— Coach Norman Dale
Head basketball coach
Hickory High School
From “Hoosiers” (1986)
Life is full of “What if’s?” Some are legitimate mind teasers. Others are just ... well, dumb ... but fun to think about nonetheless.
Two opinion pieces published early last week on our Editorial Page brought me to today’s “What if?” moment.
The first came Sunday when this column explored the meaning of a pre-Christmas hoops dream I had about our high school basketball team that won the Tennessee state championship in 1972-73 in the Small Schools Division. In that state tournament in Knoxville, our Collierville Dragons squeaked past Trenton Peabody High School, 64-63, in double overtime.
In last Monday’s edition, we published an editorial about New Year’s resolutions. It made reference to a 1986 Hollywood sports film, “Hoosiers,” in which the undersized Hickory Huskies — a tiny high school in southern Indiana — also won their state championship. The movie was inspired by a true story from 1954 when Milan High School won the Indiana crown.
I’ve seen “Hoosiers” in its entirety and in parts dozens of times. It’s one of my favorite sports movies. I rate it up there with “Rocky,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Remember the Titans” and “Field of Dreams.”
Not until writing last Sunday’s column, and then Monday’s editorial, had I given any thought whatsoever to the comparison between those Collierville Dragons of 41 years ago and the mythical Huskies of small-town Hickory.
Their stories were similar though their plots were thickened by an entirely different set of circumstances, eras and faces.
- Hickory was a tiny little town close to nowhere in rural southern Indiana; Collierville was a tiny little town located about 20 miles east of Memphis. Urban flight out of the Bluff City has since changed all that, as I am told.
- Hickory High School suited up eight players for most games; Collierville dressed out eight also, but added a ninth with the addition of one “B” Team (junior varsity) player for each game.
- Hickory’s players were undersized and outmatched in overall talent almost every game; Collierville had size issues as well with one exception, a 6-foot-5 center named Rodney Shaw. All the other players were 5-10 to 6-1.
- Hickory High relied on a total team effort, but the team’s established “go to” player was a forward named Jimmy Chitwood; Collierville also depended on contributions from everyone, but its “gun” (the popular term used then for “star”) was a forward named Eddie Fields.
- Hickory High had a coach (Norman Dale) who insisted on fundamentals first — defense, ball handling and team play; Collierville had a coach (Robert Randolph) who believed in the same, plus boxing out and rebounding.
- Hickory High’s coach stressed physical conditioning (lots of running in practice) because of limited roster and lack of height; Collierville’s coach put his players through running drills to start and to end each practice, and punishment for lack of hustle meant more running.
- Hickory High’s team faced seemingly insurmountable odds like a new coach with a questionable background, a star player facing emotional setbacks and a slate of townspeople who lived by preconceived notions about how the game should be played, and coached; Collierville’s biggest uphill battle was the racial unrest of the early 1970s and the challenges in asking white and black athletes to play together (some for the first time) on the same team, wearing the same uniforms and for the same school.
- Hickory High played as a dysfunctional unit in the early going, but later gelled as players and coach embraced a shared cause; Collierville played as a dysfunctional unit (as evidenced by the overall 28-6 season record) in the early going, but later gelled as players of diverse backgrounds and a demanding coach also embraced a common goal.
Given these team differences and player similarities, I found myself wondering last week who would have won a head-to-head matchup between these two state champions — the Collierville Dragons of ’73 or the Hickory Huskies of ’54?
Both teams had strengths. Each had weaknesses.
In a fantasy championship game between Collierville and Hickory, here’s how I see the tale-of-the-tape based on my memories of the real-life Dragons of West Tennessee and the mythical Huskies of true-story Southern Indiana:
1. Athleticism: Collierville
2. Bench Production: Collierville
3. Coaching: Hickory
4. Defense: Collierville
5. Fan Support: Hickory
6. Fast-Break Points: Collierville
7. Free Throw Percentage: Hickory
8. Player Depth: Collierville
9. Rebounding: Collierville
10. School Pride: Hickory
11. Shooting Percentage: Hickory
12. Team Unity: Hickory
Oops! It wasn’t supposed to end in a tie.
OK, the tie-breaker — call it overtime, if you will — is Team Hustle. But it’s a dead heat. The Dragons and Huskies are equal.
Second overtime? Ability to Overcome All Odds. Ditto. Tied again.
Third overtime? Unnecessary. I refer to the quote that precedes this column: “If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners.”
And here our game of fantasy ends.
My heart belongs to my alma mater, but I could never root against those likable lads of Hickory. To declare a winner would be an injustice served.
So let’s leave it in the hands of Mike Krzyzewski, legendary coach of the Duke Blue Devils, who once told his players, “A basketball team is like the five fingers on your hand. If you can get them all together, you have a fist. That's how I want you to play.”
Coach Dale and Coach Randolph would have agreed.
Both won state championships.
And each walked away a winner in a game of fantasy whose only test was one of truth, both real and imagined.