Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Life lessons from "Hoosiers"

The movie poster for the 1986 film "Hoosiers"

“I know everything there is to know about the greatest game ever invented”
– Shooter Flatch during his first conversation with Norman Dale

Sports can teach some great life lessons in life when taken in the proper context. So can sports movies, and there is no more influential sports movie in my life than "Hoosiers".

On the surface it is a David-versus-Goliath, Cinderella story about a small-town, small-school basketball team that wins the Indiana state championship. You go deeper, and it is much more. It is a story of redemption, second chances, winning for the right reasons, dreaming, and community.

The story
Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) had been in the marines for some time when he arrived in Hickory, Indiana to coach the high school boys' basketball team. An experienced, successful coach, he sets to using the coaching techniques that worked for him elsewhere to Hickory. Predictably, he meets with resistance from the local townspeople who all have an opinion on how the Hickory Huskers should be coached.

Dale is treated with distrust from the outset by Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey), a fellow teacher. She suspects there is more to Norman Dale than meets the eye. She digs into his past and discovers his secret: he hit a player when he was coaching in New York, and was banned from the game for life. His long-time friend Cletus, the principal at Hickory High, gave him what is likely his final chance at coaching.

Coach Norman Dale with players Rade Butcher and Ollie.
As the coach moves through the days and weeks, we see what he faces. There is a boy in town, Jimmy Chitwood, who is treated like a basketball god. Yet, he will not play, partly because he was close to the previous coach who died. All the townspeople say the team will go nowhere without Jimmy. Fleener has been tutoring him, and tells Dale that Jimmy could earn a scholarship and get out of Hickory. She also warns him to stay away from Jimmy.

Dale finally asks her why she's so unfriendly. She tells him she sees all these players treated like gods, then get old and sit around talking about the glory days like it was the highlight of their lives. Dale said if Jimmy is as good as everyone says, an athletic scholarship would be a likely option. Plus, most people would love to be treated like a god even for just a minute. She says she doesn't want Jimmy to be coaching in Hickory when he's fifty. Ouch.

Much to everyone's surprise, Dale pays Jimmy a visit to tell him if he wants to play, fine. But, he will not chase after him or ask him again. The entire time Jimmy is shooting the ball, making every basket. After Dale finishes what he has to say and walks away, Jimmy can't make a single shot.

Coach Norman Dale in the huddle.
Meanwhile, Coach Dale sets to preparing his team. He focuses on conditioning, fundamentals, and defence. When one of his players talks while Dale is talking, then gives him a smart aleck answer when confronted by Dale, he kicks him out. The boy soon returns, with his dad, who make him apologize. Dale then incenses the community by closing his practices to the public, and the basketball parents sitting in the stands in particular.

If things aren't bad enough, the Huskers play their opener which does not go well. Dale tells them to pass four times before they shoot. They do so, turning the ball over, and bringing on cheers of "Shoot! Shoot!" from the crowd. When guard Rade Butcher disobeys and shoots, then scores, the crowd goes wild, while Dale simmers. When Rade comes off, he does not even look at his coach and sits at the end of the bench. Later in the game, a Husker fouls out, leaving them a man short on the floor. Rade is the only sub and gets ready to go back in. Dale tells him to sit down. The ref tells him he needs one more. "My team is out there," Dale replies. Playing with four to end the game was a tough lesson.

One day while he's having breakfast, Dale encounters Shooter Flatch, the town drunk, rambling on about basketball. It turns out Shooter's son plays for the Huskers too. Later Shooter pays Dale a visit. He picks up an old team photo sitting on Dale's mantle and tells him he had a hell of a team there.

Coach Norman Dale with
assistant coach Shooter.
"You know that team?" Dale asked.

"I know everything there is to know about the greatest game ever invented."

Shooter also intimates he knows what happened to Dale when he was coaching the Ithaca Warriors in New York.

Soon after, Dale finds Shooter to ask him about their next opponent, Verdi, which Dale mispronounces. Shooter corrects him and tells him how to beat them. Then Dale offers Shooter a spot on his bench, but he has to clean himself up and stop drinking. Shooter agrees. Again, this does not endear Dale to the people of Hickory, Indiana.

Dale discovers how bad the situation is when, during a game, he asks the ref of a question and is assessed a technical foul. He questions that, and is ejected from the game.

Eventually, a town meeting is been called to discuss the future of the coach. A non-confidence vote is also planned. By this point, Fleener has discovered Dale's past, and confronts him. If she reveals it at the meeting, his run in Hickory will be over. She does thank him for leaving Jimmy alone and what's he's done with Shooter.

The only allies Dale has are Cletus and Fleener's mother Opal, who doubles as his landlord. Dale says his piece at the meeting, while the Huskers wait outside. His fate is sealed, even after Fleener changes her tune and expresses her support for his coaching. They call for a vote, just as Jimmy Chitwood, clutching his beloved basketball, makes his way to the podium. He is greeted with cheers.

"I got something to say," he says.

The room quiets.

"I figure it's time I start playing ball again," he says.

The room erupts in cheers, and someone even yells it's because they are getting rid of Norman Dale.

Then Jimmy drops a bomb.

"Coach stays, I play. Coach goes, I go."

The parent who most hates Dale sheepishly says the vote is for the coach to go.

Suddenly Opal yells for another vote. They take an oral vote and the townspeople vote to keep the coach.

After that, the Huskers get on a roll and advance all the way to the State final, riding on the combination of Jimmy's play, Dale's coaching, and the community's support.

