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October 27, 1998|HOUSTON MITCHELL

What: "Hoosiers"

Price: Priced to own.

This is the best sports movie ever made.

Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) comes to Hickory, Ind., to coach the high school basketball team. To the people of Hickory, the team, the Hickory Huskers, is more important than life itself. And none of them can understand why Dale, a former big-time college basketball coach, would come to the middle of nowhere to coach.

What makes "Hoosiers" special though, is not the story, which is a traditional retelling of David vs. Goliath, but its characters and its attention to detail. At its heart, "Hoosiers" is a comeback movie, and it weaves four comebacks seamlessly into one film:

* The Hickory team, which must come back from the edge of oblivion all the way to the state finals.

* Dale, who must come back from a terrible event that ended his college coaching days to redeem himself in a small town full of people who would like to run him out of town on a rail.

* Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey), who escaped the small town with a college education, only to have to give up her city life and return to Hickory to help her mother run the farm after her father's death.

* Shooter (Dennis Hopper), who missed the big shot in the big game years ago and has drifted into alcoholism.

Hackman is the heart of this film, and he gives one of his finest performances. As he does in all his roles, Hackman combines likability with complexity, qualities hard to mix successfully. The screenplay by Angelo Pizzo and the direction of David Anspaugh serve him well.

You can see the ending of this movie coming a mile away, but that doesn't make it any less effective. By the time the big game comes around, you care about all the characters. I defy you to watch the end and not smile. In this time of NBA lockout, "Hoosiers" is the perfect film to watch.

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