• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #81: Norman Dale


His team is on the floor.

With basketball season front and center, let's make one thing clear: Hoosiers is the best sports movie ever made. Oh, there are others in the top five that can make arguments based on narrow criteria (Caddyshack is funnier, etc.), but Hoosiers delivers on everything you want from a sports movie. It has the underdog team chasing improbable glory, the eccentric reluctant star, the obligatory cast of colorful local characters (Hopper is brilliant), even the standard wet-blanket love interest. And it has Norman Dale, the greatest coach in film history.

No need to share the plot here of a movie everyone has seen at least twice. Instead, consider Coach Dale. Here's a guy down to his last shot, having screwed up his chances at more high-octane opportunities. And so he comes to Hickory, a town obsessed with basketball, both to hide from his own past and to do the only thing he really cares about, which is teach the game to young players willing to learn how to play it right. He's done some learning himself, based on his past failures: he's figured out you can be a hardass without being an asshole. His methods are demanding and exacting, and he requires total commitment and obedience from his charges, most of whom have been content to be five-foot jock gods in a four-foot world. Coach Dale shows them that's not enough, that failure to pursue your greatest potential is a crime against yourself and your teammates. He doesn't humiliate, he empowers, not through spouting new-age mantras but through the only path to success: endless hard work and putting the team ahead of the individual. The resulting brotherhood is the quest of every coach, the forming of a true team, a family, that takes care of each other.

I've coached a lot of different sports at a lot of levels, from five year olds to high school. Teams that won titles and teams that went winless. Just about every season, I find myself remembering a key line or scene from Coach Dale. I've done my share of being Shooter on the bench too, working with guys like Paul Harrington and Darrien Tucker, EJ Watkins and Terry Warlick, trying to make the pieces fit. When it does, when it works, there are few things better in life. "Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit: team, team, team - no one more important that the other." It's a beautiful thing.

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