Hoosiers, released in November of 1986 – 35 years ago this week — is one of the most beloved sports movies of all time: The story of a small-town basketball team in rural Indiana that successfully won the state’s highly competitive high school basketball tournament in 1952. The film featured one of Gene Hackman‘s most memorable performances, while also featuring Dennis Hopper in a redemptive supporting role as a town drunk-turned-assistant coach. The film is based loosely on the Milan High School team in 1954.
Directed by David Anspaugh, an Indiana native who has specialized in underdog sports movies set in that state — he also directed Rudy — Hoosiers is a frequent TV staple that has routinely ranked near the top of lists of the best sports movies of all time. Featuring a rousing score by Jerry Goldsmith, Hoosiers has also been much-copied: Last year’s The Way Back starred Ben Affleck as a basketball coach who was like Hackman and Hopper’s characters combined into one person.
The film stars Hackman as Norman Dale, a disgraced former college coach who is brought in to lead the basketball team in Hickory, Indiana, a small town where the sport is so important that town hall meetings are called to determine who should be the coach. While the team’s star, Jimmy Chitwood, is refusing to play, Dale employs a tough, unconventional style that inspires the team to play at its best, even as the town turns against him. His style also includes bringing on Shooter (Hopper), the father of one of those players, as his assistant; while the man is a fall-down alcoholic, he also happens to know the game quite well.
Ultimately, Jimmy returns, there’s a Big Game at the End, and the team wins the championship, and no one can deny the film’s last five minutes are absolutely amazing, leading up to that final shot of the team picture as Goldsmith’s music swells:
Of course, there are quite a few aspects of Hoosiers that don’t hold up quite so well. It’s a deeply conservative movie, part of that trend in 1980s popular culture of idealizing the 1950s, while also positioning a coach as an unassailable authority figure. It also puts the audience in the position to root for an all-white team, and treat them as underdogs in the 1950s. Spike Lee, who knows a thing or two about both movies and basketball, has said the same thing.
Then there’s the matter of Dale having been fired from his previous job for hitting a player. Four decades later, the legendary coach Bobby Knight, also in Indiana, was fired after (among other things) choking a player, a decision that set half the state into hysterics over how unfair it was to such a “legend.” Knight, needless to say, went on to campaign for Donald Trump in 2020.
Rodger Sherman, in SB Nation in 2015, made the further case against Hoosiers, calling it “a boring, racist movie about an abusive coach teaching us that the best way to succeed is to have a talented person show up and help you.” Sherman also argued that the style of basketball practiced in the film was boring and unimaginative and that the majority-Black South Bend team that Hickory beats might have made a more compelling subject for a movie.
“The makers of Hoosiers counted on the racism of its viewers. They were trying to show that Hickory was heavily outmatched in the championship game,” Sherman wrote.
“They hoped that by making Hickory’s opponents black, we’d immediately assume that they are stronger and faster and better than the small-town white kids. They used the black skin of Hickory’s opponents as an indicator telling viewers to root against them.”
All of these criticisms are valid and true. No, I’m not calling for the movie to be “canceled,” or pulled from streaming services, or anything else (it’s showing on both Amazon Prime and Showtime currently). Anyone who wants to enjoy it is welcome to continue to do so, and there remains a lot I like about the film, including the performances of Hackman, Hopper, and Barbara Hershey, the score, and that fantastic closing sequence.
But 35 years on, all the rest of that is unquestionably a part of the legacy of Hoosiers.