Commentary

"We got a memo about a movie ..."

Nearly 25 years after its release, "Hoosiers" still resonates

Updated: November 18, 2010, 12:41 PM ET
By Gare Joyce | ESPN The Magazine

Photo composite by Christopher KolkThe cast of Hoosiers got back together 25 years later to reminisce.

"Hoosiers" almost never was.

"The conventional wisdom said that basketball didn't work on the screen," says screenwriter Angelo Pizzo. And most of Hollywood bought into that. Pizzo and director David Anspaugh, a friend and fellow Indiana U. alum, believed in their script about a small-town high school hoops team that improbably makes it to the state finals. And after two years of shopping it around, they built enough backing to fund a bare-bones production budget of $6 million.

Still the skeptics persisted. Even Gene Hackman, who would be brilliant as comeback coach Norman Dale, was convinced the movie was a "career killer."

The naysayers were wrong, of course. "Hoosiers" made good money at the box office ($28 million) and earned two Oscar nominations -- for Dennis Hopper (Best Supporting Actor) and Jerry Goldsmith (Best Original Score). More than that, the flick became a feel-good movie phenomenon that continues to inspire.

The reason is authenticity. "Hoosiers" boasts a believable story line (because it was based on the 1954 Milan "Miracle" team, the smallest school to win Indiana's state crown); locations that looked like Indiana circa 1952 (because that's how rural Indiana looked in 1985); and a cast that looked like Indianans (because, outside the headliners, most roles were played by locals).

More than anything, the success of "Hoosiers" came down to the team itself. "For the movie to work," says Anspaugh, "we needed players, not actors. There's maybe only six minutes of basketball in a two-hour movie, but we needed each actor to be believable as a player and all of them to be believable as a team. There's no faking that."

Score one more for authenticity, because it turns out that the ultimate underdog movie was defined by actual underdogs. Here's what the Hickory Huskers have to say about "Hoosiers".


"WELCOME TO INDIANA BASKETBALL"

There's no agreement on how many hopefuls showed up for two days of auditions at the IUPUI gym in September 1985. Pizzo and Anspaugh say 400. Those who waited in line and finally won parts figure it was twice that.

Brad Long, a.k.a. Buddy: "I was 24 and had just finished college, older than they wanted, but I thought I could pass. When I got to the audition, the line was around the block. My father played at IU from '58 to '61, and Angelo had shagged balls for him. He gave my dad a small role, too."

Maris Valainis, a.k.a. Jimmy Chitwood: "People from the crew had spotted me at a gym before the audition and told me to come out. Turns out they had figured me for Jimmy, but I didn't know it. When I saw the line, I was about to leave and go back to my summer job painting houses. They saw me packing up and moved me to the front."

Steve Hollar, a.k.a. Rade: "My team, Warsaw, had won the state tournament two years before. I sank two free throws to win the final. I was a freshman playing at DePauw, and we got a memo from the SID about a movie auditioning guys 6'2'' and under, not too muscular. I went because an upperclassman, Phil Wendel, a Division III All-America, needed a ride, and I had a junky old car. There was a three-hour wait when we got there, but Tom Abernethy [former IU star hired as technical adviser] saw Phil, knew he was a real player and moved him to the front. Phil said I had to come with him because I was his ride. I got a part and he didn't."

Wade Schenck, a.k.a. Ollie: "My older brother tried out the first day and told me not to bother coming down. Shoot, I just wanted to get out of high school for a day. Plus, if I got a part I wouldn't have to work the farm for harvest."

David Neidorf, a.k.a. Everett: "I was the only one they brought from auditions in LA. I'd done some acting classes but never got beyond an audition. I was a runner in high school and started playing pickup only a few months before."


"FIVE PLAYERS ON THE FLOOR FUNCTOINING AS ONE SINGLE UNIT"

Pizzo and Anspaugh wanted to build team spirit, not just on the screen but also behind the scenes. So they put the Huskers in the cheapest hotel they could find, something akin to where a high school team on a tight budget might stay.

Long: "We were together 24/7 for more than two months, training and rehearsing. We had to call one another by our characters' names. Everybody on set did. It was like a season for a team."

Neidorf: "I was steeped in method acting so I carried a basketball around with me all the time. The other guys looked at me funny."

Schenck: "They put us in a crappy motel while all the stars stayed at a nice, expensive place. They're going to say I was the troublemaker, going out to bars or strip clubs, but it wasn't me who brought the BB guns and shot up the rooms."

