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How much of ‘based on true story’ is true?

By Ernie Williamson

The Bulletin


I enjoy movies based on real life.


Whether a biopic, a serial killer mystery or the classic underdog story, these stories often offer compelling viewing.


Netflix agrees. The platform has an entire category of movies based on true stories. The challenge for us viewers is determining what is real and what is reel.


These movies are often promoted as “Based on true events,” or “Inspired by true events.”


Some of my favorites include “Schindler’s List,” “The Blind Side,” “Argo,” “Hidden Figures,” “All the President’s Men” and “Patton.”


But if we are getting our knowledge from movies, we need to be careful. Some are more accurate than others.


Take for example “Hoosiers,” a classic and one of my favorites.


Just the other day, I could have watched an NBA playoff game, but instead I watched “Hoosiers” for the umpteenth time. I knew the 1986 movie was embellished somewhat, but I had no idea how much until - out of curiosity - I spent a few minutes Googling it.


The movie was promoted as a movie “loosely based” on tiny Milan High School winning the 1954 Indiana State Basketball Championship on a last-second shot. There are so many fictional parts of the movie, I don’t think the movie deserves the “loosely based” description.


It is a great movie, just not an accurate one.


Angelo Pizzo, the scriptwriter even admitted it. He told ESPN when the movie was released that “a great deal of fictionalization was necessary because their lives were not dramatic enough.”


Here are some examples of Pizzo’s “fictionalization.”


MILAN FOULED: Although the movie is about Milan’s basketball victory, Pizzo changed the name of the town to Hickory.


UNDERDOGS?: Not exactly. This underdog narrative was blown up for dramatic purposes in the movie. The team was not a ragtag bunch of losers.


The year before their championship run, Milan had made it all the way to the state semifinals. The team returned four starters and entered the 1954 state tournament with an impressive 19-2 record.


LOTS OF PLAYERS: In the movie, Hickory’s enrollment of 161 is so small that the team could only field 6 players. Actually, Milan did have an enrollment of only 161, but 58 of the 73 boys in the school tried out for the team.


WHO WAS THE COACH? In the movie version, Gene Hackman portrays the head coach as a middle-aged outspoken coach with a checkered past.


The real head coach was Marvin Wood, who was only 26 when he coached Milan to the title. He was soft-spoken and married with two children.


WHAT ASSISTANT?: Dennis Hopper got an Oscar nomination for his performance as “Shooter,” the town drunk, father of one of the players and an assistant coach. There was no such person in real life.


CHITWOOD OR PLUMP?: The star player in the movie version is Jimmy Chitwood.


During a timeout in the title game with 18 seconds left and the score tied, Chitwood is told by Gene Hackman that he will not get the final shot. Teammates give a look of dismay, and all eyes turn to Chitwood, who looks at the coach and says with confidence, “I’ll make it.”


In real life, Bobby Plump took the final shot. One of the few things the movie version and real life have in common is that both Chitwood and Plump made the winning shot.


Plump says the last 18 seconds of the movie are the only true part of the picture. However, he denied telling the coach, “I’ll make it.”


That line and Chitwood are fictional.


Plump didn’t get his name used in the movie but has been named one of the most noteworthy Hoosiers in the 20th Century.


“Plump’s Last Shot” is a restaurant in Indianapolis run by his son.


I still love “Hoosiers” as a movie, but it has taught me a lesson: When I watch a real-life movie now, I am going to research its accuracy.


(Contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)

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