Sentimentality may be the curse of sports movies, but it's also the lifeblood of many sports fans, who cling hard to those precious moments out of time when their underdog team does something magical, something to justify those agonizing years (or decades) of futility. For this reason alone, it should come as no surprise that 1986's Hoosiers tops most polls of the greatest sports movies ever made, because it bottles the uplift that fans can spend a lifetime chasing. There's no good excuse for many of the devices at play—the countless montages, the prodding Jerry Goldsmith score, the "magic hour" shots of farm boys lobbing jumpers into their barn-mounted hoops—yet there's no denying their effectiveness, either. Somewhere at the center of all that cheese is the essence of sport, which has the power to seduce with broad emotional appeals and get away with it almost every time.
The film draws its inspiration from the 1954 Indiana high-school championship game, a classic David-vs.-Goliath contest between perennial urban powerhouse Muncie and upstart Milan, a rural backwater with a population just north of 1,000. The new Hoosiers DVD includes remarkable footage from that game, which ends in a thrilling sequence of events that the film recreates with scrupulous detail. Director David Anspaugh and writer Angelo Pizzo, both Indiana University alums, don't skimp on the old-timey Heartland nostalgia, but they grew up listening to this story, and they show a genuine connection to the feelings it evokes. And whenever the schmaltz threatens to ooze over, they have a secret weapon in Gene Hackman, whose no-guff performance as a coach with a checkered past seems lived-in and genuine, as he does his best to validate the big payoffs.
When Hackman pulls into Hickory, a one-horse rural outpost that lives for high-school basketball, he's greeted with suspicion and hostility for replacing the town's late, beloved coach. He gets an especially chilly reception from Barbara Hershey, a fellow teacher who doesn't want Hackman to poach the school's star player (Maris Valainis), whom she believes has potential beyond the court. Things get worse when Hackman's coaching methods, which introduce discipline and fundamentals to an undersized team of perimeter shooters, result in early losses and some embarrassing conflicts with the local referees. As if that weren't enough, Hackman also recruits local drunk Dennis Hopper to serve as his assistant, provided that he clean up and stay off the sauce. In spite of all the controversy, the team comes together under Hackman's watch and makes a run to the state finals in Indianapolis.
Particularly in light of last summer's Olympics, when NBA stars were bested by less gifted European teams with better fundamentals, Hoosiers warmly recalls the classic school of Indiana basketball, with nods to the temperamental Bobby Knight and former Celtics great Larry Bird, the model of a farm boy shooting daggers from the outside. But Hoosiers doesn't have a reactionary agenda: Even the racial makeup of the Muncie team, which is initially discomfiting, is confirmed by the real-life game footage, and there's no attempt to posit one playing style above another. A deleted scene showing the entire community gathering for a harvest suggests that at bottom, what Anspaugh and Pizzo are really celebrating is as much a bygone era in life as it is in sport.