People have been trying to make the next Hoosiers for two decades now, but not everybody can figure out why that 1986 paean to small-town virtues, inflexible coaching and the purest jump shot in basketball history is still more fun than almost any sports movie that followed it. I’m here to help.
After repeated viewings at every birthday party I attended in junior high school and sporadic reunions since then, it’s clear that Hoosiers’ generational appeal boils down to atmosphere, attitude and anachronism. From the long conversations to the sterile houses to the very paint on the barns, the filmmakers put us inside the way it felt to live and play during a cold Indiana winter when nothing else matters but high-school basketball.
The movie hangs on Gene Hackman, a disgraced college coach sticking to his unbending dedication to teamwork, fundamentals and awkward makeouts with sullen spinster teachers. That strict focus'and its eventual reward'might not be current, but it’s strangely irresistible and logical to people who encountered it while playing youth sports; it’s always fun to see your dad in a movie. And getting that reward is augmented by the anachronistic charm of the haircuts and flat sneakers and satiny warmup suits, which are no less thrilling than that victory in the state-championship game.
Hoosiers has been the basic aesthetic template for almost every serious sports movie since then. The story arcs vary less than the arcs of Jimmy Chitwood’s shots, but good sports movies still add elements to the mix: Friday Night Lights’ social commentary, Rudy’s Notre Dame mythology, or Kurt Russell’s wildly underrated performance in Miracle. Even Seabiscuit and Cinderella Man should give it up to Hoosiers. The bad ones go wrong in more directions than I’ve got space, but basically add all manner of Hollywood cheating into their emotionally truncated screenplays: the execrable Remember the Titans, or the middling Coach Carter and Varsity Blues.
Which brings us to Glory Road, director James Gartner’s retelling of Texas Western’s 1966 NCAA men’s basketball championship won by the first team to field a starting lineup of five black players in the title game. Though you know exactly what’s coming from the opening scenes, it’s a fundamentally sound film, largely because of its respect for the Hoosiers ethos'from the meticulous re-creations of ’60s life in El Paso to the stubborn ethics of coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas, eating up a role originally marked for Ben Affleck).
The new coach drags his young family to the west corner of Texas, where Haskins decides he needs better players. The requisite team-building and -bonding scenes are solid, mostly because of the intriguing current of racial tension that’s got much more sophistication than in overproducer Jerry Bruckheimer’s last sports movie, Remember the Titans, when the players were written exactly like mismatched cops forced to work together to catch the psychopathic drug-dealing criminal that is the state championship.
Derek Luke, who played hard-luck running back Boobie Miles in Friday Night Lights, carries the cast of players as star Bobby Joe Hill, but the film lags on its off-the-court tautologies and token complications until the tournament and Texas Western’s eventual title date with Kentucky and its legendary coach, Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight), whose personal racism is widely debated and won’t be resolved in this film. For all its significance as a social chronicle of a huge moment in sports history, Glory Road actually spends much more time on the details than the big picture (racism = bad, hard work = good). The on-court action is fun to watch, despite the behind-the-back passes and dunks from a Texas Western team that mostly played that boring, ball-control game of the ’60s. And there’s a genuine thrill at the end of this Road, even without many surprises along the way.