 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.”

Coach Dale: “You know, most people would kill to be treated like a god, just for a few moments.”

Myra eventually comes around, leading to the only low point of Hoosiers. More about that later.

The other intriguing character is Jimmy Chitwood (MarisValainis), the lights-out shooter who quit playing after the Huskers’ previous coach died. Jimmy also apparently quit talking, since he doesn’t utter a word in his first few scenes. Anyway, he, too, finally joins the ride, saving the coach’s job and bringing peace and harmony to tiny Hickory.

It’s at this point that Hoosiers really picks up. The first half of the movie focuses on Coach Dale’s travails;the second half is the run to the state tournament. The final game, of course,ties it all together.

And the pep talk before the final game? Well, we rank the all-time top five movie locker-room scenes like this:

5. Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) in Any Given Sunday: “We fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us for that inch. . . . I’m still willing to fight and die for that inch!”

4. Rudy’s Dan Devine (Chelcie Ross, who also appears in Hoosiers)telling his Notre Dame seniors before their final home game: “Remember no one,and I mean no one, comes into our house and pushes us around.” This clip has been played ad nauseum at every single NHL and NBA game over the past decade.

3. Bluto Blutarsky (John Belushi) psyching the Animal House Deltas for their day of revenge: “Over?Did you say over? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!”

2. Knute Rockne (Pat O’Brien) channeling George Gipp in Knute Rockne: All-American with the “Win one for the Gipper” speech.

And #1:

Coach Dale: “We’re way past big-speech time. I want to thank you for the last few months. They’ve been very special to me. Anybody have anything they want to say?”

Merle: “Let’s win this one for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”

Everett:“I want to win for my dad.”

Buddy: “Let’s win for coach, who got us here.”

Preacher Doty: “Blah, blah, blah.” (This part slows the whole thing down and should have been cut.)

Reverend Purl: “And David put his hand in the bag and took out a stone and flung it. And it struck the Philistine in the head, and he fell to the ground. Amen.”

Coach Dale: “I love you guys.”

All (clasping hands): “Team!”

Works every time.

There has always been debate about how strong a coach Norman Dale really is. Wrote Mike Vaccaro in the New York Post: “What do you get when you mix one part Dean Smith, one part Vince Lombardi, one part Casey Stengel and one part Red Auerbach? About half the coach that Norman Dale is.”

Truth be told, Dale’s game strategy is sometimes lackingmuch imagination beyond “Give the ball to Jimmy.” But put us in those old blackChuck Taylor high tops and we couldn’t name anyone we would rather play for.And no one, and we mean no one, comes intoour house and suggests that any movie coach ever was a better motivator.

Copyright © 2011 by Running Press