In 2006, I was a sophomore and statistician for the Bishop Hannan basketball team.
The veteran-led squad made a run to the PIAA Class 1A final that season, losing to Elk County Christian in the championship game.
To reach the final, the Golden Lancers played the greatest game I saw during my high school career. Bishop Hannan shot 64% from the field and dismantled Greenwood, 82-56, in the semifinals.
Leading up to the game, the late Paul Johnson, our head coach, told us the matchup reminded him of “Hoosiers.” But instead of the underdog, we were the big bad private school team that was supposed to dominate.
Earlier that season, Johnson called a time out, set up a defense and said “After (I don’t remember the player) makes his second shot…”
Another time, my dad took the spotlight before a game when we walked into an empty gym that reminded him of “Hoosiers.” So, he shouted “Hickory!” and let it echo off the walls, which got a laugh out of my teammate and current Mountain View boys basketball coach Joe Gibbons.
Clearly, “Hoosiers” has been a big part of my life.
I find it hard to connect with basketball films, though, because the basketball scenes usually don’t hold up well for me because I understand the game more than any other sport.
A film that centers on the sport needs to bring more to the table like strong themes, great acting and phenomenal writing.
An Oscar-nominated score couldn’t hurt either.
“Hoosiers” delivers it all.
Gene Hackman carries the film as head coach Norman Dale.
In a movie of second chances and based on a true story, Dale ends up in Hickory, Indiana. Twelve years earlier he was banned from coaching after hitting one of his players and had spent the last 10 years in the Navy.
Whether he deserved the opportunity, Dale got it and passes second chances along to the rest of the community as he works through what it means to be a truly good leader. He gives local drunk Shooter (Dennis Hopper) a second chance and makes him an assistant coach. He allows kids back on the team after they quit. He forgives the community for treating him poorly.
That’s a lot on Hackman’s shoulders and he makes it look easy. He commands the screen when he needs to and gives the floor to another actor when necessary. Hackman also realistically gains the love and respect of his team as they gain his.
Rookie of the Year
David Anspaugh gives strong directorial work in his debut, but his writing partner for “Hoosiers” and later “Rudy” Angelo Pizzo stands out with his stellar script.
“Hoosiers” has so many great quotes with excellent timing and also thrives when nobody speaks.
Some sequences that stand out:
Dale tells Buddy (Brad Long), “Stick with your man. Think of him as chewing gum. By the end of the game, I want you to know what flavor he is.”
Later after Buddy fouls out, Dale looks at him and shrugs as if to say, “Well?” Buddy responds, “It was Dentyne.”
The recurring joke of Strap (Scott Summers) praying lands every time.
Dale sees Strap on one knee praying after he told him to check into the game and walks over saying, “Strap, God wants you on the floor.”
I can’t get to every line because I’d quote the whole movie.
Dennis Hopper earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for this film.
He portrays Shooter, the town drunk, who is haunted by a shot he missed during sectionals that would have won his team the game. It shows how much basketball means to the small town.
Dale gives him a chance to sober up and serve as an assistant coach.
Hopper is excellent, instantly jelling with Hackman and his son Everett (David Neidorf). He brings humor, drama and emotion in different stages of the film leading to a great payoff with his son.
He even draws up the iconic game-winning “picket fence” play after Dale is ejected from one game.
Hickory star Jimmy Chitwood is my favorite character of the movie and Maris Valainis plays him perfectly. Chitwood has two scenes when he speaks. They are two of the most important parts of the movie.
One we’ll get to later, but midway through the film Chitwood speaks for the first time. (A little backstory: Chitwood is deeply affected by the previous coach’s death and has decided not to play basketball anymore). A vote was just taken for whether to keep Dale as coach. Chitwood walks into the town meeting and says, “I don’t know if it’ll make any change, but I figure it’s time for me to start playing ball.”
After wild applause and an allegation from a townsman that once they fired Dale that Chitwood would come back, Chitwood adds, “One other thing, I play coach stays. He goes, I go.”
The vote is in favor of Dale’s dismissal, but they quickly reconsider.
That scene is the turning point in the Huskers’ season and the movie.
It was set up by a scene in which Chitwood is approached by Dale while he is shooting baskets. Chitwood doesn’t say a word while Dale tells him he doesn’t care if he plays on the team or not. Chitwood doesn’t miss a shot until Dale walks away. This shows without saying it that the talk had an affect on Chitwood.
Valainis plays the subtlety beautifully and has a pure jump shot.
The basketball scenes aren’t the best. It is the 1950s so the sport was drastically different than today. They reuse sequences from different angles to make it seem like they are different plays. Players also slowly dribble directly into traps so some of the basketball sequences are laughable.
Also, some players, such as Buddy, appear in games after they quit the team. The audience is meant to accept that they reconciled with Dale off screen, but it’s a little jarring, especially with Buddy, who also says at the end of the movie he wants to win for coach. There is no earlier scene that warrants that kind of quote later in the movie.
One shining moment
“Hoosiers” perfectly completes the arc of Dale not only capturing the respect of his players, but also the players earning his respect.
With the state championship game tied, Dale calls timeout to set up the winning play. He tells his players they will use Chitwood as a decoy because the other team will expect him to take the last shot. When he says it, the players’ body language shows their disappointment.
Dale says, “What’s the matter with you guys? What’s the matter with you?!?!”
Chitwood looks up and says, “I’ll make it.”
Dale believes in his team, his player and tells Buddy to get Chitwood the ball at the top of the key.
Crossover. Jumper. Ballgame. Hickory wins the state championship.
“Hoosiers” adds an emotional final scene with a voiceover from Hackman with quotes from earlier in the film while a little kid shoots in the Hickory gymnasium.
The camera zooms on the photo of the state championship team as Hackman says, “I love you guys.”