Directed by David Anspaugh. Screenplay by Angelo Pizzo.
Starring Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey.
Hoosiers was another entry in an apparently unending series of ‘80s “feel good” movies. The genre was actually birthed in the 1970s with Rocky and the lesser-remembered but equally influential Breaking Away. But the “triumph of the little-guy” formula was mainly an creation of the post-Jimmy Carter era, when Americans still had enough of a Vietnam/Iran-Hostage hangover to perceive our superpower nation as some kind of scrappy underdog.
We (American moviegoers, that is) couldn’t get enough of seeing our self-image inflated by Hollywood fantasies. Hoosiers fit the template: undermanned basketball team from tiny high school with misfit coach relies on sheer guts and ingenuity to win the Indiana State Championship. The sacred Indiana State Championship. But this movie transcended the genre, earned a pair of Academy Award nominations and is widely considered the best sports film ever churned out by Hollywood. Hoosiers is a well-produced, well-acted piece of entertainment, but its lasting resonance is due to the fact that Hoosiers is “based on a true story.” Yes, there was one scrappy underdog who really did win the big one.
In the movie, the Hickory Huskers, a team from a school of just 161 students, won the 1952 Indiana State title, beating much bigger South Bend Central on a last-second shot by star player Jimmy Chitwood.
In real life, the Milan Indians, a team from a school of just 161 students, won the 1954 Indiana State title, beating much bigger Muncie Central on a last-second shot by star player Bobby Plump.
A true tale tailor-made for Hollywood. Or so it would appear.
There was one small hitch in bringing this true tale to the screen. The lives of the real Milan players and coach were, according to Hoosiers screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, “not dramatic enough. The guys were too nice. The team had no real conflict.”
And so the Hollywoodization of a story tailor-made for Hollywood began. Marvin Wood, the quiet, religious 26-year-old family man who coached Milan to the title in his second season was replaced by Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), a fiery loner in his late 40s who spent a decade in the navy after he punched one of his own players and was suspended from coaching in disgrace.
Hackman’s Dale wins the title in his first season with a team that, as the sports cliché goes, came out of nowhere. Wood was in his second year and coached Milan to the state semi-finals the season prior to winning it all. The movie also introduces an assistant coach, a hopeless alcoholic whose son just happens to be on the team – a totally made-up character and subplot.
Almost every boy in the Milan school tried out for the basketball team and Coach Wood had a full roster of 10 players. In the movie, Coach Dale barely scrapes together a squad of seven. One of those players is the team’s equipment manager, who is pressed into service to hit two crucial free throws in the semi-final game. The equipment manager is named “Ollie,” which was the real first name of Milan’s manager.
The real Ollie, however, never donned a jersey, much less took a crucial free throw.
The fictional team’s star Jimmy Chitwood refuses to play until midway through the season because he is distraught over the death of the previous coach. Chitwood’s flesh-and-blood counterpart, Bobby Plump, had no such reservations and played the entire season. (Wood did indeed replace a very popular coach, but that coach did not die, he was pink-slipped for purchasing new team uniforms without the school’s approval.)
With the championship on the line in the final seconds, when his coach plans to let another player take the final shot, the normally silent Chitwood speaks up. “I’ll make it!” he declares. And so he does.
It was Coach Wood’s plan all along to let Plump take the final shot. “I was a very shy kid,” Plump said years later. “I would never have said, ‘I’ll make it.’”
There were some slight similarities between Coach Wood and his Hollywood doppelganger. When Wood took over the team he endured the town’s approbation by closing practices to parents and drilling the team in a new style of offense. Unlike “Norman Dale,” Wood never had his job put to a vote of a town meeting. More important, the film’s most famous scene was taken straight from Wood’s playbook. Before the championship game, Dale measures the height of the basket – his point being that this massive, 15,000 seat field house was no different from the team’s own high school gym.
Wood had done exactly that before Milan’s “miracle” game.
Bobby Plump has said that “there was more truth than accuracy” in the movie (which did capture, he said, the “feel” of growing up in a tiny Indiana farm town). “The final 18 seconds were the only thing factual in the movie.” Basketball aficionados, as well as film fans, will appreciate the differences between reality and Hollywood leading up to those climactic 18 seconds. The filmed version of the game is a fast-paced affair with “Jimmy Chitwood” sinking the winning bucket with only a moment’s hesitation after an in-bounds pass.
Coach Wood ordered his team to play the “slow down” style of basketball popular in the 1950s. Bobby Plump held the ball for a full four minutes before he took his shot – and then he missed! Plump got the ball back and held on for another full minute, running out the clock before putting up the miraculous jump shot that made Hollywood history.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Guffey, Greg. The Greatest Basketball Story Ever Told: The Milan Miracle, Then and Now. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Marshall, Kerry D. A Boy, a Ball and a Dream: The Marvin Wood Story. Indianapolis: Scott Publications, 1991.
Sports Hollywood. “The Real Hoosiers.” http://www.sportshollywood.com/hoosiers.html