Movies

'Something to Cheer About': A Coach's Net Values

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007

As nearly everyone who has ever dribbled a basketball knows, the most famous jump shot ever taken left the fingers of a young man on the night of March 20, 1954. The shooter was Bobby Plump, of tiny Milan, Ind. The ball went through the hoop, time ran out, and Milan became one of the smallest schools in Indiana history to win a state championship. Thus are legends born, then filmed, as "Hoosiers" was in 1986, with much fictionalization.

But . . . there's more. There's always more. The "more" kicked in the next year, when a school Milan beat on its way to the championship -- in the quarterfinals, 65-52 -- returned to the Indiana state tournament. That school was Crispus Attucks of Indianapolis. Attucks won the state championship in '55 and '56 (and again in '59), and sophomore guard Oscar Robertson went on to be an all-American at the University of Cincinnati and have a great NBA career. Attucks was the first all-black school -- it was a residue of the segregation then just beginning to loosen its grip on American society -- to win a state championship.

More to the point, as many would argue -- including the makers of the film "Something to Cheer About," an affectionate tribute to the Attucks program under the leadership of visionary coach Ray Crowe -- the success of Attucks changed basketball forever. The wide-open, driving, fast "black game" Crowe emphasized was just beginning to overcome and supplant the set-offense, slow-paced "white game." It signified what would be vouch-safed famously when the University of Texas-El Paso (then Texas Western), with five black starters, beat the University of Kentucky in 1966 for the NCAA championship.

One could even argue that the Milan victory was the high-water mark of white basketball, with its plodding offense, carefully regulated number of passes, and two-handed set shots. In fact, few remember that the game itself -- unless you had a rooting interest -- was rather boring. Milan played a slow-down offense to offset its opponents' power and speed (the opponent was a big-city school, Muncie Central) and Plump dribbled in place at the top of the key in the fourth quarter for four minutes with the score at 30-30, then took a shot -- and missed. Muncie rebounded, drove the court, but failed to score; the ball came back to Plump, who stalled, and then began the drive to the hoop for what would become his famous jumper. But the "Hoosiers" folks left out the 240 seconds of . . . nothingness . . . from the movie.

Whether or not there are such things as white basketball and black basketball, what is before us is a modest documentary, actually made in 2002 but only now gaining national release, which celebrates Attucks and that particular team, but most importantly coach Crowe, by all accounts a remarkable man.

It is said that in those days black teams, when they played white teams, were obligated to be gentlemen first and athletes second, to swallow the one-sided refereeing they were bound to receive, never to shower in the host school's facility and never to seem unsavorily preoccupied with winning.

Crowe changed that. A disciplinarian, he had one advantage in that he'd grown up around whites and didn't feel, as did many in segregated circumstances, uncomfortable in their presence. Liberated, therefore, from the pretense of "gentlemanly" behavior, he encouraged his players to run, shoot, jump and, most of all, win. But he was no run-and-gun guru: He counseled physical conditioning, disciplined offense, teamwork and obedience to his strict rules, which emphasized education as much as sports. And it must be said that he also was the beneficiary of extreme luck, with a roster including not only the one-in-a-million Big O, but also Hallie Bryant and Willie Merriweather, outstanding athletes who went on to college and then semipro and Harlem Globetrotter careers.

The filmmaker is Betsy Blankenbaker; she's not gifted and everything about the film is rudimentary, a mesh of old footage and stills (skillfully done) and talking heads (who do become tiresome). She evidently had access to Robertson for just one afternoon, and we never see him mingle with his former teammates (no reason is given). Instead, we see them, separately, at a celebration of their victory, old, dignified men, proud and strong but restrained. She got to Crowe in the last years of his life (he died in 2003), so that this remarkable man's wisdom, the force of his personality, his commitment to winning the right way or no way, are recorded.

Any hoop-dreamer of any color will enjoy the movie's brief 64 minutes.

Something to Cheer About (64 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated.


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