Just last week a number of us from WBKO, in conjunction with our sister station WKYT from Lexington, Kentucky, worked the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Girls Basketball final at Diddle Arena here at Western Kentucky University. We were live on the air, as they used to say, and the girls put on quite a show.
It’s a game we’ve covered for a number of years now, and it never fails the electricity test. For pure, unadorned athletic excitement, few sporting events surpass high school championship games. The girls are ferociously competitive, the games blindingly fast. Someone hits the deck, they bounce right up and start running. No “Stanislavski” as the late great Johnny Most (longtime announcer for the Boston Celtics) would say; no acting, no histrionics. All business. They go to the line, a couple of bounces, and up it goes. No high-fives, no dramatic pauses for the cameras. Just basketball. The only remunerations involved are bragging rights which, in basketball-mad Kentucky, is plenty. It’s a beautiful thing.
KHSAA Girls basketball tournament at Western Kentucky University's Diddle arena.
Starting this week, the NCAA Tournament exerts its annual gravitational pull on sports fans of all stripes, but especially those who revere Dr. Naismith’s game. It might be barely recognizable to the old Canadian P.E. instructor who invented basketball, but his game, over the next few weeks, will cause the hopes of millions to rise and plummet, money to be won and lost, and dreams to flourish or die on the court as the confetti flies.
Dr. James Naismith, inventor of basketball. The early days of girl's basketball bears little resemblance to the game's current version.
Hollywood has taken notice. The list of basketball films grows every year. Most are middling, some are simply execrable, but a few have made top ten lists of the best sports films ever made. Two of these are Hoosiers (1986), a film loosely based on a spectacular run by a small, rural team from the tiny town of Milan, Indiana, from unknowns to state champions, and Hoop Dreams (1994), a documentary look at five years in the lives of two inner city kids from Chicago who believed basketball to be their ticket to the NBA and a path away from indigence and violence.
Hoosiers (1986) Hoop Dreams (1994)
Hoosiers, written and directed by a couple of Indiana natives, Angelo Pizzo and David Anspaugh, projects a tangible feeling of locale and period authenticity, even shooting the final game in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Butler University site of the original championship game in 1954. Local extras populate the stands in period garb and the players all adhere to the style of basketball play in the mid fifties. No jams, no fast breaks (although some Kentucky teams ran the fast break at that time, it was hardly a routine play) and few jump shots as most players still felt comfortable using set shots. Jump shots weren’t even that common in the NBA until the mid-fifties. Free throws were done by some players, with an underhand toss. And no shot clock. Stall-ball was a common tactic in those days and in the film, the coach, played by Gene Hackman, insists on a minimum of four passes before any shot (this apparently was a not a rule of the real Milan coach, Marvin Wood, but was added by the filmmakers as a nod to Indiana legend Bobby Knight). In fact, the Milan shooting ace, Bobby Plump (Jimmy Chitwood in the movie) got his hands on the ball towards the end of the championship game and held onto it for four minutes before firing up a 14 footer as time expired to give Milan the win at 32 – 30. In the film, the score is about ten points higher but the shot is taken from the exact spot on the floor in the same arena as the original game.
The film makes a number of substantive changes to the Milan story. The coach in the film is 50 and was given a lifetime suspension from coaching college ball for punching a player. He is unmarried and harbors a fierce temper. The real coach, Marvin Wood, was 26, married with two children, a man of moderate temperament who often suited up to practice with the boys. The assistant coach is the town drunk and an embarrassment to his son, one of the players; the townspeople hold a dramatic meeting to decide the fate of their coach, none of which happened in Milan, Indiana, during that season in 1954.
Milan, Indiana remembers their championship year. The final basket in the film was shot from the exact spot on the floor at Hinkle Fieldhouse as the winning shot put up by Milan star Bobby Plump in 1954 (right).