Hollar: "We studied game film from the '50s. We'd spent all our lives learning to play one way, and then we had to start shooting a completely different way. No behind-the-back passes, no handchecking."

Valainis: "I was cut from my high school team four times, but I wasn't intimidated. I knew I could shoot with anybody."


"HE GOES, I GO"

Most of the Huskers had no idea of the stakes involved. Some had never heard of Hackman or Hopper. And none realized how nervous those behind the cameras were.

Pizzo: "It was a period piece, with costumes and vehicles to organize. We needed thousands of volunteers for crowd scenes. It rained 28 of 30 days. It felt like a looming disaster. Gene Hackman said it was a debacle; he wanted professional actors."

Anspaugh: "If one of the players got hurt, just a twisted ankle, we were in a lot of trouble. There was no Plan B."

Long: "Gene gave us acting lessons, but we got bored on the set and would play pranks to kill time. Once I got Kent Poole to tell Gene to ask me about my mother's dance lessons. When he did, I got all teary and said, 'That's not funny. My mother lost her legs in an accident!' Gene turned white. It was the best acting job I ever did."

Neidorf: "Things were different after Dennis Hopper arrived. First time we saw him was the scene when he came stumbling out on the court drunk. We were like, 'Whoa.' He had given up drinking before the film, but he hung out with us, going out to bars, playing poker, telling us stories about working with James Dean."

Schenck: "I played for L&M, which was ranked No. 1 in the state the year before. I had a hard time pretending to stink. In the scene where I sink the free throws, they wanted me to look bad, but I couldn't fake it. The granny shot wasn't in the script. The casting director, who didn't know anything about basketball, told me to try it underhand."


"MY TEAM IS ON THE FLOOR"

Film scenes are often shot out of sequence -- the climax, say, might even be shot on Day 1. Not "Hoosiers." The last time the Huskers were on the court was at the championship game, where all the team-building paid off.

Pizzo: "We had to try to fill Butler's field house, and it was a lot to ask thousands of people to be there through hours of shooting. So we brought in two of the top high school teams to play an exhibition, and we shot our game at halftime and after the final buzzer."

Valainis: "My old school, Bishop Chatard, was one of the teams playing."

Hollar: "For other games we ran plays, but it wasn't choreographed. The other teams didn't know what we were going to do. For the final, they were running out of time, so they put 30 minutes on the clock and just let us play. We hadn't trained for a run like that. We were gassed. After the end of the high school game, all that was left was the final shot."

Neidorf: "On the side, Maris was cold. Couldn't sink a thing. We thought we might be there until 4 a.m. The crowd could see it. They started to boo."

Pizzo: "Gene wanted him to move closer. He thought he'd never make the shot in the script."

Long: "They were running out of time. There's only so long you can keep people in the seats. And they were moving whole sections from one side of the stands to the other to make it look full. The plan was that when Jimmy took the shot, everyone would run onto the court, make or miss. If he missed, then they'd fix it in editing."

Valainis: "Everyone had a piece of advice, then they stopped talking to me. The casting director came up. He didn't know anything about basketball, but he said I was shooting differently, not looking at the basket. That was all it was. First take, I made it. I knew it was in from the time it left my hands. They did a second take. I made that, too. Then I walked past the Bishop Chatard coach who had cut me four times."


"THERE'S MORE TO THE GAME THAN SHOOTING"

Orion, the now-defunct studio that Pizzo and Anspaugh were working with, didn't believe in "Hoosiers", even though a test screening in California went well. But it was enough to give it another shot.

Pizzo: "A national release was riding on how we did in Indiana. People there were the toughest audience we'd have. They had to like it. The governor was at the premiere, and so was Bobby Plump [the real life Jimmy Chitwood who hit the game-winner for Milan in '54]. I was worried about Bobby Plump."

Neidorf: "I couldn't be at the premiere. I was off playing a grunt in Platoon."

Long: "That's when I found out that my best scene was cut, when Buddy asks the coach if he can rejoin the team after getting thrown out of the first practice. I still get asked all the time: 'How did you get back on the team?'"

Pizzo: "After the premiere, Bobby Plump came up to us and said, 'You nailed it.' If it was good enough for Bobby Plump, it was good enough for Indiana."


