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Why 'Hoosiers' remains the best sports movie, 35 years later

The movie, which celebrates the 35th anniversary of its release this month, embodies values that are vital in sports and in the American way of life.
A critical and box office success, "Hoosiers" is an enduring movie about second chances and the power of being an underdog.AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo
/ Source: TODAY

It’s not that “Hoosiers” is the best sports movie ever made. It’s that “Hoosiers” is still the best sports movie ever made. As barroom debates go, it’s a topic that is often broached while sipping a pint, but there need not be a discussion.

Sorry, “Rocky.” Apologies, “Field of Dreams.” Nice try, “Raging Bull.” You’re all fantastic, but “Hoosiers,” which was released 35 years ago this month, remains the gold standard in sports cinema, the quintessential story of an underdog, redemption, overcoming adversity and putting the team ahead of the individual.

Loosely based on the Milan High School basketball team that improbably won Indiana's 1954 state championship, the film focuses on Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale, a coach with a checkered past who takes a job running the high school basketball team in tiny Hickory, Indiana, much to the chagrin of the townspeople who don’t take too kindly to his methods, especially when the squad struggles early in the season.

Coach Dale found a way to make his team the best it could be, even as a new face in a town where basketball is king.Orion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Steve Hollar, who starred as Rade Butcher, one of the players on the team, agrees it is the best sports movie ever made.

“No doubt about it,” he told TODAY.

“I think it has affected every sports movie, that is, even ones that are not basketball. I think that there are sections, themes, storylines, ideas that are taken straight from ‘Hoosiers.’”

Sure, Hollar may be biased, but he’s not alone in his opinion. NBC News national political correspondent and “Hoosiers” super fan Steve Kornacki also thinks it’s the best sports movie of all time.

"Hoosiers" without Gene Hackman? It almost happened, says the film's director.Orion Pictures Corp / Courtesy Everett Collection

“I do. It's a classic Cinderella sports story that's really well crafted and perfectly captures a particular time and place and culture,” he told TODAY.

“But more than that, there's something righteous and heroic in Gene Hackman's character. He's getting a second chance he never thought he'd have, he's determined to do things the right way this time, and he won't bend even when the mob is about to run him out of town. When that last shot is in the air at the end of the movie, you want so badly for it to go in, for him and for all the players who've bought into him.”

An Indiana native himself, director David Anspaugh, center, on the set of "Hoosiers," had previously directed episodes of "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere" and "Miami Vice."Orion Pictures Corp / Courtesy Everett Collection

Ironically, “Hoosiers” director David Anspaugh doesn’t consider it a sports movie.

“We never called it a sports film,” he told TODAY. “I still don't refer to it as a sports film.”

“I remember (screenwriter) Angelo (Pizzo), above his desk, when he wrote the script, he had a piece of paper that was handwritten, ‘This is not a sports movie,’” he added.

Dale saw his chance for redemption and he paid it forward by doing the same for the alcoholic Shooter, played by Dennis Hopper in an Oscar-nominated performance.Alamy Stock Photo

So, what is it about “Hoosiers” that makes it stand out from the pack like a point guard leading a fast break all these years later?

The best sports movies manage to transcend sports, and “Hoosiers” does that with an unparalleled authenticity. While stars Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey headlined the film, it also featured obscure actors as players on the team.

Hollar played college basketball, but he was not a Hollywood hotshot. Star player Jimmy Chitwood was played by Maris Valainis. Ollie, the pint-size guard, was played by Wade Schenck, who never made another movie.

Gene Hackman, center, with Steve Hollar, right. "They knew they were on to something when the people stood up and cheered at the end of the movie before the release of it,” Hollar said about advance screenings of "Hoosiers."Orion Pictures Corp / Courtesy Everett Collection

“I think the reality is, I know, when they cast us, they were passionate about casting basketball players that they felt could be articulate, fit the role for the individual part and could act,” Hollar said. “So they wanted basketball players first.”

The movie is visually hypnotic, with the entirety of “Hoosiers” feeling gloomy and cinematographer Fred Murphy doing an exquisite job of making the moviegoers feel as if they really are in rural 1950s Indiana.

“‘There's one thing that came over me when I was watching the film today, and that is, I don't remember ever seeing another movie that looked quite like this,’” Anspaugh recalled telling Pizzo after checking out raw footage during filming.