Why the changes? Dramatic license, according to the writer. The boys were all good kids, there weren’t any conflicts and nothing much of interest off the court. It doesn’t hurt the movie that much. In fact, the changes do allow for character development and the drama doesn’t feel, as in so many of these films, as padding added to fill the time between the action scenes. The film also benefits from Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score, which received an Oscar nomination. I am not typically a fan of Mickey Mouse music: a score filled with musical cues that tell you what to think and how to feel--oh-oh. Big emotional scene here; time to ladle on the musical syrup--and Hoosiers has its share of big moment music. But there is no denying that a good score in a film like this adds immensely to its effectiveness and entertainment value (think of Rocky or Chariots of Fire).
Film composer Jerry Goldsmith, early in his career.
Goldsmith, one of Hollywood's best composers, was a seasoned pro by 1986. He received 17 Oscar nominations for such films as Chinatown, The Sand Pebbles, several Star Trek movies, and an Oscar for his work on The Omen. In 1954, when Milan High School was making history in Indiana, Goldsmith was writing the scores for network television dramas for the Climax Mystery Theater where he worked alongside screen notables such as writer Rod Serling, director John Frankenheimer, and actresses Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire. His music added undeniably to the success of Hoosiers at the box office.
Despite the changes for the film, the real story offered its own sub-plots and is rife with intriguing bits of basketball trivia. First, unlike Hickory, the fictional team, Milan didn’t come out of nowhere. The year before they lost in the state semi-finals to the team, South Bend Central, they play in the finals in the film. They returned four of the five starters from that team. The team they beat in 1954 in the state quarterfinals, Crispus Attucks High School, had a young forward named Oscar Robertson, who went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NBA. The Big O would return with Crispus Attucks in 1955 winning the state championship, the first all-black team to do so. The next year, 1956, they won again, the first undefeated team in the history of Indiana high school basketball. That would have made quite a story as well. The filmmakers didn’t overlook an opportunity to make at least a passing nod to the Crispus Attucks team. The coach of the opposing team in the film, South Bend Central, was played by Ray Crowe, who coached Robertson and his Crispus Attucks teammates to back to back championships.
If Hoosiers contained many fictional elements, Hoop Dreams is as real as an eviction notice. It follows two inner-city Chicago boys across five years as they move from the cracked asphalt playgrounds of the city to an elite private school. The school scouted them (as eighth graders) for their powerhouse basketball program that had produced NBA star Isaiah Thomas. I have never understood why documentaries are given such short shrift when it comes to the habits of the movie-going public. There is as much drama, pathos, and emotion in Hoop Dreams as you can see in hundreds of hours of lesser fictional films. The boys, William Gates and Arthur Agee, fight to hold on to their dreams of NBA stardom despite family problems (a father battling drug addiction), lack of social wherewithal (there are few black faces in the school they attend, and they deal with a daily three hour commute), and small everyday battles like keeping the lights on; a riveting story, not just of basketball, but of human nature, the social structures that inform and direct our lives, hope, love, and ambition.
Hoop Dreams follows Arthur Agee and William Gates on a journey from Chicago playgrounds to an elite private school that had produced NBA legend Isiah Thomas.
Directed by Steve James, the film takes an unusual step for most documentaries by using an adaptation on the Cinema Verite style, a type of filmmaking popularized by Dziga Vertov in the 20s and 30s and later used to great effect by American filmmakers such as Richard Leacock, DA Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers.
Cinema Verite (truthful filmmaking) requires a small crew, usually no more than two or three, who can almost disappear, allowing the camera to act as a silent witness to actual events. My problem with this premise, the idea that the camera can disappear, will be apparent to anyone who has ever pointed a camera at someone. The camera changes everything. I don’t care how small your crew is and how silent your equipment. People respond differently knowing that they are being filmed.
Famed American Documentarians Albert and David Maysles. Jean-Luc Godard considered Albert Maysles the finest cameraman in America. D.A. Pennebaker gets a close-up of Bob Dylan. The Maysles and Pennebaker worked in the Cinema Verite style.
