“Welcome to Indiana basketball.”
– Coach Norman Dale in “Hoosiers”
INDIANAPOLIS – Gene Hackman took a deep breath before delivering that line and opening the gym door, as if some medieval beast with razor-wire hide and cutlass molars waited on the other side.
All very Hollywood, but myths are made in the heartland, too.
As we learned later on in the “Rocky” of basketball movies, coach Dale had won a national championship at Ithaca College. Indiana high school ball in a crackerbox gym is going to make him weak in the knees?
But they lay the legend on thick. A nouveau like Spokane can call itself Hooptown all it wants and Gonzaga can aspire to college basketball’s first unbeaten season since 1976, but Indiana has the last unbeaten champion. It has the oldest high school tournament in the country, it has the biggest school gyms, it has the damned movie.
And it has Hinkle Fieldhouse, named for the favorite son who brainstormed the orange basketball.
The Zags won their second-round NCAA Tournament game at Butler University’s venerated arena on Monday and return Sunday for their Sweet 16 date with Creighton.
So they won’t have to measure the rims again.
Yes, one team that played there last weekend actually did that, re-enacting the best-known bit of movie Hackmana.
Hinkle truly is a stately cathedral, those 93-year-old bricks still taking on character, the windows still letting in sunlight during afternoon games. A chunk of the charm left, however, when the old wooden bleachers were ripped out and replaced by padded blue theatre seats – the patrons tired of feeling all that history in their backsides.
That warm snuggle of nostalgia – at the heart of Indiana’s love affair with basketball – just isn’t what it used to be.
Forty-five miles east of here, the gym-cum-museum that served as home of the celluloid Hickory Huskers now has … glass backboards. Oh, the humanity.
And as Mark Few noted on Thursday, the picket fence play has no place amid today’s ball-screen actions.
“Hoosiers,” movie fans, just couldn’t happen today. Let’s count the ways:
•Norman Dale doesn’t get banned for punching a player. But the NCAA does put Ithaca on probation when the coach buys the kid a cheeseburger.
•Rollin Butcher – the dad of Rade and Whit, one a loose cannon and the other the dumbest player (“I ain’t no gizzard”) – is the voice of reason that shoos the townsfolk out of practice. Today, Rollin Butcher is LaVar Ball.
•The Huskers losing the first game with just four players on the court and Rade on the bench makes Scott Van Pelt’s Bad Beats.
•The Deer Lick sports editor writes a column blasting the four-passes-before-you-shoot offense.
•Buddy’s never-explained return after transferring to Terhune is voided by the state high school association and winds up in court.
•When Norm talks to Jimmy Chitwood as he shoots baskets outside, it’s not to tell him he doesn’t care if he plays or not. Instead, he offers to buy him a car if he’ll join the team.
•Myra Fleener doesn’t go to the library in Deer Lick in midseason to find an old newspaper account of Dale’s fateful punch. She gets on Google the first day he’s in town and he’s fired. Armchair coach George takes over practice, going 20 on, 10 off and 20 on the way he wanted to.
•The ACLU files for an injunction to stop Strap from praying on the bench.
•Rade Butcher doesn’t mouth off during the timeout huddle. But he posts his complaints on Instagram and Twitter for his 30,000 followers.
•When Jimmy says he’ll come back and play only if Norm is retained as coach, the town votes to fire Dale anyway – afraid that Jimmy will take their kids’ playing time.
•The Deer Lick sports editor writes a column blasting the town for letting a teenager dictate who the coach is.
•Rooster the barber’s free Saturday trims after Friday wins are discovered after Jimmy goes off to Wabash College and are deemed impermissible benefits by the NCAA, which declares him ineligible.
•Remember when your eyes welled up as Shooter, the sobered-up dad with the shakes – where’s Dennis Hopper’s Oscar, by the way? – calls the picket fence play to beat Dugger? Since it’s the only play Hickory called all year, he uses it to stab Norm Dale in the back and get the head coaching job.
•The Deer Lick sports editor misquotes Shooter as saying, “Don’t trip over the paint can.”
•Norman Dale and Myra Fleener’s romance would have been found to be against school policy. Both are fired.
•The news of Shooter going into detox is leaked to TMZ.
•The Deer Lick sports editor writes a column blasting Norm for abandoning the four-passes edict once Jimmy joins the team.
•When the Linton player tells Ollie, “I didn’t know they grew them so small down on the farm,” Ollie’s parents file a bullying grievance.
•In the locker room before the championship game, Jimmy says he wants to win the game for branding purposes.
•The South Bend coach calls a timeout to set up an inbounds play, forcing Hickory to foul and giving the larger school free throws. The Huskers lose.
•The little kid shooting alone in the Hickory gym at the end is wearing a Jimmy Chitwood replica jersey.
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