USA Great Britain (114 mi) 1986 d: David Anspaugh
Often considered one of the best sports movies ever, the standard by which others are measured, this is a case where truth is stranger than fiction, as this is inspired by the real life story of the 1954 Milan High School Indians, with an enrollment of only 161 students, winning a state high school basketball championship, the smallest school to ever win a state basketball championship in Indiana. This mirrors a similar incident in the state of Illinois in 1952 where Hebron, with an enrollment of only 98 students, beat perennial powerhouse Quincy, the fourth-winningest high school basketball program in the country as of 2010, holding the record for most state tournament appearances, to win the state high school basketball championship in overtime at a time when both schools competed against schools of all sizes. These stories have a life of their own and reflect the state’s unique basketball-obsessed character, as unlike the film, in real life the game was much more dramatic. Trailing in the 4th quarter 28-26 against 4-time state champion Muncie Central, the coach ordered a stall and Milan, with no time clock in that era, held the ball without moving for over four minutes before eventually missing a shot. Tied at 30, they again held the ball for a full minute until 18 seconds were left, setting up a final shot that does in fact resemble the movie, called the Milan Miracle, where the newspaper The Indianapolis Star calls it the top sports story in Indiana history. Sports movies tend to be laden with cliché’s and this one is no different, except here, despite the fictionalized dramatization, they all have elements of truth, where one of the film’s greatest strengths is capturing the essence of growing up in a small town surrounded by rural farmlands, where on Friday nights high school football or basketball games bring out the entire community, as it’s the biggest event of the week, becoming the religion of the town where everyone is a believer, as winning has a way of bringing everyone together. Given a sense of authenticity from the director, who played middle school basketball in nearby Decatur, Indiana, and writer Angelo Pizza, as both met while attending Indiana University during the basketball frenzied Bob Knight era, winning an Olympic Gold Medal (1984 Gold Medal) and three national college championships (1976, 1981, 1987) in little more than one decade.
Set in the early 50’s, the opening sequence shot by Fred Murphy of driving through the beautiful back country roads offers the true character of the rural Midwest, where the new basketball coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) eventually lands in Hickory, Indiana. Greeted by the high school principal, an old friend who’s apparently willing to overlook something that took place over ten years ago when Dale was coaching a college team, but left in disgrace, now given a second chance to resuscitate his fledgling career in lowly high school basketball. He’s immediately met with open contempt by both players and parents when he changes the shooting oriented, offensive-minded coaching style, instead encouraging fundamentals, conditioning, and hard-nosed defense. Even today at the professional level, not everyone buys into this philosophy, as it de-emphasizes showboating, individual talent and skill, and encourages teamwork where everyone works together, where no one star player is valued more than anyone else, as everyone plays a part in winning and losing. Today, this team concept has become cliché, but only because of the success of people like coach K, Mike Krzyzewski, as it builds teamwork and solidarity where players learn to trust one another and at least have an opportunity to win even when they’re not playing their best. But in many small towns, the parents think they know better than the coach does, initiating gripes and rumors that often lead to scandal, as it does here, where the town gathers a petition to remove the coach. In dramatic fashion, the town’s best player, Jimmy (Maris Valainis), who’s been sitting out honoring the death of last season’s coach, agrees to return but only if the coach stays. With his return, the team is quickly operating on all cylinders and starts a winning streak.
While this is a basketball movie, with much of it set inside a gym or a locker room, the local flavor is provided by the brilliance of secondary characters, such as Barbara Hershey, an unmarried high school English teacher, who has her doubts about the coach’s secret past and the excessive attention paid by society to sports in general, but she is eventually won over by the coach’s ethics and occasional noble gestures, such as attempting to rehabilitate the town drunk, Dennis Hopper, still resting on the laurels of his high school past when he missed the game-ending final shot at Regionals. His avid enthusiasm and knowledge of local teams, however, is unparalleled, and Dale encourages him to sober up and become his assistant coach, especially since he’s distracting the focus of his son, one of the team’s steadiest players. Even in a cliché riddled film about a small farming community where the outcome is never in doubt, these actors rise above the predictable material, adding a degree of complexity that might feel surprising, as their interaction always feels dramatically interesting, never knowing where their side routes are going to lead, where the warm and heartfelt music by Jerry Goldsmith adds dramatic heft as well, always grounding the film in a sense of Americana and community. Some may find an old-fashioned story about instilling moral values in a small, all-white high school basketball team that still takes set shots as outdated, as teams today play a much more physical and uptempo urban style game where high flying dunks are the norm, but consider the time, a post-war, 50’s, conservative era when America was just getting back on their feet, where it was these small town values that would lead them out of the darkness of world war and the Depression, where these kids were already shocked by the death of their earlier coach, so learning to take advantage of the second chances life offers is a valuable lesson. The unsympathetic doubters in town become the team’s biggest boosters in the end as winning has a way of healing all wounds. Shooting the finals at the legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse, one of the original basketball arenas built in America (1928), adds an air of historic authenticity to the film, as the Butler Bulldogs who play there still personify the tenacious Hoosier spirit, and both the arena itself is a National Historic Landmark, while in 2001 the film was also selected to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, claiming it is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”