I’m appearing on the Hoosier Heartland podcast (run by my childhood and lifelong friend Ben Malcomson) tomorrow night to discuss Hoosiers, so of course I had to write about it. These are just my short thoughts on this classic sports film. For a much more in depth discussion featuring many more viewpoints (plus all of our personal top five favorite sports films), check out the podcast, and go ahead and subscribe to it while you’re at it. Ben puts out a lot of great, in depth content featuring guests from every facet of Indiana sports.
Essential Indiana Viewing
Growing up in a small town in Indiana, Hoosiers is pretty much required viewing. I had a very typical childhood and young adult life in Indiana. Basketball was a constant focus, even though I was average at best and the teams I was on never had a winning record. Basketball was just something that was part of your life.
Hoosiers does a terrific job of capturing this mentality, and the film is still relevant despite the changes in sports culture in Indiana over the years. It takes place in the 1950s, when basketball was the main point of entertainment for many small towns. It came out in the 1980s, when basketball was still a major form of entertainment and Indiana University basketball was in its Bob Knight heyday. And now, in 2020, the film still rings true, although to a lesser degree. Many small schools have been consolidated, and basketball now has to compete with the internet for kids’ attention. But in small towns like mine, basketball is still a big deal. The crowds at the games have shrunk to mostly just parents and family at this point, but everyone still has an opinion about the coach, and we all still care about our local team, even if the passion has lessened over the years.
Watching Hoosiers brings that passion right back. The David vs. Goliath narrative, the music, the cast, the locations...it all comes together to recreate a way of life for this part of the country. Personally, the locations are the most effective aspect. My gym in Cannelton, Indiana, was considered for the film but ultimately not used. The fact that it was considered meant that our gym still felt like old Indiana basketball. Beyond the gym, the high school they used in the film eerily mirrors the high school I went to (and eventually taught at for nearly a decade). I can identify with this movie on a level that I can’t with any other film.
In the behind the scenes material, the writer (Angelo Pizzo) and director (David Anspaugh) talk about how they worried the film would end their careers and were amazed they were given the money to make it because who cares about Indiana high school basketball outside of Indiana? It turns out a significant portion of America cares. I believe it’s largely the Midwest and small towns, but plenty from all over find something to identify with in this film. It is very much a basketball movie, but it’s also about people; people who feel stuck in a small town, people who are on their last chance, people who have been dismissed but have one chance to prove themselves. Basketball is actually secondary when you consider character arcs of all the people in the film.
Watching the film this time, Dennis Hopper’s character stuck out to me the most. As the town drunk, Hopper is taken in by Gene Hackman and given a chance to help coach. The goal is to get sober so he can stop embarrassing himself and his son. In the most memorable scene (for me, at least), a drunk Hopper stumbles onto the court yelling at the refs. He had been doing great up to that point, but then he fell off the wagon. He spends the rest of the film in the 1950s equivalent of rehab. I like this subplot for multiple reasons. First, I like the realism of it. Hopper is seeking treatment at the end, but he’s definitely a work in progress. Helping the team didn’t cure him. Alcoholism is presented as a tough problem rather than something that can be fixed if given a bit of responsibility. Secondly, Hopper’s character represents another generational aspect of small town life: drinking. The gyms I played in during high school were within walking distance of bars, and some fans would spend halftime there. No one ever pulled a Hopper, but his character still shines a light on that part of small town life. It’s not all rah rah basketball and good farm living.
That written, Hoosiers does ultimately leave feeling pretty fucking rah rah by the end of the film, and that’s the lasting effect of the film. I grew up playing on my backyard basketball court (one of four in my neighborhood) pretending to take the game winning shot of a sectional or state championship. Even at a young age, I knew the likelihood of playing in such a game, much less hitting the winning shot, was very slim, but a kid could dream. And Hoosiers helped keep that dream going. In the end, basketball in Indiana isn’t just about winning (at least it certainly wasn’t for me). It’s about the chance to win. Hoosiers helped keep us going throughout junior high and high school. Yeah, we were never a good team, but if Hickory could win it all, then Cannelton could, too. We never did during my playing days, but we always felt like we had a chance, and Hoosiers captured that feeling perfectly.
Why Do I Own This?
To steal a joke from Wayne's World, if you live in Indiana this movie is issued to you. Actually, though, I had to buy it recently. It's a movie I watched so much growing up that I didn't feel the need to own it. But I'm glad I have it now to revisit again in the future.
For the record, Cannelton did win a sectional in 1998 (the year before my high school career began), the first year of class basketball. I still remember that weekend. It was definitely our town’s Hoosiers moment.
Been a while since I’ve watched this...and I cannot believe how much the school looks like my high school.
Jimmy Chitwood is a dick. He's like a reluctant dildo superhero.
I love the music, but at times it is not fitting and almost sounds like something out if Romero's Day of the Dead.
I forgot how deadly serious this movie is.
I love seeing Chelcie Ross disappointed.
There are some jarring cuts in this film. The main one that comes to mind is the break in the winning montage to show Hackman shoving Hopper's face under water.
We always sucked in high school, but sectional time still felt as important and exciting as this movie made it seem like.