On a Saturday afternoon in late January, I turn off Interstate 74 onto Indiana highway 101.
Wide, flat farm land stretches out from both sides of the two-lane road. Brown stubs of corn stalks dott the empty fields, once filled with six-foot green guardians of varieties of corn. Small farm houses appear every other mile, with kitchen lights burning and white wisps of smoke twirling from the chimneys.
Farm life has not changed much for these people during the last one hundred years. The sun and the seasons still set the schedule for their lives. With the harvest in the barns and planting not scheduled for months, they can now concentrate on their passion: high school basketball.
I took a journey to the small town of Milan to see an icon of Indiana high school basketball. As my dad used to tell me, all Indiana high schools, large and small, used to compete in one state tournament. Against all odds, the team from this tiny town defeated the big city team from Muncie to win the championship in 1954.
At the gym, a side door was open for visitors. A solitary player was on the court, practicing jump shots. “Milan Indians” was screen printed on his shorts.
“You guys win last night?” I asked.
“No sir, we should have,” he said. “We were just too slow.”
“Well, keep up the hard work,” I said, leaving him to his shooting.
Folks in Indiana live and breathe basketball every Friday night, a truth that was superbly illustrated in the film Hoosiers. Written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Anspaugh, the film stars Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper.
Based loosely on Milan’s run for the state championship, the film chronicles Hickory High School’s improbable victories against much larger schools.
But within the portrayal of last second victories, granny shots and picket fences, we find personal stories of faith, courage and redemption that inspire our own lives.
“Each of the principal characters was stuck (living their lives) in a certain way. They needed to get beyond where they were (but) were unable to do it on their own,” said Pizzo in the film’s commentary on the Collector’s Edition DVD. “They were each provided an opportunity to move on, either by another individual or by a group like the team or the community.”
Norman Dale, banished from coaching because he struck one of his players in Ithaca, NY, had spent the past twelve years in the Navy. He was given another chance to coach by his friend Cletus, the principal of Hickory High School.
The townspeople of Hickory, who took tremendous interest in every detail of the basketball team, were stuck believing that outside shots and zone defense were the best strategies. Coach Dale, modeled somewhat after Bobby Knight, showed them that a different strategy of hard work, a deliberate offense and man-to-man defense can win more games.
Shooter, the town drunk and father of a player, bummed change for a living but still remembered much about “the greatest game ever invented.” Coach Dale gave him a chance to help the team, despite the concern of the towns people and Shooter’s son.
Jimmy Chitwood, the best player in town, avoided the game while he mourned the passing of the old coach who was like a father to him. When he saw the stern, tough love tactics instilled into the team by Coach Dale, he returned to the game he loved.
Myra Fleener, who looked after Jimmy, was afraid that he would only know success in Hickory and be stuck there. She herself was stuck in Hickory, caring for her family.
In a scene deleted near the end of the film because of time restraints, we learn that she planned to leave Hickory and finish graduate school in Chicago. “When I gave you a chance,” Myra says to Coach Dale, “it made me realize what I had to do for myself.”
At one time or another, we all need to get “unstuck” from bad habits, sinful ways or even the apathy that creeps into our routines and daily schedules.
These last few weeks of Lent are a great time to reflect on how we are stuck and what we can do to live freely again. It is clear that we can’t do it alone.
In the Gospel of John (9:1-41), we read how Jesus cured the man who had been born blind. But the Pharisees, stuck in their traditions and laws, could not recognize the obvious power of God. They were only concerned about how Jesus had performed this miracle during the Sabbath.
In Hoosiers, redemption comes at the end of the film as a coach wins the big game, a father reunites with his son, a star player hits the winning shot, a teacher gives herself a chance to grow, and the town enjoys a success unlike any they’ve ever known.
In our lives, redemption comes from our Savior, who wipes our sins away with his suffering, death, and resurrection on Easter Sunday. We only have to let him into our hearts to free us from our sinful past, so that we can rejoice in a new life with him.
First published in the March 23, 2007 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2007 Christopher Fenoglio