Kornacki loves "Hoosiers" and what it stands for. “It brings together so many great themes: redemption, teamwork, community, the idea that there's more at stake than just the final score, and all of it wrapped inside an underdog story,” he said.Nathan Congleton / TODAY

“Hoosiers” also retains a key element in any movie. It is utterly addicting, even if you’ve seen it. Pick a scene: the town meeting where Jimmy says he will only play if Coach Dale remains on the job. Hopper's Shooter scampering on the court while drunk. The championship game. There are many more and they are all riveting.

“There are so many scenes that have stuck with me through the decades. How do you not get chills when Jimmy Chitwood shows up at the town meeting to give his 'coach stays/I play' ultimatum?” Kornacki said.

“I think the fun part over the years has been how many times I've seen that movie. I mean, it could be playing, you know, somewhere walking through a room and ... it's hard not to stop and watch that crazy movie,” Hollar said. “No matter where it is in the movie. It's not like, ‘Oh, I've seen that part.’ No, you kind of get trapped into watching it.”

The vintage uniforms the team wore helped moviegoers feel as if they had escaped into an entirely different era.Alamy Stock Photo

Much like any movie, “Hoosiers” could have been quite different. Hackman’s role originally went to Jack Nicholson, a passionate basketball fan who was spotted courtside at Los Angeles Lakers games for years. Anspaugh said Nicholson ultimately had to pass because he became involved in a lawsuit over another movie he was supposed to make. Brian Dennehy, Burt Reynolds, Robert Duvall and Paul Newman would all be approached about the role, but Hackman ultimately landed it.

“Hoosiers” earned a pair of Academy Award nominations, one for best supporting actor for Hopper and one for best score for the late Jerry Goldsmith, whose brilliant music alternates between fast-paced and pensive, matching the dynamic pace of competition necessary in a sports movie with the somber gray nature of the town that clings to the team.

Hackman's Norman Dale took a no-nonsense approach to coaching the fundamentals.Alamy Stock Photo

Anspaugh says he initially offered the gig to Indiana native John Mellencamp, but noted the musician didn’t like the movie after seeing an advance screening. Mellencamp did not have a comment when asked about that by TODAY. Goldsmith’s work was so perfect that he did the score for “Rudy,” another beloved sports film by Anspaugh and Pizzo.

“He said, ‘If you guys do another movie,’ he said, ‘I’m in. I'll commit to it right now,’” Anspaugh said about Goldsmith.

Anspaugh himself sees some of “Hoosiers” in another sports-themed project that has captivated audiences, the Emmy-winning “Ted Lasso.”

The romance between Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) and Coach Dale has been criticized, but Anspaugh said there were scenes cut out of the film by the studio that explained the relationship better.Alamy Stock Photo

“I wanted to write (executive producer) Bill Lawrence a letter after watching the first couple episodes of season one of ‘Ted Lasso’ saying, ‘My friend, I was born to direct this show. Please hire me. I want to come and do your show,’” he said. “Because in a way, it really kind of gets a lot of the buttons that I think we hit with ‘Hoosiers.’”

Anspaugh also said the movie gets some real-world use.

“I've talked to a lot of people, actually even a professional coach, but I've talked to a lot of high school coaches and some college that say they would screen that movie at least once or twice during the season (to) try and inspire the team,” he said.

A seemingly overmatched Hickory won the regional finals, seen here, on its way to the championship.Orion Pictures Corp / Courtesy Everett Collection

Three decades after its release, Anspaugh feels the legacy of “Hoosiers” is hard to define.

“I have no idea,” he said. “It’s like asking any artist, I think, when things work out, and something has taken on its own life, and it works, whether it's a piece of music, or a painting, or a novel or something like that. You just don't know, until it's out there.”

“Sometimes magic happens like this, and I can't explain it,” he added. “I don't know what the legacy is, other than as an artist to be just true to what your initial message is, what your goal is with the film and to tell the story as honestly as you can.”

Hollar, who is now a dentist in his native Indiana, is proud to be part of a movie that has more than stood the test of time.

“I'm always amazed, I'm always humbled,” Hollar said. “If you had to pick one movie to be in, let alone one sports movie, boy, fate would have it I picked the right one, for sure.”