There is much to love for everyone in the triumphant American classic, Hoosiers. It contains elements of many things that are on the public mind these days like diversity, the meaning of work, prejudice, and what it means to “believe in yourself.” There’s a lot of redemption, fortitude, and humble pride in this sports biopic that takes place in rural Indiana in 1951. There’s refreshing honesty on what it takes to be a strong person in America and life itself.
Gene Hackman’s character Norman Dale is the new coach of boys’ basketball at the local high school. We gather from learning about him, that he’s also a teacher, divorced, and had had some recent, possibly self-induced, tough circumstances. His fresh start is met by the fresh mouthed Myra, a fellow teacher played by Barbara Hershey. She comes off as a shrew from her first sentence. They immediately clash which means as most movie clichés go, they eventually get involved.
Another cliché we encounter is the “small town people are dumb” idea, where at first the townspeople are portrayed as staid yet close minded, and wholesome in a way that might offend some city folks. This cliché does eventually lessen and we see something currently lacking in today’s Hollywood culture; diversity of thought. A person freshly graduated from a liberal arts degree program may ignore a film like this at their peril. Indeed most of the characters in this film are young white males who are unapologetically not facing an existential crisis about their “privilege.”
What we see depicted in the film instead is a demonstration of good old fashioned individuality combined with willfully choosing team work and hard work. Initially Hackman’s Coach is encountered by yet another unfriendly staff member in the school who attempts to undermine his authority. Coach Dale gives the guy the what for and some whiney boys leave the team in protest.
Like other sports films, there are members of the basketball team who are happy to stay and try to work with the new coach. This includes a short player who in spite of teasing, has courage enough to play a game typically dominated by tall people. This underdog character, as well as the coach’s later dealings with townspeople, exhibit an ability to keep from being overtly judgmental towards one’s self or others. They show it’s not necessary to be like other people or take them down either.
There is this lovely wide shot scene where Coach Dale visits the would-be star basketball player who is skipping class to avoid being persuaded to rejoin the team. We learn later why the boy is off the team, but it turns out the coach isn’t there for persuasion. Amongst the open fields at the homemade Podunk basketball hoop, Hackman abruptly says to the kid “I don’t care if you play on the team or not” turns, and walks away. The coach is in essence saying “this is bigger than you so get over yourself.”
This scene highlights the difference between believing in or trusting your innate morality vs. thinking you have to be a God or part of some deity regardless of how vague, in order to be worthy. Hackman’s character is there to do a job. A job he probably would rather not do, but is doing regardless of whether he, his coworkers or his potential team members like it. This is the essence of the American ethic and a true citizen of the West. Someone who no matter how much flack they get stays true to working hard and believing in their sense of moral intrepidity.
This leads us to Dennis Hopper’s character of the town drunkard who happens to be the father to one of the ballplayers. Hopper it turns out is a basketball savant who has a preacher like accuracy of understanding the game. He’s so accurate, the coach asks Hopper to be assistant coach. Hopper though struggles greatly under the weight of what is essentially his own weakness. After improving then failing a couple times he finally goes to a hospital to dry out. The longer he put off his need to change, the harder it was to do so. His courage finally came, but at a self-inflicted steeper price.
All people go through such a personal transformation, but many of us, don’t feel a need to talk about it all the time after it happens. Later in the film Hershey’s character finally warms up to the coach, and she asks him about a violent episode he experienced when he hit a player as a coach years prior. He explains without self-pity or exaggerated responsibility that he’s still trying to understand what exactly came over him. I think we’ve all been there. Some psychoanalyze such an event and build a character around it, while others pick up and eventually, move on.
Eventually the wayward star player joins the team while confidence in the coach grows after he displays humility yet forgoes apologizing after losing some games. The star saves the coach’s job and the coach returns the favor by doing it. Both the boy and the coach refused to cower to popular opinion, and in doing so they were able to work together and likely trust each other in a way that would have been grossly changed if group-think had been adhered to.
Right before the Regional Finals the coach makes a speech saying:
“Forget about the crowds, the size of the school, their fancy uniforms, and remember what got you here. Focus on the fundamentals that we’ve gone over time and time again. Most important, don’t get caught up thinking about winning or losing this game. If you put your effort and your concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can; I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners.”
Do your best. Get over yourself. Trust in the inner mechanism we have in our souls to not go too far for too long. Work hard, quit complaining, think for yourself, don’t give up, and don’t be a jerk. Movies like this display the kind of pioneering ethic this country was founded on. Regular folks, also known as the dreaded bourgeoisie, don’t need to let so-called experts tell them how to think. They utilize common knowledge that works per given situation but they don’t feel forced to adhere to such knowledge when the time is not right. The coach at one point pretended to be a jerk to help the drunken dad, and at another time his actual jerkiness led to ruin. Free choice isn’t always fun or easy.
Doing our best, as Hoosiers depicts, is only for the adventurous. Towards the end of the movie, a boy gets hurt and Hackman’s character eventually decides to pull him out of the game. Coach Dale was free to keep the boy in, which was familiar and easier for a game win. Taking the injured player out was more challenging but better for the player and the coaches moral conscious. At that moment, the coach had to choose the unstoppable unknown and risk the game, his reputation, and the players shame. No one was going to give him a better answer than the one in his own moral center. Being a winner is about doing one’s best in the midst of fear, rather than robbing fear of its rightful place in our hearts. Who needs to watch Halloween part XVII. Just listen to your moral compass to have the adventure of a lifetime!
I won’t tell you who won at the finals or what happened to the coach. Instead I’ll tell you what happened to the most marginalized character in the film, the smallest player. Amongst boos from the crowds our underdog did his best. He didn’t get a moment of earthly glory because someone else made things easier for him. He retained his confidence by daring to make his best effort. That best effort or moment when we focus all of what we are into that second, minute, hour, or lifetime, and let ourselves live our choices, is when we are free. Sometimes it means we win the game, other times it means we keep our souls for another day or moment. From small towns to big cities, Hoosiers is a perfect reminder to embrace tenacity, exemplify freedom, and endure fear. It’s never too late to simply, humbly, freely, do our best.