Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg unplugged and going all in on the movie ‘Hoosiers’

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Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg as “Hoosiers” coach Norman Dale.
| Sun-Times photo illustration.

In Fred Hoiberg’s game plan, Jimmy Chitwood was still getting the last shot.

But running the “picket fence’’ to Merle was never even a thought.


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Sorry, Norman Dale.

With apologies to the fictional coach from the classic basketball movie “Hoosiers,’’ Hoiberg was going to make sure that there’d be more action on the sideline inbound play than simply a dribble handoff, then a clear-out isolation play as the clock ticks down.

After all, the days of keeping iso players such as Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose happy are long gone.

“So here’s what I did,’’ Hoiberg said in an excited voice as he began to discuss the set.


This wasn’t your normal conversation with Hoiberg. The Monday after All-Star Weekend is one of the few dead days in the NBA season, so what better time to talk “Hoosiers,’’ a movie very near and dear to Hoiberg.

It actually started earlier this month when my 9-year-old wanted to watch it for the first time. For me, it was viewing No. 68 or so, and at that point, you actually start to think more about X’s and O’s than hugs and tears.

The last play that beat the South Bend Central Bears was basic, to say the least. Come on, Norman Dale, you were better than that.

If you haven’t seen the movie by now . . . spoiler alert. Stop the rock drawings you’ve been doing in your cave since it was released in 1986.

In the classic David vs. Goliath genre, the small school of Hickory starts the season with only seven players, goes through all manner of adversity and eventually makes it to the 1952 Indiana state championship game.

The film was loosely based on the 1954 Milan High School championship run. Indiana was one of the last states to have an open state basketball tournament in which there was no separation of classes based on enrollment size.

In the movie, Hickory — led by the sharp-shooting Chitwood — ties the score at 40 and gets a steal with 19 seconds left.

Coach Dale — played by Gene Hackman — calls a timeout and wants to use Chitwood as a decoy for the last shot, instead looking to run the “picket fence’’ for Merle.

Nice kid that Merle, but by all accounts, he was 0-for-3 and scoreless up to that point.

Chitwood talks Dale into putting the ball in his hands with the famous “I’ll make it,’’ and the play is drawn up.

It was an awful play, by the way. That’s where Hoiberg comes in.

What did “Hoosiers’’ mean to Hoiberg growing up in Ames, Iowa?

“We watched it as a team when we won the [Iowa] state championship in ’91, so that was right before we went to the state tournament,’’ Hoiberg said. “[Even before that], I’d seen it 100 times. It’s one of my all-time favorites.’’

There was an even closer connection to the movie in 1995, however, after Hoiberg was drafted by the Pacers in the second round and was in camp with Indiana high school legend Damon Bailey.

Bailey was a real-life Chitwood, taking Bedford North Lawrence to the state title game and upsetting powerhouse Concord in front of 41,046 at the Hoosier Dome. It remains the largest crowd for a high school game.

Bailey was Indiana basketball royalty.

“When he showed up, it was like the Beatles were coming,’’ Hoiberg said. “He was such a larger-than-life figure in that state. I mean, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in eighth grade. Bob Knight said he could’ve started for Indiana as an eighth-grader.

“For him, there was so much pressure on his shoulders as this kind of chosen one. Bedford was his high school, and to pack the Hoosier Dome, for him to perform the way he did, lead that school over a powerhouse was incredible. It was really true to what the movie was all about. It was cool to get to know him just because of all the things he went through.’’

Hoiberg didn’t just draw up a quick play to pacify one of his beat writers. He put some serious thought into it and didn’t scrimp on the details.


Hoiberg still let linebacker-sized Buddy bring the ball up and get it into Chitwood’s hands, but, then again, Buddy didn’t have a bad pass the entire movie.

The best part of Hoiberg’s set was the emergency situation. Spraying the ball to Rade for “one of his signature one-leg set shots’’ was a great call considering he was the second-best shooter in the film.

Then if Chitwood got trapped or if South Bend opted to blitz him off Rade’s slip screen, Hoiberg had the counter with Merle and Buddy set in the corners — there were no three-pointers back then — and the hard-nosed Everett working opposite for the tip-in.


On Tuesday night at the Advocate Center, the Bulls reconvened for a practice ahead of their last 25 games.

Hoiberg’s focus was back squarely on the Bulls and the importance these games will have in Year 1 of the rebuild.

For one afternoon, however, it was nice to hear Hoiberg talk about Hickory, Ames High School, Bailey and Chitwood.

“It’s such a motivational story,’’ Hoiberg said. ‘‘Just to see all the obstacles that everyone in the film had to overcome — from Norman Dale, to the players, kicking guys off, bringing them back on, having to deal with a very unrealistic fan base. It’s just an inspiring movie.

“As a basketball fan, it’s one of those movies you never forget.’’

And Hoiberg drew up a play to prove it.

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