Well hello there. Welcome to a new month of some blasts from the past, and this time we indeed do have a few of those. I’d like to officially welcome you to NBApril. The NBA Playoffs are just around the corner at the end of this month. One film that comes to mind that is a great ambassador for the sports genre is the highly improbable story of an Indiana high school basketball squad that defies all odds to compete in the state title game. With impacting performances, a strong sense of nostalgia for a more simple time, and a wonderful if not familiar story, this week’s entry quickly gets us into the spirit of the post-season.
Today’s food for thought: Hoosiers.
Release: November 14, 1986
Welcome to humble old Hickory, Indiana, a hardened agricultural community that comes together every fall to get behind their high school basketball team, the Hickory Hoosiers. Small-town Indiana isn’t the kind of place that takes quickly, if at all, to the idea of change or going against the grain of tradition and routine. Getting set in a certain way gives the impression of consistency and stability. But when a new head coach is hired to coach the boys and he is anything but their ideal candidate, how will the town cope with the choice they are more or less forced to accept?
To put it insanely complicatedly, David Anspaugh’s riveting sports drama Hoosiers is a classic. One cannot think of a basketball movie and not have the iconic images found in this love-letter to the fifties in mind almost immediately. The throwback look and tones in his film recall a much more simple time, but it’s not so old-school as to avoid being relatable. It tells the story of a very unlikely high school team that goes on to compete in the Indiana State Championship game, adding in a few excellent twists on the conceit and establishing a strong sense of nostalgia not to be forgotten by those who have seen it.
The modest school had been looking for a new coach, when they finally came across Norman Dale (Gene Hackman)’s résumé. Dale was a man with an interesting reputation, with his last job ending in a firing for physically abusing his players. He arrived in Hickory, somewhat hat-in-hand, knowing his old friend Cletus (Sheb Wooley) would approve of his credentials.
But no sooner the news of the hiring broke out did Coach Dale get mobbed with questions from the inquisitive community at an impromptu town meeting held at the barber shop (of all places). From the get-go it’s apparent the outsider never had made friends quickly, and with this particularly opinionated crowd, Dale drove a much harder bargain by being short on words and light on reassurance that he was on their side. The way in which he performed his job would prove to be an even bigger shock, though the film’s overriding tension is established in the aforementioned scene.
Hickory High is a town so small its basketball team originated with seven players. On the first day of practice Coach let two of them go since they refused to pay attention while he was addressing them. It would be but one of many instances of him demonstrating his desire to control and drive his basketball team hard. He had purpose in Indiana, and was willing to do whatever it took to prove he had coaching chops despite what his personality may have lacked. Thanks to Gene Hackman’s committed performance, Dale was portrayed as a man with a fiercely competitive spirit that bordered on obsessive. It’s his clash with the community and the odds that were stacked against him personally that made Hoosiers such an engaging watch.
Though Hackman brought on a tour de force performance playing the controversial high school head coach, there was a second contribution that stood out as particularly memorable and emotional. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Coach Dale approached one of his player’s fathers, the town alcoholic Shooter Flatch (Dennis Hopper) and requested he become the team’s assistant coach. It was an offer not without strings attached, however. Dale informed Shooter he would need to clean up his act in order to be present at the games. It’s a memorable scene given Hoosier’s undeniable thematic search for second-chance opportunities. For Shooter, this was his own pivotal moment of redemption.
But for the young squad, their moment of redemption was standing behind a coach frowned upon by the entire Hickory community. During a second community meeting at town hall, in which a vote was to be taken regarding the future of Coach Dale as head coach, his players decided in order to do the impossible this season it would have to be with him and no one else. While it may be the movie’s most outstanding cliché, it hardly feels like one at the time. The team unity from this point on is actually incredibly inspiring. The Hickory Hoosiers proved almost everyone wrong as they advanced further in the tournament, eventually stunning the state by proving themselves worthy of a trip to Indianapolis to face the much more athletic and physically dominant team from South Bend.
Anspaugh did little with his direction to sway opinion on the film’s tendency to walk a cliched path. It’s very easy to set this fact aside, though, when the performances and circumstances were this good. Hackman is eminently watchable as the rough Coach Dale. The kids are a likable bunch of no-named actors who provided just enough charisma to give the illusion they were all the actual basketball team who accomplished the unthinkable. The illusion is one to be watched again and again. On top of being a thoroughly enjoyable throwback to the fifties, Hoosiers has incredible relevance. Though it was made in the 1980s, it’s unrelenting passion and focus on the game withstands the test of time as it seems just as inspirational a film for coaches to show their teams before competing in this year’s Final Four games as it probably was in the decade it came out in.
Exciting, engaging and tremendously earnest, this is a sure-footed underdog story that remains to this day a thoroughly investing and nostalgic watch. It’s one that can be enjoyed again and again, especially this time of year.
Recommendation: Though it undoubtedly helps to be a follower of the sport, Hoosiers compels as a true story dramatization even for non-fans. It’s beautifully shot and is imbued with a heartwarming tone that allows its central performances to truly flourish. If you want to talk classic basketball films, let’s talk Hoosiers.
Running Time: 114 mins.
Quoted: “Let’s win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”
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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com