Hoosiers: True story of underdog basketball team still charms

Sincere storytelling paired Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper at height of their powers

Gene Hackman as Coach Dale in Hoosiers,  directed by David Anspaugh.

Gene Hackman as Coach Dale in Hoosiers, directed by David Anspaugh.

 

A few days after the 1997 Oscar ceremony, the film maker David Anspaugh was invited to meet Billy Bob Thornton for lunch. Thornton, a free-spirited and slightly trippy chameleon, had just won an award for Best Screenplay and was hot property. Anspaugh couldn’t figure why he was being summoned. Thornton was offbeat and charming and told him that one of the perks of winning an Oscar was that you got to meet whomever you wished. And Thornton had wanted to meet Anspaugh since he’d watched his debut feature film a decade before. “Name any scene,” he declared. “And I’ll do the dialogue.”

It turned out that the most unorthodox actor of the day belonged to the growing army of film fans who have fallen under the indefinable spell of one of the standalone delights of all sports-themed movies: Hoosiers.

The bare sketch of Hoosiers is familiar but based on a true story: the plucky underdog team conspiring against the odds and fates to achieve something unforgettable. The premise was unpromising: set in 1950s Indiana and based on the true story of a high school basketball team – a sport about which no good film had been made. The film version had the classic tropes: a nomadic coach seeking redemption, a tragic town drunk, locals suspicious of the coach’s outsider-ways (discussed at a town meeting in the barber shop) and a reluctant local star, Jimmy Chitwood.

The coach overcomes initial obstacles and difficulties, sacrificing early games to impose his moral vision of the game, recruits the drunk as his assistant and sets the team on a season which will provide the transcendent moment in their sheltered lives. The state championship games take place in the Hinkle Field House in Indianapolis, less a gymnasium than an architectural landmark. Released in 1986 – Reaganomics, the doomed Rekjavick summit with Gorbachev, the Space Shuttle disaster, all of that unease – Hoosiers represented a backward glance at Truman’s vanishing country. And for some reason, it pulsed with a peculiar, unforgettable magic.

Hoosiers was released on November 14th to an underwhelmed world. It initially struggled to get a nationwide release.
Hoosiers was released on November 14th to an underwhelmed world. It initially struggled to get a nationwide release.

“Even if you have seen movies like this thousands of times before, somehow this is the one you want to watch again and again and again,” sums up AO Scott, the veteran New York Times film critic. Why was this? Scott admits he is at a loss to explain it: more than most movies, Hoosiers possesses inexplicable big screen alchemy. It helped that Anspaugh grew up in Indiana, he knew the culture of those small, unchanging basketball-obsessed towns. He’d spent years trying to get the film financed. Jack Nicholson, a friend of Angelo Pizzo, who wrote the screenplay, loved it and was on to play the coach. But then he got into a legal row with another studio and couldn’t work for six months so he passed.

Instead, Gene Hackman took on the role while the alcoholic savant was played by the magnetic Dennis Hopper. Both give wonderful performances and work with a partly amateur cast. Anspaugh rightly figured that it was easier (and cheaper) to get basketball players to convincingly portray local school kids than it was to get young Hollywood actors to convince as Indiana basketball players. They chose the town of New Richmond, pop 330 according to a 2010 census, to represent the fictional town of Hickory and filmed in the autumn, when the landscape was blanched and melancholic.

Porches and pick-ups

From the opening shots, when Hackman drives past the big barns and cornfields through the low countryside and the leaf strewn towns, we are in the heart of the heart of the country. It’s the unmistakable American Midwest with all its fables and soda pop counters and porches and pick-ups and its hankering after the golden age of the Republic. Clint Eastwood would mine the same territory a decade later, producing a substantial movie out of a treacle-heavy book, The Bridges of Madison County.

Hackman was 56 years old when Hoosiers was filmed. Hopper was 50 and Barbara Hershey, terrific as the sardonic, wary custodian of the town’s star player, was 38: it was one of one of the last examples of a Hollywood film unafraid to showcase mature actors as its leads. All three have been battered by life. And this, remember, was the peak year of the Brat Pack.

The year 1986 was a crowded one for film. Hoosiers screamed “modest” and was up against big budget extravaganzas like Platoon, The Mission, Top Gun, Aliens, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Fly and The Colour of Money. Who cared about a retro basketball film and anyway, anyone seeking nostalgia could turn to Rob Reiner’s gorgeous ode to vanished boyhood, Stand By Me. Hoosiers was released on November 14th to an underwhelmed world. It initially struggled to get a nationwide release.

On November 5th, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet had opened. The common link between two rather different portrayals of 1950s America was, of course, Hopper. The cult star had emerged from the period in the literal wilderness, a drug-addled few years in the desert, to engage in an intense burst of work. He was riveting as the psychopathic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and then pops up on cinema screens a fortnight later in Hoosiers as the vulnerable, aching casualty of life, Shooter.

