“Hoosiers” and Indiana basketball made me believe

Even now, I can picture the poster in the basement of my childhood home. The red uniforms stood out brightly against the fake wood paneling of the wall, as did the shock of thick white hair on the most imposing man on the poster: coach Bob Knight.

It was a poster of the Indiana University (IU) men’s basketball team. One of my parents is an IU alum, but more than that, we were all born in Indiana, flat land of cornfields and quarries, churches and schoolhouses, often the punchline of other states’ jokes. It was home to legendary basketball programs at both the college and high school levels.

A good thing the town has is basketball. Sometimes, it feels like the only thing.

The IU men’s team just lost to Miami in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32, ending its basketball season this year. But for so many seasons, IU has and continues to dominate. What is it exactly about small towns that give rise to such big dreams, as well as such driven talent?

The 1986 film “Hoosiers” provides a window. A staple of my youth, I watched it instead of cartoons. It was “Ted Lasso” before “Ted Lasso,” a near Bible for rural Indiana living, where for so long, one of the only ways to distinguish yourself in the eyes of the rest of the nation was on a court or a field, and one of the only ways out was to achieve glory there.

James Wright’s 1959 poem “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio” is about high school football and the neighboring state Ohio, but some of the lines could easily be about IU basketball, with mothers “dying for love” and “proud fathers” whose sons “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” It’s the hope of a small town, placed heavily on very young shoulders.

Sports remind us of youth and the potential we all might have had, a potential relived vicariously in athletes often not even old enough to vote. As Barbara Hershey’s character, teacher Myra Fleener, says in “Hoosiers”: “Every game my bother ever played was the most important thing that ever happened to this family.”

Written by Indiana-raised Angelo Pizzo, who also penned “Rudy,” and directed by Indiana-born David Anspaugh in his directorial debut, “Hoosiers” tells the story of a small-town Indiana boys’ basketball team who makes it to the state championship in a “barn burner” game. The film, starring Gene Hackman and Dennis Hooper, was inspired by the true story of the 1954 Milan High School champions.

“This town doesn’t like change much,” Hackman, as new and controversial coach Norman Dale, learns when he takes over coaching. Like Ted decades after him, though much more explosive than the genial-to-a-fault character, Norman is doubted, challenged and mocked by players and men — mostly men — of the town alike. (The film and its title, referring to the IU mascot and the name for someone from Indiana, get a shout-out this season in “Ted Lasso.”) But while Norman doesn’t tape up a “Believe” sign in the dreary locker room, he gets the town on his side — and rooting for their own.

Because a good thing the town has is basketball. Sometimes, it feels like the only thing, a positive association, especially for places often connected with negativity. Witness the outpouring of love and support for Joe Burrow, who was raised where my son was born, an Appalachian town previously most often in the national news (frequently in broadly-painted, clichéd stories) for poverty.

2023 Indiana University basketball teamTamar Bates #53 of the Indiana Hoosiers recovers the ball against the Miami Hurricanes during the second round of the 2023 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament held at MVP Arena on March 19, 2023 in Albany, New York. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The dream is to leave. The lifelong dream is to come home someday and return the favor of help.

Sports are a positive story, a wholesome story and a universal one. Perhaps the rest of the world can’t understand the particular striving of the boys in “Hoosiers” surrounded by farmland, processing stalks of sorghum in one scene, which my dad’s family also grew. (He said that school in his rural Indiana town would let out for planting and harvest every year.) But anyone can understand wanting more, which is one of the great ironies of small-town sports. Doing well can be mean getting out, leaving that beloved community that raised and supported you. The dream is to leave. The lifelong dream is to come home someday and return the favor of help.

“Way back where I come from we never mean to bother / We don’t like to make our passions other peoples’ concern,” Dar Williams sings in the lonesome tune “Iowa (Travelling III).” And though the song is about a different misunderstood flyover state, she could have been singing about the state of my birth and the oft-mocked ways of any Midwesterners, really. We take forever saying goodbye, and we don’t let our emotions get the better of us — ever. We bottle it inside. Sports are a time to get it out, a socially acceptable venue in which to not only scream, shout and weep, but also aspire.

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“I thought everybody in Indiana played basketball,” Coach Norman Dale says to his players upon first meeting the then-small team. “Sir, most do,” one of the athletes replies.

I think of my dad, aunts and uncles playing in the dust, on an old netless rim attached to the barn at my grandparents’ farm, how my sister and I tried to join, still too short to make a basket without assistance. So many Indiana houses, no matter how small or humble they look, have hoops. And so many kids spend their twilights there still hoping and shooting and trying again until the night falls.

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