Coachable moments
Each game along the way offers another insight into the type of coach Norman Dale has become after living in a small town for a year.

In one game, the Huskers are getting manhandled by their opponents. I think it's Oolitic. At one point, an opposing player drives one of the Huskers out of bounds into a trophy case, breaking the glass and cutting him up. Dale yells for the trainer to patch him up. He asks the boy if he can play. Of course he says he can. Stitched up, with blood showing, he takes the court. Dale looks at him, takes a long breath, and calls time again. He promptly takes him off the court, telling him he's had a good game. Norman Dale is no longer the same coach who hit a player years before.

In another game, the Huskers are in tough and one of their starters fouls out. Dale has no choice but to call on Ollie to play. Ollie is the brush cut wearing, timid seventh man of the Huskers who tells the coach early on he's the trainer, claiming to be too short to play. With no other choice, Dale sends him on the court. His first time down, he dribbles the ball off his knee. The next time he chucks up a prayer of a shot that isn't even close.

Ollie makes a tense pair of free throws.
Late in the game, with the clock running down and the Huskers' hopes dwindling, Ollie chucks up another prayer and is fouled. If he makes both shots, they go ahead. Time is called leading to another coachable moment.

The Huskers gather in the huddle and Ollie looks terrified, like he may even throw up.

"After Ollie makes both free throws," Dale says, he tells them to get back on defence because they will look to chuck up a prayer of their own.

Ollie, shooting free throws bucket style (which is essentially under handed), makes them both. The Huskers sink in defensively and win the game.

The confidence Coach Dale showed in Ollie, helped him win Hickory that game.

Finally, in the lead up to the championship game, Coach Dale pulls the master stroke coaching move. The Huskers are all in absolute awe of the gym they will be playing in for the final. He gets two players to measure the distance from the base line to the foul line. Then he gets one to put Ollie on his shoulders to help measure the distance from the rim to the floor.

"These are the exact same measurements as our gym in Hickory," Dale says.

The players all laugh, relax, and walk off the court.

Dale follows, but not before turning to say to an assistant, "It is big."

Research reveals that actually happened before the championship game on which the movie is based.

The movie is full of redemption. Norman Dale becomes the coach he always had inside him. In the end it was not about winning, but about doing the best you can and the rest taking care of itself. His players loved him not because they won, but because he cared about them as people. The gruff, hard-nosed coach reveals his true feelings before the final game, when in the huddle, he says, "I love you guys." Shooter overcame being the town drunk and became more than a basketball coach – he became a father.

Second chances
The movie is centred on Norman Dale having a second chance at coaching. He in turn gave Shooter a second chance by making him an assistant coach. Dale even got himself kicked out of a game, leaving Shooter the only one to take them home to win the game. And he did by running the picket fence. Jimmy Chitwood even got a second chance. He was the star, the prodigy, who had been broken when his coach died. Norman Dale gave him a chance to heal – and to succeed.

It was also a second chance for Dennis Hopper who played Shooter. Racked with drug issues and a sagging career, Hopper not only took up the challenge but turned in a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. It revitalized his career.

Winning for the right reasons
Perhaps the biggest lesson that Norman Dale learned is that winning is not everything (nor is it the only thing, Vince Lombardi!). In the past he had been banned for hitting a player. This time around, he refused to send a player who was hurt back into a game, even though it was a crucial part of the game. He inserted a bench player in another crucial game, one that no one had any confidence in – and he succeeded. By then, it was not about winning at all costs for Norman Dale any longer.

Norman Dale gave his players, and the town of Hickory, the chance to dream. They believed a school as small as Hickory High could compete with the city schools, and they did. They all dreamed of a state championship and, through hard work, determination, belief, and hope, they won it.

It has been said it takes a whole village (or a community) to raise a child. In a small town like Hickory, it takes a whole community to win a basketball game, much less a championship. Norman Dale didn't make any friends when he arrived, and alienated a lot more with his coaching methods. The team was not successful. Only when they all got on the same page, including the arrival of Jimmy Chitwood, did they begin to all row in the same direction.

Personal memories
The odd things a guy remembers especially considering the powerful influence “Hoosiers” had on me.

The movie was playing on a Saturday night in the Lethbridge Centre theatres in the old Woodward’s mall. I was with my friends Chris Vining and Dave and Doug. While I was waiting for Vining to get ready, his friend Kent phoned to see if he wanted to go to a movie. I feared he wanted to see the same movie I did. Nope, he was going to see “Burgler” starring Whoppi Goldberg. Whew. It was also the first time I went to the washroom part way through a movie and got lost in the dark trying to find my way back to my seat.

Throughout my basketball life I have been different characters from Hoosiers – Jimmy Chitwood, even Ollie. I have invoked that movie, and some of the quotes of Norman Dale, dozens of times in my life.

I even used it as a motivation during finals in our first year of university. Just over a year old, and on pay-TV virtually every day, me and some classmates watched it while studying for our last final, at the end of first year.

Lasting impression
Every year, as the NCAA March Madness men's basketball tournament approaches, I watch "Hoosiers". The tournament and the movie will be forever linked because, mere months after the movie came out, the Indiana Hoosiers shocked the world and won the 1987 NCAA championship. It was like a scene – well – out of a movie.

I have told countless people "Hoosiers" is not just a basketball movie, but a movie about life and the lessons it teaches. When I was in university, I took a leadership class and wrote about some of those lessons "Hoosiers" teaches.

The next year, the professor showed "Hoosiers" in that same class.

Need I say more.

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