He was scarcely recognizable to audiences who remembered Hopper from his 1950s debut with James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or his psychedelic detours in the 1970s. (In a cosmic quirk, the teenage James Dean played basketball for Fairmont High against Milan, the school based on the team which Hopper helps coach in Hoosiers). Hopper has never been more human or relatable. His face when Hackman invites him to become his assistant – on the condition he wears a suit – is gold. “You want me? I got a wing-dinger,” he says pointing somewhere off screen in his trailer. “I got married in that suit.” The role would give Hopper the only Academy Award nomination of his life.

The casting of so many local kids – and extras – pitched Hackman into what was essentially an amateur dramatics production which would be seen by everybody. Thorny at the best of times, he was, Anspaugh recalled, a nightmare during filming, calling the young director out during the very first scene they filmed – in which Hackman stops to fill his truck with petrol. Hackman thrived on nervous energy and was genuinely terrified that the film was going to be a disaster. He relaxed after Hopper arrived, who was charm personified. It was only when Hackman saw the final cut of the film that he felt secure. Anspuagh recalled the moment in a Vulture interview.

Gene Hackman Hackman was 56 years old when Hoosiers was filmed.
Gene Hackman Hackman was 56 years old when Hoosiers was filmed.

“He walked into the room, took his glasses off, looked me in the eyes and said: how the f**k did you do that?”

Glory days

It remained the unanswerable question. Hoosiers charmed some notably prickly film critics and did well in the box office and while other films of that year faded, it slow-burned its way through the generations and became something cherished. It was a sincere piece of storytelling, without irony or cynicism and it paired two of the most charismatic and unpredictable actors of post-war Hollywood at the height of their powers.

It doesn’t shy away from the absurdity of placing such importance on a school basketball team. And it doesn’t try to disguise that the reason they were the focus of so much attention was that there was nothing else to do in those towns: that those games were an escape from the interminable winters and boredom and loneliness. It doesn’t pretend that towns like Hickory weren’t insular and prejudiced and narrow. It captures a precise moment when the century is flipping: it’s no coincidence that the only history lesson we see Coach Dale giving in the classroom is on “Progress”.

“I don’t want this to be the high point of his life,” says Myra Fleener (Hershey) to Coach Dale (Hackman) about Chitwood, the exceptional player for whom she wishes greater things. “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 thinks about this and replies: “You know, most people would kill . . . to be treated like a god, just for a few minutes.” And it’s the oldest theme, running through the songs of Bruce Springsteen and the stories of Sherwood Anderson.

One of the most compelling local performers in Hoosiers was by a local teenager named Kent Poole, who plays Merle Webb and utters the most famous line in the film: “Let's win this one for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.” In 2003, Poole died by suicide. He lived in Indiana, where he farmed and had a young family. There’s a plethora of articles and features on Hoosiers available online, including an ingenious 20-minute short which splices famous scenes in the film with the actual locations – the Hickory gym, the main street, the café.

But there is also a splendid 20-minute locally-made tribute film about Poole titled All the Small Schools, which features Anspaugh and Pizzo as well as family and friends. They remembered Poole’s approach to filming and the likeable soul they knew and his difficulties with a spiralling depression, which he did his best to disguise.

For many of the cast, the few weeks shooting the film comprised the big adventure of their lives. A few tried to break into movie acting, including Poole who won a small role in Anspaugh’s next feature, Fresh Horses, with Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy. But lightning could not strike twice.

In 2020, the Associated Press named Hoosiers as their best sports film of all time. It’s not quite that but it is one of the very few movies to achieve timelessness as it ages. If the surface story of Hoosiers is about basketball, it is at its core a film about second chances – for the coach, for the ruined Shooter and even Myra Fleener, who moves through the edges of life determined to shield herself from inevitable disappointment.

“You doin’ good?” asks Shooter’s son – also one of the players – when he visits him in hospital after a relapse.

“Well I feel real empty inside. And I have some bad visions,” Hopper says, looking momentarily hopeful and frightened when his son promises that once he gets better, they’ll get a house: be a family again. You’re not sure that either of them fully believes it. But the moment closes with Hopper in his dressing gown, exclaiming in the hospital ward: “I’ll tell you one thing. No school this small has ever been in the state championship” and real life is suspended.

A few months after the film was released, Angelo Pizzo bumped into Jack Nicholson at some event or other. He congratulated Pizzo on the success of Hoosiers and they shared a laugh and Pizzo wondered how the movie would have turned out if Nicholson had been able to accept the role. He was met with the most famous movie smile of the 1970s and the reply came in the warm ironic drawl. “A megahit. It would have been a megahit.”

Probably.

But Hoosiers is about perfect the way it is.

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