I’ve never been much of a sports fan, so I usually lean away from sports movies. I’ve been to multiple sporting events to cheer people on, but I never get very worked up. Yet I’m passionate about the arts and the “artsy” projects with which I’m involved, so I can easily identify with another person’s love for a favorite sport and/or athlete.
I saw Hoosiers (1987) when it was first released, and while I have truly enjoyed other movies featuring various sports, Hoosiers has remained my favorite. Part of the reason, I think, is because it is a film that features basketball, but is about so much more. This movie has a lot to say about small towns and the people who live in them, about passions that run deep and nearly consume people, about how we treat outsiders with different ideas, about overcoming past mistakes. It has everything to do with human nature and wraps it within the story of a single season of basketball in the life of a tiny high school team.
Gene Hackman is perfectly cast as Norman Dale, the newly transplanted basketball coach in Hickory, Indiana. He’s a former college coach who spent the last ten years in the navy, and something about his age and vague background causes a number of folks to judge him quickly and harshly, including fellow teacher Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey). The good ol’ boys are rankled by this outsider’s coaching methods and do everything they can to have him removed.
A few people, however, catch on to what Coach Dale is trying to do, including Shooter (Dennis Hopper), the town drunkard who knows “everything about the greatest sport ever invented.” Shooter’s son is on the team, which is barely large enough to be called a team. The boys are fighting an uphill battle, especially since the school’s star player, Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis), has decided not to play.
What Coach Dale brings to the team is a strong sense of discipline. Some team members catch on more quickly than others. Eventually, as the team learn to trust their new leader, they learn that a tiny team in the middle of nowhere can become winners. One of the people who appreciate the coach’s methods is Jimmy. Are we really surprised when Jimmy changes his mind and decides to rejoin the team? The decision, when it comes (right on time), is borderline predictable. What makes it effective, though, is how and why Jimmy makes his choice. Jimmy has less dialogue in the movie than any other character, and yet in one scene we learn quite a lot about his values and inherent decency.
This brings me to the part of the movie I love the most. There is a lot of footage of basketball games. These scenes are photographed well, with clear direction, great sound design, and an energetic score from Jerry Goldsmith. But the heart of the movie is found within the personalities displayed on and off the basketball court. We wouldn’t care so much about the Hickory Huskers if we didn’t get a feeling of who they are as individuals. We learn the most about Norman Dale, and a bit about Shooter and Miss Fleener, but we get wonderful moments with all of the characters, just enough to make us feel like we know the people of this small town.
Let’s consider a few moments. I like the scene when Norman appears for his first practice with the boys and tells good ol’ boy George (Chelcie Ross) that his “coaching days are over.” George’s response is almost instantly hostile, yet look at how Gene Hackman delivers the next line (“Is that some sort of threat?”). He says it quietly, but there’s an intensity to it that shows he won’t be bullied.
The scene when Norman invites Shooter to be an assistant coach to the team is tricky. Hackman and Hopper make it look easy as both men wade through uncomfortable truths. There are really two payoffs to this scene. It’s not when Shooter, in his best suit, shows up sober at the next game. The first payoff is after Coach Dale intentionally gets himself through out of the game (again) in an effort to let Shooter use his knowledge on a coaching level, and under Shooter’s direction the boys win the game. The payoff moment is the look on Shooter’s face after they’ve won and his son says, “You did good, Dad.” The second payoff is a quiet scene between father and son in the hospital where Shooter is recovering from alcoholism.
One of my favorite moments in the movie is in the second-to-last game, when Ollie (Wade Schenck), the smallest member of the team, has to make a couple foul shots. An opposing player makes a snide comment to Ollie, but Ollie’s teammate Merle (Kent Poole) steps up and offers words of encouragement and support. This is, to me, why they are a team of winners. Once Coach Dale earns the respect of the team, the respect they have for each other begins to grow and shines through in challenging moments.
The moment in the movie that really captures what I think is being symbolized in the story is just before the final game, when the boys and their coaches have one last locker room chat. For me, the best part is when Coach Dale says, “I love you guys.” That kind of camaraderie and affection can manifest itself in all kinds of enterprises when a group of people, however big or small, face challenges together. It’s that sense of what a teamwork is really about: support, mutual respect, looking out for each other, never giving up. In the case of Norman Dale and his relationship with not only the basketball team but the people of Hickory, I think the word “team” is synonymous with “family.”