The NBA season starts tonight, and I couldn’t be more excited.
To get us all pumped up for the start of a new season, HBO showed Hoosiers today. It’s a wonderful movie, an old favorite, about the Indiana high school basketball tournament, and also, more generally, about the hold the sport of basketball has on the state of Indiana, where I was raised. I’ve seen it many times, of course, but still pick up something new from it every time I see it. It was made in 1986, so 31 years ago. And, although it follows the fictional Hickory High team of 1951, it’s actually about the unlikely Milan championship in 1954, the smallest high school to ever win the state tourney. Which means that the movie was made 35 years after the events that it tells. So we end up with three interesting snapshots of basketball historically. Basketball in the early 1950s, in the mid-80s, and today.
Although the movie is nostalgic in tone, a paean to basketball played between small town high schools, where everyone in town came to all the home games, then drove through wintry country roads to away games, where all the town fathers gathered in the barber shop to reprise each win or loss–and the players got free haircuts, it’s also about an important turning point in basketball history. Anthony Pizzo, who wrote Hoosiers, and David Anspaugh, who directed it, are both from Indiana, sports nuts and basketball fans of the first order, and one of the marvelous things about their movie is the details.
This time through, I noticed Rade (Steve Hollar), and his one footed outside shot. Hank Luisetti is often credited as the first player to shoot a jump shot, but if you look at archival footage of his game, he really shot more like Rade; a long shot, with one foot ahead of the other, shot two handed. He did jump, so technically it’s a jump shot, but the smooth one handed shot with which Jimmy (Maris Valainis) wins so many games is the shot used mostly now, shot with shoulders square to the hoop, bouncing off both feet. Watch footage of Ken Sailors shot, a few years after Luisetti, and he’s shooting what we now regard as the classic jump shot. And that’s Jimmy’s shot as well, and it’s deadly. So this movie figured, an average player would shoot using the old fashioned Luisetti form, but a better player would use the cutting-edge Sailors shot. They got that right, is what I’m saying. I’m in awe.
So, as the jump shot revolutionized the game, so did a far more important factor, as basketball (slowly, reluctantly) integrated, as the best African-American players changed the way the game is played. In the movie, the Hickory team we follow (based on Milan High’s ’54 state champions), plays South Bend Central for the state title. And the South Bend team features four Black starters. In actuality, Milan played against Indianapolis Attucks High, starring the young Oscar Robertson.
Oscar Robertson was the greatest talent of his day, and one of the greatest players who ever lived. And when he finished high school, he desperately wanted to play college ball at Indiana University. The IU coach was Branch McCracken, once a superb coach who, sadly, allowed himself and his attitudes to be overtaken by time. He had his quota of black players, he told Robertson, and could not recruit another. Nowadays, of course, that attitude doesn’t just seem racist, it seems colossally, monumentally stupid. Hickory beats South Bend in the movie, and Milan beat Attucks, but those wins came to seem more and more anomalous. Today, basketball is played by, well, anyone who wants to play it. (The Utah Jazz, this season, will feature players from 9, count ’em, 9 different countries. That’s amazing).
The ’80s, when the movie was made, were the time of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and the transformation of basketball in the national consciousness, and the rise of the NBA. Hoosiers helped; the best basketball movie ever, coming in the midst of the game’s big leap forward. And Bird, the white Hoosier kid, and Magic, the black kid from Michigan, became, in time, great friends, and great ambassadors for the game. And Bird, today, runs the Indiana Pacers, and Magic, the LA Lakers. Both bad teams, but that won’t last.
Most important, the game has changed, and entirely for the better. Watching Hoosiers, you can see the limitations of old style basketball. With the addition of a shot clock and a three point line (both, thanks to the upstart ABA), the game is more about floor spacing, about outside shooting, about defending passing lanes and opening up corner threes. The Utah Jazz, my team, meanwhile, thrive on the old fashioned virtues of strong defense, and team-oriented, state-of-the-art pick-and-roll, drive and dish modern basketball.
So do the Golden State Warriors, and therein lies the rub; the Jazz will not compete for a championship this year, or anytime soon. And this season carries little suspense. The Warriors play the game the way its supposed to be played. They’re an amazing defensive powerhouse, and their offense is about passing and spacing and screening and shooting, the way God intended. But they also happen to have 3 of the 8 best players in the world. They have the right approach and the right coaching and the right attitudes, and they also feature Kevin Durrant, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green. The Jazz, meanwhile, feature Rudy Gobert, a monstrously good defender, who can’t shoot. We’re not going to beat the Warriors, and neither will anyone else.
I don’t care. I’m feeling very Zen about the Jazz chances. I’ll be fine if they make the playoffs. My evenings are taken for the next six months. I’m excited. I’m thrilled. Basketball is back, and all is right with the world.