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March 15, 2012

Book Notes: Living the magic of ‘Hoosier’

— A lot of people consider “Hoosiers” the best sports film of all time.

The 1986 classic follows the exploits of a fictional small town Indiana high school basketball team in 1952 as it attempts to achieve the impossible dream of a state championship. The story is inspired by the true life achievement of the 1954 Milan team, who with an enrollment of only 161 students shocked big city power Muncie Central on a last second shot to win the state title. It’s the kind of sports story that represents something that is hard to grasp unless you live in a small town.

I bring up “Hoosiers” because Cooperstown is a small town where you can appreciate that feeling. An important part of the film is the passion that the townspeople show for their school. Indiana high school basketball is legendary for the devotion people have for the sport.

The success of the 1954 Milan team overcoming all odds to win a state championship kept fans over the years of thinking it could happen to their small school.

When I moved to Cooperstown 23 years ago, I naturally equated the village with baseball. But all I heard was the tradition of great basketball teams led by legendary coach Dick White.

I learned about the super teams from 1977 and 1985, and how Cooperstown always ran deep into sectionals every year.

The first glimpse I got of the hysteria was a packed house at the Christmas tournament final in 1991 where future Division I college player Seth Schaffer was a rising sophomore star. There was no question something special existed here.

Dick White soon retired and some of the mystical nature of the program seemed to dim with it. The teams were decent but talk of sectional titles or beyond didn’t seem as realistic. Then, in 2003, with first-year coach Dave Bertram leading the way, the “magic” returned. Having what seemed like a once-in-a-generation class of superb senior talent (plus one junior), Cooperstown started winning and didn’t stop. I hadn’t been to a game in a few years, but had to check out this latest phenomenon. Once I did, I became totally hooked.

The crowds and excitement of small town high school basketball were something to behold. The intensity was incredible. The Redskins finished the regular season 20-0 and just kept winning in sectional play.

After winning the sectional title over Little Falls, Cooperstown overcame a very athletic Onondaga team in Rome to qualify for the state quarterfinals.

One of the most memorable moments from that experience was the drive home through Fly Creek where hundreds of cars followed each other as far as the eye could see. It was like the final scene from “Field of Dreams.”

Of all the high school basketball games I’ve seen in my life there can be no doubt of the greatest of all. A few days after the Onondaga victory, Cooperstown played powerhouse Seton Catholic in its backyard at Binghamton University.

In a sweatbox gym what seemed like the entire population of Cooperstown showed up to pack one side of the facility. In a dramatic finish Will Dennis hit the tying shot with five seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime.

From there Cooperstown grabbed the lead and held on for a 61-58 victory. The win was so emotionally exhilarating that cars were honking as they passed the Cooperstown rooter bus all the way up Interstate 88.

Nine years later we are experiencing that “Cinderella” season once again. Not because what the team is doing is surprising, but because, once again, it’s unusual to have so many tall, quick, and athletic players in one class.

There’s an old axiom that you can coach basketball but you can’t coach height or quickness. Cooperstown has it all this year. Once again we are seeing the entire town drive long distances to see if the magic can continue.

Support is growing and fans flock to the games just as they did in “Hoosiers.” As happened nine years ago, Cooperstown is back in Glens Falls playing for that elusive state title. If it can achieve the ultimate ending that didn’t quite happen in 2003 we will totally relate to the passion underlying the movie. Only this time it’s our village and our reality and it will be a feeling we’ll never forget.