Now and then, in moments of extreme stress, some people will forget about the camera—for a while. But typically, they play to it. Steve James, in Hoop Dreams, adopts a more forthright version of Cinema Verite, sometimes referred to as the Rouch/Morin method after two French documentarians. Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin decided not to hide their camera or crew. They and the filmmaking process become part of the film which feels more truthful, as a style, and often more interesting, forcing all participants to acknowledge the production of the film and to address this fact as an immediate and present element in their life at the time of the filming.
For Steve James and his crew, this means taking a more active role in the lives of William, Edgar, and their families. The style feels much less voyeuristic and offers a more organic and engaging experience for the viewer which magnifies our emotional involvement these boys as they pursue their dream.
Hoop Dreams examines closely not just the technical, strategic, and physical aspect of sport, but attempts to locate it within a social and psychological context. This process of close examination becomes much more than just “basketball” for these boys and their families, and as with any adventure, there are unforeseen consequences and endings--as in the external world--that are not always happy.
And that brings us, before we leave, to one basketball ending that was quite happy, and not at all fictional, involving a team from a tiny, rural town in western Kentucky almost sixty years ago. Although no feature film has been made of the boys from Cuba, Kentucky, who won the state basketball championship by beating much larger Manual High School out of Louisville in 1952, their story has all the necessary ingredients for an outstanding film and evokes as much emotion as Hoosiers.
In 1947, the high school in Cuba, Kentucky, a small rural community in the Jackson Purchase region of western Kentucky, hired Jack Story as principal and basketball coach. Soon after arriving, Coach Story began encouraging his youngest players—eighth graders—to develop a particular style of play. He showed them films of the Harlem Globetrotters and, according to Howie Crittenden, a star on that team now in the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, asked them if they thought they could perform the same kind of magic--dribbling, ball handling, passing, and improvisational style.
Thus began the training of the core of a team that would make it not once, but twice, to the state championship game. They lost in 1951 to a strong team from Clark County, but as disappointing as that loss was, they had long expected 1952 to be their year. According to Marianne Walker, author of When Cuba Conquered Kentucky, a book documenting the Cuba Cubs’ journey to basketball nirvana, one of those core players, Jimmie Webb, as an eighth grader, had taken out his knife and carved “Cuba Cubs – 1952 State Champions” into the underside of his desk. They did not lack confidence.
The Cubs, very much like the Milan team depicted in Hoosiers, came back the year after a disappointing loss with four of their five starters, and made an historic run at the title. They learned their lessons from Coach Story’s films and his lessons in ball control. They played a wide open, razzle-dazzle game that stunned most opponents. They took the court to the strains of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and put on an exhibition for the fans. Crittenden modeled his style of ball handling after Globetrotter star Marques Haynes who, it was said, could dribble a ball six times in one second.
Cuba Cubs star Howie Crittenden learned basketball magic by watching films of Harlem Globetrotters great Marques Haynes.
The Cubs returned to the finals in 1952 and beat a powerful DuPont Manual High School from Louisville. It was a true David and Goliath story. Manual had the largest high school enrollment in Kentucky and few schools with basketball programs were smaller than Cuba. And much like the Milan team, the Cuba Cubs controlled the ball during their championship season. Fancy dribbling and crisp passing allowed them to freeze out opponents, allowing them time to take percentage shots. Their return to Memorial Coliseum in 1952 ended in an historic championship game still considered one of the great games in Kentucky basketball, a tradition that has seen more than its share of outstanding match-ups. And a story that would no doubt have made Hollywood history had Hoosiers not been produced.
The boys who formed the core of the Cuba Cubs were spotted by their coach when they were still eighth graders, much like William Gates and Arthur Agee were scouted at the same age. But unlike the boys from Hoop Dreams, the Cubs' ending was a happy and memorable one.
The players in the films and in the real life story of the Cuba Cubs remind us that sport can be a wonderful part of life, but it is as a catalyst for connections to others, teammates, family, friends and community, that make it truly sublime.
Special thanks to Bruce White for his encyclopedic knowledge of Kentucky sports, especially basketball. He knows whereof he speaks.
Click below for an interview with Howie Crittendon about Cuba's championship season of 1952.