Basketball in many parts of the country is like religion, and Hoosiers, a 1986 film written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, is a clear homage to that sentiment. Set against an idyllic rural Indiana backdrop, Hoosiers traces the training of the team at the tiny Hickory High School for the state basketball championship. The film looks at first glance like the classic David versus Goliath sports movie, with a predictably familiar ending but, in this case, predictability neither lessens the impact of the drama, nor detracts from audience response to the emotions and feelings that are revealed on the screen.
Some very prominent actors were drawn to this small-budget production. Gene Hackman portrays Norman Dale, a former college coach who was fired for striking a player in a moment of rage. The troubled Dale, now head coach of the Hickory Huskers, has come to Indiana as his last chance to work at the game he loves. The always excellent Hackman gives a convincing portrayal of a man who, throughout the action of the film, attempts to contain his competitive nature and learn to trust others. Barbara Hershey plays Myra Fleener, a teacher who tries to draw the town phenomenon, Jimmy Chipwood, away from basketball and into the classroom. A relationship develops between Coach Dale and the teacher Fleener, despite their differences on the future of Chipwood. Dennis Hopper tackles the role of Shooter, the town drunk who constantly recounts the glory days of his high school basketball career. The relationship between Dale and Shooter that develops illustrates Dale's attempts to give somebody a second chance—something that he himself had been denied years before. Hopper's performance earned him an Oscar nomination.
Hoosiers was based on the true story of little Milan High School, which shocked the Indiana basketball world by winning the state championship in 1954 on a last second shot. True to form, the Hickory Huskers also make the improbable charge through the series, defeating larger schools and better teams. Star player Jimmy Chipwood, played by Maris Valainis, makes the winning shot with time running to immortalize himself and his team in the town of Hickory and all of Indiana.
Though no surprises appear in this familiar underdog story, Hoosiers is still able to maintain the tension and excitement needed to entertain audiences. The film provides an accurate depiction of life in rural Indiana in the 1950s, with several high school students forced by necessity to work on the farm instead of playing basketball. The all-white Huskers battle a city team made up of largely black players and a black coach in the championship game, another accurate portrayal of social life in the Midwest in the 1950s. Hoosiers also clearly demonstrates the importance of high school athletics to small, rural communities. Almost the entire town would caravan to every away game and to each step of the state tournament. The community meeting held to determine the fate of Coach Dale midway through his season, and the Saturday morning discussions at the barber shop illustrate just how important the team is and how much civic pride athletics can create.
Harris, Ann. "Hoosiers" in Magill's Cinema Annual. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Salem Press, 1987.
Kauffmann, Stanley. "Hoosiers" (movie review). The New Republic, April 6, 1987, 26-27.