I was thinking about Hoosiers yesterday and I realized I didn’t like it. Set aside the mawkish and sentimental way the story is presented, the real problem is that the basketball is bad. Bad in a specific sense: it promotes a narrative of the game that just isn’t so; moreover, its story contradicts its own point, though this isn’t really acknowledged, which gives people a wrong idea of the game. (Or perhaps people always had these wrong ideas and a movie like Hoosiers just reinforces it. These cultural-art relationships are difficult to entangle. At any rate, its idea of the game is wrong.)
Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale character is the kind of coach who in real life would solemnly intone the need to “play the game the right way,” as if there were only one way to win the game. Dale insists on such rules as “four passes before a shot” and has such lines as: “I've seen you guys can shoot but there's more to the game than shooting. There's fundamentals and defense” and “Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit: team, team, team - no one more important that the other.”
Dale’s last line encapsulates what might be called the conservative philosophy of the game: it’s a team game, goddamnit, and don’t forget it. In service of the team game, you need passing, you need everyone subsuming his identity to one singular, staid authority: the coach. And shooting? Who cares—it’s all about “defense and fundamentals.”
Like any decent philosophy it has its high points. But it’s worth noting that very few successful real-life basketball teams have functioned in an essentially egalitarian way on the offensive end while being punishers on the defensive end: the ’69-’70 Knicks, which you’ve heard about a few times; the ’04 Pistons; and an underrated example, the ’08 Xavier and UCLA teams. (Xavier eventually got pounded by UCLA. Xavier that year was a highly fun team for the cognoscenti, relying as they did alternately on a post-up guard, a mobile big man, and lots of incisive passing. I suspect Norman Dale would have approved. UCLA that year remains one of my favorite teams ever [at least, of the ones I don’t actively root for], and it’s a shame they didn’t win that year. But UCLA that year mostly relied on Love and Collison, with Westbrook in a supporting role, so they don’t fit in as well with the three preceding examples. Still, I suspect Norman Dale would have approved.)
Dale’s four-passes-before-a-shot rule is monumentally dumb to anyone who’s watched the game, even a little bit: does Dale think that fast breaks should always feature four passes? (More likely, Dale does not approve of fast breaks.) That might seem to be a cheap shot, but there are plenty of halfcourt possessions that feature one, incisive good pass…or none at all. Passing isn’t an end, it’s a tool. And when it comes to basketball, obsessing with the use of one tool or another is going to get you in to trouble: if you only want to use a hammer, what happens when you have to deal with a screw?
It’s telling that Dale doesn’t even get his own team right. Jimmy Chitwood is an Indianan cross between Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant: quiet, almost sullen, but ballsy on the court on the offensive end, and with the confidence to say, “I’ll make it” in reference to the final shot.
Of course if Dale were consistent to his principles, he wouldn’t guarantee the final shot to Jimmy. He’d stick to his system to produce the best shot. And (this hypothetical version of) Dale would have a point here: remember Celtics-Lakers last night? Remember how many times the offensives for each team would devolve into an iso-game for the “last shots”, usually featuring a midrange jumper (which as we all know is the least efficient shot in the game)? This is all too common in all levels of basketball: it’s giving into the understandable impulse that your best player must get the last shot. But it’s using the wrong logic: the goal is to get the best shot, not the best player the shot. The reason your best player is the best is usually because he can create high-quality shots for himself, but nevertheless, overreliance on this ability means another stepback 17-footer. Success rates for these “last shot” situations are incredibly low, which makes little to no sense: what, logically, is different about this situation than any other? The formal constraints are often the same; it’s just the psychological approach that changes. I hate the emphasis on running down the clock to get the last shot—think about getting a good shot; that’s it. But very few players and teams have the courage to just play normally in this situation; Norman Dale, a fictional character no less, is no different.
If Dale’s analysis of the game is essentially conservative—he extols the Calvinist virtues of hard work and defense and community with a proper authority (i.e. him)—it’s worth contrasting his view of the game to the liberal view. The liberal view of the game generally celebrates the creativity and power of an individual player to improve the conditions of the game; celebrates a fast, free-flowing game that places a premium on quick decision-making; thinks of defense as one element among many. I’m basically a liberal on the game, and as I’ve noted Dale makes a concession to the liberal view by empowering Chitwood. But (it appears) he keeps the old turgid offense: in real life Chitwood would probably be contained by aggressive ball-denial in the halfcourt. The only thing to do would be to speed up the game and let Chitwood create in transition (Chitwood bombing three-pointers in transition sounds like fun, doesn’t it?) Which, by the way, would be full liberal. Contrary to what you might think, conservatives rule the game of basketball: hell, Paul Westhead, the Guru of Go, got fired after leading the Lakers to a championship because (and this seems incredible) Magic Johnson was uncomfortable with playing fast. So the liberals—wanting to have everyone playing creatively and loose—don’t really win out.
If anything, basketball demonstrates the messiness of applying any ideology dogmatically. The pure conservative view of the game and the pure liberal view of the game is rarely implemented and even more rarely successful. What you have left is a mix: not one of those great mixes and mélanges of ideas that characterizes so much of successful innovation, but something more like slushy, dirty snow—a congealed mass of old ideas. Why does LeBron play for a slow-paced team? Why do teams wait eight seconds before starting a set sometimes? Why do we create offensive systems that (seem to) waste one-fifth or more of its starters? It’s so hard to get anything like what your ideas demand, and that futility allows people to argue fruitlessly about what might be best if only it could be. Meanwhile basketball keeps on going on, messily.