"I DON'T CARE WHAT THE SCOREBOARD SAYS. AT THE END OF THE GAME, IN MY BOOK, WE'RE GONNA BE WINNERS"

But even with Plump's blessing, Pizzo, Anspaugh and the cast had no idea what the critics would say or what impact "Hoosiers" would have on the rest of their lives.

Pizzo: "When the film came out, Orion didn't see it as Oscar-worthy. But we did. Orion refused to buy a week in LA, so we bought it ourselves. Then we got lucky. Variety and the LA Times gave it rave reviews. That led to an Oscar nomination for Dennis and another for the score. Gene might have been right: It could have killed our careers. As it turns out it, gave us a chance a few years later to do Rudy."

Neidorf: "Like a lot of sons, I have a complex relationship with my dad. He really connected with the redemptive part of the movie. When I told Dennis Hopper that I loved him, my father felt like I was telling him. This film brought us closer together."

Hollar: "We had thought everything had been cleared with the NCAA, but they ended up suspending me for three games. It didn't take away from the experience. I still go to parades and events in New Richmond [where the exteriors of Hickory were filmed] and Knightstown, where the old gym that was the Huskers' home court still stands. They have the state high school all-star game in that little gym, and if it weren't for "Hoosiers", it would have been torn down."

Valainis: "I ended up quitting the engineering program at Purdue and going out to Hollywood. I had some roles, but a few years later, I became a golf club pro."

Schenck: "In the movie, Ollie makes a speech, and he says indoor plumbing and school consolidation are two signs of progress. Well, my little school got consolidated a long time ago, so about the only reunions I get to are "Hoosiers" reunions. There seems to be one every year."

Pizzo: "Last time I saw the film was 10 years ago at one of those reunions."

Long: "Steve and Wade and I usually make it out. Brad's up in Decatur. Maris comes in sometimes from California. But Scott Summers [Strap] doesn't come out."

Valainis: "When we originally got together, Scott was a guy who liked to have fun. He'd have a beer or two. But he said to me: 'My girlfriend keeps me in line.' I knew she was religious."

Schenck: "I had gone to Sunday school with Scott when I was little. My father rented land from his father. I played in a league with him after "Hoosiers". I respect that he doesn't want to be involved. Just about the only time he came out to something was ... the funeral."


"WE'RE WAY PAST BIG-SPEECH TIME"

Every night, in arenas across the land, one scene from "Hoosiers" plays on the JumboTron. "Let's win this one for all the small schools that never had a chance to be here." The line belongs to Merle, played by Kent Poole.

Neidorf: "During filming, I spent a weekend with Kent's family on their farm. That community meant a lot to him -- the farmers down at the café every morning, the neighbors."

Schenck: "He lived just down the road from me. When I was a kid, my dad and I would watch him play at Western Boone. They went deep in state. One day in the fall of 2003, a neighbor told me that Kent had hung himself on his farm."

Hollar: "I always had a sense that the movie was Kent's second chance at something."

Long: "Kent was my roomie, and I stayed in touch with him over the years, on the phone every month or two, usually talking about some "Hoosiers" event coming up. But then [in 2003] I called him one night about getting together, and he said he couldn't make it. He always made it. He said that his marriage was in trouble. That there was a pending divorce. At the funeral, his wife later told me that everything had gone right for him. A Midas touch. He didn't know what to do when adversity hit. If he had gone to that "Hoosiers" event, maybe I could have talked to him and helped out. It's a great regret."

Pizzo: "We traded voice messages a few weeks before. He said there was something he wanted to send me. I checked the mail for a long time. Nothing ever came."


"I LOVE YOU GUYS"

Pizzo has a standing offer to do a sequel to "Hoosiers", but he vows it will never happen. The guys who played the Huskers have a pretty good sense of where their characters would be now.

Long: "I think Buddy would have ended up a lot like me. Working a long time, a whole lifetime, in a job. Staying close to home."

Hollar: "Rade would probably have left Indiana and tried something new. He was a risk-taker. Of course, I always thought I'd do the same, but I ended up back in Warsaw joining my father's dental practice."

Valainis: "I imagine that Jimmy would have stayed in Hickory and been a teacher and a coach. I couldn't see him doing what I did, going to California, trying acting, being a golf pro."

Schenck: "Ollie would be right where I am today, on the back of a tractor."

Long: "Merle would have been just like Kent Poole as I knew him. A serious, straight-arrow type of guy, a hardworking farmer in Hickory."

Gare Joyce is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.