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'Hoosiers': A Tale of Two High Schools
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
07:50PM / Friday, October 16, 2020
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 wish that I were reviewing one of the several movies about this pox upon our house that are certain to be made when the horror is deep into our rearview mirror. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.
Hickory, the fictional Indiana high school in director David Anspaugh's "Hoosiers," which either tops or rates high on most best sports film lists, and my alma mater, Newark's Weequahic High School, share an accolade: Each had illustrious, will-never-forget-about basketball teams.
It had long been my jest that by the end of your freshman year you were able to manage one of the two more common pronunciations of Weequahic (wee-KWAY-ik, though many denizens prefer WEEK-wake), and that by graduation you could spell it. But so celebrated was our hoopsters' renown that students from other schools with far inferior basketball teams and much more easily enunciated names grew to perfectly articulate our Indian-derived appellation, oft with the notable fear and reverence our B-ball reputation elicited.
That we also just happened to score nationally among the top .01 percent, or something approximating that, in scholastic prowess, was only an icing-on-the-cake afterthought to the 14 through 17 set. It was the game, the attendant pomp and the pride instilled that you could hear humming in the halls as you jaunted to the next class, the melodic clanging of lockers a background score to our passionate sense of belonging.
When hailed in modern times by hoop enthusiasts who, learning that I went to Weequahic, wish to be regaled of those championship seasons, I elucidate humbly, it being a given that attendance alone was its own honor. Still, making sure to insert myself into the story, but in a way that both glorifies the team without diminishing my own abilities on the court, I delineate it as follows in the next graph with no small hint of philosophical inflection.
"You see, there were three teams. There was THE TEAM, which no one you actually knew made. It was as if the deus ex machina had plopped them down from the basketball version of Mount Olympus into the capable hands of esteemed coach Les Fein. Thus, if you were really good but didn't make THE TEAM, you played for the Y. And if you didn't make the Y team, you played for The Temple (B'nai Abraham). I played for the Temple."
So, it is with no special achievement in compassion that I readily identify with the mores and folkways that so zealously power the absorbing saga of little Hickory's rise to basketball glory, which screenwriter Angelo Pizzo based on an actual high school team in Milan, Ind. But that's where all comparisons end. Rural Milan, and therefore Hickory, had 164 students, whereas Weequahic, located in the Greater Metropolitan Area, boasted nearly 2,000 Baby Boomers.
Never mind the coincidence, haunting only to me, that both the Milan and Weequahic teams are called the Indians.
In short, pride and an affirmation of inclusion that, in the ideal circumstance, are the hallmark of fandom, comprise the emotions recently hired coach Norman Dale, stupendously portrayed by Gene Hackman, seeks to awaken in both the team and the hamlet that supports them. As subtext to the sports story, Dale, once the coach of a major college power who slipped off into the Navy following a regrettable misstep, views his new helmsmanship not just as an opportunity to reinvigorate his career, but as a chance for redemption.
Playing moral conscience and mulling the role of romantic interest in Dale's quest for grace, the too little seen Barbara Hershey is convincing as the high school teacher who has her reservations about boys who toss all their dreams into one basket — the one with the net. Serving as an important balance, she is representative of the demography and versed in the ethos of which she is a duly ingrained part.
And so she had me thinking about the numerous guys I've observed at the end of the bar, reliving those glorious moments, when she admonishes Norman thusly: "You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god, er, uh, how can he ever find out what he can really do? I don't want this to be the high point of his life. I've seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were 17 years old."
Dennis Hopper's Wilbur "Shooter" Flatch, the emotively portrayed embodiment of what Hershey's Myra Fleener speaks, makes "Hoosiers" a double-dip meditation in atonement. He is a former great, current town drunk and constant embarrassment to his son, Everett, a member of Hickory's starting five who expresses dismay when Coach Dale daringly enlists Shooter to replace the ailing assistant coach.
To the backdrop of provincial America, circa 1951, playing counterpoint to Myra and Norman's pithy, running contemplation of the human condition, Shooter's tragicomic interjections win the camera's favor with the near imperceptible finesse of a shooting guard stealing the ball. He is the colorful font of basketball pageantry and lore who shamelessly informs, "I know everything there is to know about the greatest game ever invented." We anxiously root for both Shooter and Coach Dale's pursuit of a second chance.
Add Hopper's cautionary contribution off the bench, tally up all of "Hoosiers' " touching insights, and by the closing buzzer the scoreboard reflects a warmly entertaining victory for viewers.
"Hoosiers," rated PG, is an Orion Pictures release directed by David Anspaugh and stars Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper. Running time: 114 minutes
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