Encounter proves movie ‘Hoosiers’ can build hope, change lives

By David Carlson

“Ah, you’re Hoosiers!” That was the greeting we received from Dominic, a Native American artist, when we visited the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico last month. But instead of Dominic proceeding to ask the question we from Indiana are so frequently asked — “what exactly is a Hoosier?” — Dominic wanted to talk about the film “Hoosiers.”

An hour later, my wife and I left Dominic’s studio with a renewed sense of the power of film and the power of sport to change lives. Dominic’s story is one I hope Angelo Pizzo, the writer of “Hoosiers,” will one day hear.

Dominic was astonished that “Hoosiers” was filmed, in part, near Franklin and that several Franklin College students were extras in the film’s crowd scene. He also was fascinated to hear that Franklin College had awarded Angelo Pizzo an honorary degree and that Mr. Pizzo had shared with the college community the rocky story of how “Hoosiers” became a movie.

But for my wife, Kathy, and me, it was Dominic’s story about the movie that we’ll never forget. Dominic was a teenager at the time when “Hoosiers” came out and when the movie became, in his estimation, the most-watched film across the entire Indian nation.

“We all identified with these guys from a backwater town who find themselves playing for the state championship,” Dominic explained. “As Indian teenagers, we felt we were those guys. We knew what it was like to have little but basketball in our lives.”

Dominic explained that in the wake of the movie, Native American teenagers all over the country did what he and his friends did — they nailed an old tire to the side of a house and made a ball out of scraps of material. “You couldn’t dribble the ball, but we learned to shoot.” When Dominic entered high school, he found not just the standard four or five guys interested in basketball, but now 10 to 15. “All because of Native American kids watching ‘Hoosiers,’” Dominic explained.

The longer Dominic talked about the film, the more we realized that he saw basketball not just as a pastime or a sport, but something that gave hope at the time to Native American teenagers. I couldn’t help but think of the frighteningly high suicide rate among young people who live on reservations today.

But Dominic also wanted to hear what we knew about the film. We shared Angelo Pizzo’s account of how the film was almost not made. Pizzo wrote the film script in grad school and shared it with his advisor in the hope that the advisor would encourage him in the project. But the advisor told him it was a terrible script, one that Mr. Pizzo should destroy. Worse yet, the advisor told Pizzo that he had no future as a screenwriter.

The feedback devastated Mr. Pizzo, and he hid the script of “Hoosiers” in the back of his closet and forgot about it. When, years later, his wife came upon the script when she was cleaning, he told her to ignore it, the script being simply a bitter memory. Instead, she read the script and told her husband she thought it was brilliant. With that encouragement, Pizzo risked showing the script to a filmmaker who shared his wife’s enthusiasm.

The rest is history. It was only after the film became a massive success that Pizzo’s advisor confessed that he knew the script was excellent, but he couldn’t stand a student achieving what he’d not been able to achieve.

Dominic was moved by our story even as we were moved by his. Native Americans know all too well the rejection that Pizzo experienced. They know how it feels to have dreams stepped on by others.

But in Dominic, we met a person who hadn’t lost hope. As we said goodbye, we understood that Dominic inspires other artists even as Pizzo, a filmmaker from Indiana, inspired him.

Perhaps you have or you know someone who has a project gathering dust in the closet, either the closest of a house or the closet of the mind. Might there not be people in your own town or halfway around the world who are waiting for that very story, that film, that piece of music, or that piece of art to transform their lives?

David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.