A surprise hit with audiences and critics , "Hoosiers" has been the season's Cinderella story. Set in the ' 50s, the film is loosely based on a true-life giant-killer saga: the 1954 Indiana tournament drive of minuscule Milan High (enrollment: 164). For many, it distills the heart and soul of hardwood floors, screaming cheerleaders and furious rallies. Six Calendar writers--Lawrence Christon, Dennis Hunt, Patrick Goldstein, Max Jacobson, John Voland and Michael Wilmington--played basketball during their fast-faded high school careers. Here they ruminate on "Hoosiers" and the way it was on all those long-ago Friday nights.
Lawrence Christon, 5' 10" guard. Brentwood (New York) High, Senior varsity 1958, 1959. (Set school single season scoring record.) Long Island Press and Newsday All-Suffolk County starting team , 1959 . Fredonia State College 1960. On roster of Houston Rockets in Cal State pro-am summer pro league 1972.
Two broken ankles, a broken wrist, facial lacerations, numberless sprains, shattered teeth and corneal abrasions--this is the price of 25 years of diving for loose balls and driving the lane after faking a jumper at the top of the key or deep in a corner, in a career that began in high school and ended, after a pre-exhibition week with the Lakers, in the Cal State Pro-Am Summer League in 1972 (I still get out for hoops occasionally, one of L.A.'s oldest gym rats).
I look at basketball movies, when I look at basketball movies, the same way a combat veteran looks at war movies. To me, they always fall short in conveying not only what the game feels like, but what it really looks like, when making a basket is not an isolated spasmodic act (as in close-up of ball swishing through net), but a dancelike culmination of movement, collective and individual, played in the air.
"Hoosiers" has its charms, and held a certain evocative quality for me. The first college I went to was very like one of the movie's gyms; you had to know where you were when you went for a loose ball--you could plow into a wooden wall or maybe hurtle down a flight of stairs. I liked the walnut dark look of sweat-stained basketballs, the creaky gym floors, the thrill of stepping out onto a big-time field house floor for a regional game, silently calculating the shooting angles.
I liked the way the movie caught, in the character of Jim, the pure shooter's haunted look, the manifest loneliness of hours and hours of practicing long jumpers on any hoop you can find, away from everybody, dreaming your game. I liked the way Dennis Hopper held his right hand when he sidled over to Gene Hackman in the diner. The long wrist, the delicately flowing fingers--that's a shooter's hand. I can recall the image of the team bus slowly traversing a winter road, and the misery of my high school coach when public opinion turned against him.
"Hoosiers" is loosely based on a true story, but it's not essentially a basketball story. It's an old-fashioned formula vehicle that plays to our current mania for depictions of winning. Who was this Gene Hackman character with a shadowed past? What did he do away from the game? What specifically did he teach these preposterously overmatched small town kids, so that they could become champions of the most basketball-mad state in America? How did he get them to overcome their terror?
There are other dramaturgical questions one might ask as well. But the hoops veteran in me laments how the soul of a team coming together is never explored. Winning really isn't everything; it's only what happens at the end.
John Voland, 6 feet 4, c enter/forward . Millikan (California) junior high JV (1973) and Ulysses S. Grant high JV (1974); Center, Street Beagles, Chicago city league co-champs , 1980-81 .
As one of those tallish (six feet by age 15) boy-men who get drafted to play basketball in spite of their shocking lack of talent, I'm reminded by "Hoosiers" most of all of the sounds of the game.
I'm not talking so much about the omnipresent fingernails-on-chalkboard skreak of the sneakers turning fast on the wooden floors--you can hear those for hours on weekend TV. What I remember is the thung of a missed jumper, a sound especially loud when the coach is watching; the whoof s of other guys panting like old Buicks to get down the floor to cover the fast break; the soft poingk of the ball as it's being dribbled by the first player on the floor before practice itself starts--he moves like a dancer through the empty gym. "Hoosiers" really did justice to the kinetic, restless acoustics of the game.