Last week, the Indiana Pacers announced that they'd be wearing uniforms based on the movie Hoosiers, affirming their connection to and love for their home state. The jerseys were cool-looking! But I'm tired of people propagating the myth that Hoosiers is a movie we should watch and enjoy.
Hoosiers is considered a classic sports movie. Not-so-loosely based on the story of Milan High School's 1954 title, Hoosiers follows fictional Hickory High, a small-town school that goes on a miracle run to win Indiana's state championship.
The problem with Hoosiers isn't the premise. Underdog stories are great, and the old format of Indiana's high school basketball tournament, which grouped every school in the state in one bracket rather than classifying them by size, was an incredible breeding ground for underdog stories. The problem is a series of decisions by the filmmakers that range from disappointing to disgusting.
The main character is a huge jerk
Gene Hackman plays the role of Norman Dale, the down-on-his-luck coach that we're supposed to be sympathetic towards. We find out that he used to coach in college, then was in the Navy. Then later, we find out that the reason he got fired from his college job is because... he hit a kid.
At the beginning of the movie, it's tough to find out why we should like Dale. He's not presented as funny or likable or charismatic or even nice.
Then, we find out that he punched one of his players, and he goes from a mediocre guy I don't care about to somebody I strongly dislike. Dale was an authority figure who used physical force against a person he was supposed to protect and nurture, which in my opinion is the least sympathetic type of person in the world.
I kind of think this should be a one-strike-and-you're-out deal. If you don't have the self-control to avoid hitting kids, you shouldn't be allowed to coach kids anymore, ever. I want this person to fail and think the people of Hickory are bad people for letting this person coach their children.
A lot of times, a character with obvious flaws redeems those flaws over the course of a movie. But Dale never conquers his anger issues, consistently putting his assistant coaches -- one of whom has a heart disease, one of whom is an alcoholic attempting to recover, both of which are types of people who shouldn't be subjected to unnecessary, sudden amounts of stress -- in charge.
Dale is presented as a jerk and remains a jerk all film long. Are we supposed to be proud that all he did was yell at the players and refs and didn't actually hit anybody?
The team becomes good because the one really good player decides to play
At the beginning of the movie, Hickory High is not very good at basketball. At the end of the movie, they win the championship! Yay! In a lot of sports movies, this improvement happens because everybody *buys in* or *learns about themselves* or something like that. It's a tired trope, but it's uplifting and makes us smile every time. That doesn't really happen in Hoosiers.
Hickory is bad at the beginning of the movie because they have no good players. It's a small town and there's only really just one good player, Jimmy Chitwood, and he's not on the team. Later, the one good kid decides to play for the team and then they start winning games. Sure, every once in a while one of the other players is shown doing something good, but when we examine it on face value, it seems like the reason they became really good is because Chitwood shows up.
A team winning because a good player shows up is not a particularly compelling story. I value personal growth. I value the idea that if you put your whole self into improving at something, you can. Hoosiers tells us those things are less important than just having a talented person show up and make everything better.
If Hoosiers was a movie about Jimmy Chitwood, it might be interesting. We hear about his relationship to the former coach. We hear that he wants to leave his tiny town and make something of himself, either through academics or basketball. I'm curious about Chitwood and his life.
But we never really actually get into his head. We don't even really find out why he opts to change his mind and begin playing. Hoosiers is too focused on the angry coach to actually examine the movie's most interesting and important character.
Hoosiers is like a movie about the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2015 run to the NBA Finals after years as a lottery team that focuses on the Cavs' newfound discipline and passion rather than mentioning that LeBron James shows up. (Also, both the Cavs and Hickory High have coaches too dumb to give the ball to their best player for game-winning shots.)
Look at this freakin' basketball
The part of Hoosiers I enjoy the most is how stupid-looking 1950s basketball is. This is not a complaint: I find it very funny that there was once a time when aimlessly running around and chucking the ball at the hoop counted as a play, when "pass the ball four times before shooting" counted as strategy.
The movie ignores the team we should be rooting for
In the championship game, Hickory plays an integrated team from South Bend, the first evidence that black people exist in the movie. When South Bend shows up, I'm immediately rooting for them. I'm fascinated by the experiences these young men must have faced as white and black teammates in 1950s Indiana.
Indiana might not be the deep South, but racism was alive and well in Indiana in 1951, the year Hoosiers hypothetically takes place. Lynchings took place in Indiana as late as 1930. Anti-miscegenation laws remained on the books until the 60's. In 1953, Indiana's high school basketball association voted 40-7 against allowing a black referee.
The experiences of the fictional South Bend team were probably not dissimilar from the experiences Oscar Robertson had playing at segregated Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, chronicled in this ESPN article. Many teams refused to play Attucks. Fans shouted racist things. When Robertson won the 1955 title, his teammates weren't allowed out of the car on their parade route until the bus had returned to a black neighborhood. Attucks didn't admit white students until 1967.
As South Bend plays Hickory, I can't stop thinking about the struggles and travails they faced, the jeers they heard, the hate they witnessed. To me, they are infinitely more interesting than the guys we're supposed to be rooting for.
But we never hear a word about South Bend's story. They're just a prop.
The makers of Hoosiers counted on the racism of its viewers. They were trying to show that Hickory was heavily outmatched in the championship game. They hoped that by making Hickory's opponents black, we'd immediately assume that they are stronger and faster and better than the small-town white kids. They used the black skin of Hickory's opponents as an indicator telling viewers to root against them.
This is hideous filmmaking that should be shot out of a cannon back to the Stone Age.
Just a few words from South Bend and its players to show that they were people, too, and not just Bad Black Enemies could have gone a long way. Unfortunately, the people who made this movie were too focused on the team with the kid-hitting coach and the one really good player.
And that's why Hoosiers sucks.
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