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December 06, 2001

"Hoosiers" captures madness
By Dan Patrick

March 1
Contracts are out of control. Baseball players are complaining they are underpaid. NFL free agency has gone haywire. In hockey, the NHL's MVP has a broken forearm, Eric Lindros can't get back in the game and Mario Lemieux's bad back is acting up.

Keith Smart
Indiana's Keith Smart launches a shot past Syracuse's Howard Triche for the basket that gave Indiana a 74-73 victory and the 1987 national championship.
But, amid all the morass, we have officially entered the best month on the sports calendar. I could set the stage for March's onslaught of college basketball excitement by giving you my bubble teams or my Final Four picks. But you don't need to listen to all the basketball experts or watch all the games or analyze all the results and box scores to prepare for March Madness.

No, there's a better way. Simply sit back and enjoy the movie "Hoosiers" -- the best basketball movie ever made, with apologies to Robby Benson in "One on One."

"To sleep: perchance to dream; aye, there's the rub," Shakespeare wrote in "Hamlet." And as the ability to dream was the rub for "Hoosiers," it can also be for the NCAA Tournament.

When you get to March Madness, you hope life will imitate art. Art has a way of ending on a happy note. We believe the characters and fall in love with them and the story. It's all about being romanced or seduced. And to me, "Hoosiers" is the ultimate art form for what we are about to experience.

"Hoosiers" was filmed in Indiana in 1985 and came out in 1986. The following year Indiana won the NCAA Tournament, beating Syracuse on the Keith Smart jumper in the final seconds. In the movie, Jimmy Chitwood hits a last-second shot to win the 1952 Indiana state high school championship. The story was based on the 1954 Milan High School team that won the Indiana state title on a last-second shot by Bobby Plump, one of the most storied players in Indiana hoops history.

I recently interviewed Maris Valainis, who played the role of Jimmy Chitwood. Like the team he represents in the movie, Valainis was also a long shot. He portrayed one of Indiana's greatest players, yet he was only 5-foot-6 as a teenager and got cut three straight years from his high school team.

Valainis was a no-name who became one of the focal points of a great film and then kind of disappeared. He's been in three other movies, including "Liberace," in which he played Liberace's chauffeur boyfriend. Now a golf pro at Rancho San Joaquin Golf Course in Irvine, Calif. (with a 1-handicap), he lives 40 minutes outside of Los Angeles, so he's on the outskirts of Hollywood even now.

I asked him to reflect on certain scenes and characters from "Hoosiers." Valainis talked about the acting advice that star Gene Hackman gave him and the rest of the cast members. Sounding much like the good basketball coach he played, Hackman told them, "Just remember -- this is going to be on film forever and you're not going to be able to change it 10 years from now. So give it your best all the time."

Besides the Indiana Hoosiers in 1987, we've seen other "Hoosiers"-like Cinderella stories in the tournament -- N.C. State surprising Houston in '83, Villanova upsetting Georgetown in '85, Texas Western beating Kentucky in '66.

Valainis also recalled the memorable scene in which he knocked down 12 consecutive shots on a dirt court. The film crew was trying to get the scene done in one take because it was starting to rain, and Valainis, in his first major scene with Hackman, hit every shot but the last one, as Hackman was walking away.

And in the movie's climactic scene, Valainis sank the game-winning shot, also on the first take, as 4,000 extras rushed onto the court in celebration. He called his shooting display nothing but luck. But there was also luck associated with him being in the movie, with the fictional Hickory Huskers and the real-life Milan team winning state titles, and with many teams playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Each of the 65 tournament teams can dream. No matter how small or unknown the school is, everyone has a chance -- whether it's in the opening round, the Sweet 16 or the championship game.

Besides the Indiana Hoosiers in 1987, we've seen other "Hoosiers"-like Cinderella stories in the tournament -- N.C. State surprising Houston in 1983, Villanova upsetting Georgetown in 1985, Texas Western beating Kentucky in 1966 and Kansas knocking off Oklahoma in 1988.

March is the time when anything is possible. The underdogs -- like Gonzaga in the Elite Eight in 1999 or Princeton nearly shocking No. 1 seed Georgetown in 1989 -- are the stories we love. In this year's tournament, who will be the best story? Will there be a last-second shot? Will a no-name reach the Sweet 16 or beyond?

It's somebody's chance, and that's why we watch. Some are looking for the coronation of a great team. Others look forward to whoever is holding the slingshot. You know who Jimmy Chitwood is rooting for.

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