Monday, November 14, 2016

Second Chances

Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey): You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god. 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.

Coach Dale (Gene Hackman): You know, most people would kill to be treated like a god, just for a few moments.

There were a few exceptions, but just about every kid I knew when I was growing up fantasized about being at bat in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game of the World Series with the game on the line or diving into the end zone for the game–winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. I'm sure the scenario played out in every head when we played pickup games after school and on weekends.

"Hoosiers," which was in theaters on this day in 1986, appealed to that kind of fantasy — one that was equally improbable. It was about a small high school basketball team in Indiana rising from obscurity to win the state championship. But it was about more than that. It was about second chances.

I was once asked on a job application form to identify my favorite word and explain why it was my favorite. I immediately entered the word redemption. It has long been my favorite word. I couldn't say how long — since whenever I first realized that storybook lives in which people make steady uninterrupted climbs to the tops of their chosen professions are rare — but I can tell you why.

Life has a way of doing its thing and taking you along for the ride. Even if it is taking you in a totally different direction than the one you intended, your objection means nothing. As John Lennon wrote, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

That is where redemption comes in. Redemption is the assurance that, no matter what happens in your life, no matter how badly you may think you have screwed up, it need not be permanent, and just about everyone in "Hoosiers" seemed to be seeking redemption of one kind or another.

Redemption offers hope.

At first I thought it was kind of a "Rocky" sort of movie — you know, the underdog wins it all, defying all odds and naysayers — although I did not realize until recently that "Hoosiers" made its theatrical debut about a week before the 10th anniversary of the premiere of "Rocky."

But subsequent viewings have persuaded me that Hickory's climb to the top was really secondary. The story was about being given a second chance.

"I was a sportswriter once for a couple of years in downstate Illinois," Ebert wrote in his review of the movie. "I covered mostly high school sports, and if I were a sportswriter again, I'd want to cover them again. There is a passion to high school sports that transcends anything that comes afterward."

I had a similar experience. When I was fresh out of college, I too covered high school sports, mostly football (but not full time; I was a general assignment reporter so I wrote about a wide range of things, not just sports), and one of the schools I covered was probably as small as Hickory, the school that was featured in "Hoosiers," but I never had the experience of covering a high school team, large or small, that was on its way to a state title.

When I was in high school, though, the basketball team won the state championship, and that was very exciting but hardly unexpected. The out–of–the–blue quality of fictional Hickory's rise to the top was the kind of stuff dramatic movies are made of.

But, oh, those second chances — when a character in a movie makes the most of a second chance and wins redemption, that is what truly brings a lump to one's throat. That's true, audience–engaging drama. The viewers, reminded of the shortcomings in their own lives, always respond to a character successfully seeking redemption. It is the classic underdog, with or without a sports backdrop. And doesn't everyone feel like an underdog at least part of the time?

"Hoosiers" was mostly about a second chance for a fellow named Norman Dale (played by Gene Hackman), a gifted but volatile coach. His temper got him into trouble in the past, and he became an untouchable in the coaching world. The Hickory job was clearly his opportunity — perhaps his last — to get back in the game of life.

He struggled at first, prompting the mother of one of Hackman's faculty colleagues to observe, "Sun don't shine on the same dog's ass every day, but you ain't seen a ray of light since you got here."

"Hoosiers" was also about a second chance of sorts for the town drunk (Dennis Hopper), whose son was on the team and embarrassed by his father's public antics when under the influence. Hackman made the basketball–savvy Hopper his assistant — on the condition that he remain sober — which was a second chance for the fractured father–son relationship. Hopper received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

And there was a talented basketball player who, for his own reasons, had decided not to play. Like just about every place in Indiana, Hickory was basketball crazy, and there was a widespread belief that the team could do great things if this young man would play.

But the faculty member whose mother made that remark to Hackman had encouraged the young man to pursue things that would help him get out of the small town; she did not believe basketball could do that. This faculty member (Barbara Hershey) had her own issues and was, in her own way, seeking redemption, too.

As I say, just about everyone in Hickory was seeking redemption of one kind or another. And they all coalesced around the basketball team.

I have admired Hackman's work for a long time, and I will never understand why he wasn't nominated for Best Actor for his work in "Hoosiers."

But the movie received only two nominations — Hopper's for Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Score.