Check out any list of the best sports films ever made and the odds are quite good that at,or near, the top you will find Hoosiers. The story of a small town basketball program and a coach given a second chance chasing the dream of the state championship works as well today as it did when it was released more than two decades ago.
“Welcome to Indiana basketball.”
Loosely based on the true experiences of Milan High School’s basketball team’s championship in 1954 the film tells the story of Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) who lost his last head coaching job due to his temper and a violent outburst directed at one of his players. Now considered untouchable Dale is given the opportunity by an old friend (Sheb Wooley) to coach a small high school in Indiana with barely enough players to field a team.
What Hickory, Indiana does have however is a vocal local fanbase of knowledgeable basketball fans who aren’t too keen on the new coach or his system of team ball. Earlier on the coach spends more time deflecting, and ignoring, their unsolicited advice than actually coaching.
With support of the town’s best player (Maris Valainis) and the knowledge of an alcoholic assistant coach (Dennis Hopper), Coach Dale manages to keep his job long enough to start winning some games and make a run at the state championship.
If you love the game of basketball, this is the film for you. Down to the basics of passing, moving, dribbling, hard work, and execution the script by Angelo Pizzo (who would also write another pretty good sports movie) gives us a basketball experience in its purest form. The film also succeeds in capturing the small town feel and the emphasized importance of high school basketball to the community.
Hackman is well cast as the gruff head coach and surrounded with a team of underdogs who look and sound the part (Scott Summers, Wade Schenck, Kent Poole, Brad Long, Steve Hollar, Brad Boyle). Barbara Hershey also has a small role as a Marian the Librarian type who distrusts the coach, researches into his past, and then must decide what to do with the information she finds.
The film is sports in a nutshell. It’s a tale about the love of the game, of second chances, of hard work and perseverance, of the little guy taking on the bigger challenger on the largest stage possible, and of winning the right way. Sure, there’s a bit of sports cliche along the way, but it’s dealt with in such an honest and forthright way that it never comes close to harming the characters, the story, or the film itself.
Hoosiers is a basketball film made by, and for, those who love basketball. Considering its reverence among sports movies I was a little surprised to find the average score on both Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB to be only a 7.5. If you haven’t seen Hoosiers in years give it a second chance. And if you’ve never seen it (where have you been?) get out there and find a copy! You will be glad you did.