A Town, A Team, And A Dream That Just Won't Die

Dec 19, 2013
Originally published on December 19, 2013 7:14 pm

In a high-school locker room in small-town Indiana, a coach is tearing into his basketball team. The Medora Hornets have scored zero points — none at all — in the game's fourth quarter.

In Medora, the hapless team becomes a kind of metaphor for the town itself — "a no-stoplight town," in the words of documentarian Davy Rothbart, one where the jobs have dried up and the population has dwindled.

The voices of Medora, captured here in a conversation between Rothbart and NPR's Melissa Block, are woven throughout a film that, as Block explains on today's All Things Considered, becomes a kind of elegy for a vanishing small-town America.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.


JUSTIN GILBERT: Are you kidding me?

BLOCK: A high school locker room in Medora, Indiana, basketball coach Justin Gilbert is steamed.


GILBERT: Well, my assumptions were right. You had no points. Zero. Zero points in the fourth quarter.

BLOCK: Just another losing game for the Medora Hornets.


GILBERT: None in eight minutes. Eight minutes. Eight minutes. Zero.

BLOCK: That scene from the documentary titled "Medora," which takes us inside the small, struggling Indiana town and the hapless basketball team becomes an emblem of just how far Medora has fallen. The film becomes an elegy, really, for small town America. "Medora" is co-directed by Davy Rothbart, who joins me now. Davy, welcome to the program.

DAVY ROTHBART: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: You went to Medora during the 2010-2011 basketball season. And the Hornets had been described as Indiana's most winningless team. Describe how poorly this team had been doing.

ROTHBART: They had gone 0-22 in a recent season. They had only won a handful of games in the previous decade. And, you know, it's one of the smallest schools in Indiana. So you see these kids play, they're not bad basketball players but they're playing against these larger consolidated schools that are 10 or 20 times their size.

BLOCK: Yeah, they're outmatched. I mean, they're losing by 50 points a game. One game, I think, they lost by a score of 117-30.

ROTHBART: Yeah. Me and my co-director had learned about the Medora Hornets through this New York Times piece by John Branch about, you know, the small town of Medora, where a couple of factories had shut down and things had gotten kind of dire and this basketball team that essentially never wins. And so we actually drove down there the next day from our hometown in Ann Arbor and got a chance to meet some of the coaches, some of the players and just kind of fell in love with these kids and their families and the town.

It's one of these small towns - you drive half an hour any direction from Ann Arbor, you see these small, struggling, Midwestern towns. And so it's something that we knew well. And we're basketball nuts. We are passionate documentary film junkies and we just felt like this was a really important story to tell.

BLOCK: Yeah. And we hear throughout the film from people who lived in Medora all their lives and they remember a really different time. Let's take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When I was a child growing up, your parents either worked at the plastic factory or the brick plant. Now we have neither one. Now there's no employment to amount to anything here in town, none.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When the factory closed, that was a real hard hit to the town. What we had, that's gone. And it's not coming back.

BLOCK: So they're accepting that's not coming back. What was Medora left with when you were there?

ROTHBART: It's pretty empty. You know, there's one gas station, one liquor store, one bank, one bar. And it's a no-stoplight town. You know, it once had over 2,000 people living there. There's now less than 500. So, you know, you see a town that's kind of emptied out as people move out of these small towns. And what happens is once the schools closes, once the school consolidates, then it really becomes a ghost town. And our question was, you know, what is lost when small towns like this fade off the map?

BLOCK: Well, let's meet some of the characters on the basketball team who tell the story, really, of what's happened to Medora. One of them is the center, Rusty Rogers.


RUSTY ROGERS: My mom, she's kind of had some alcohol problems. She kind of went through this phase where like it got bad to where I had to leave my mom. I moved out. I stopped going to school. I got a job in a Hardee's working 60 hours a week, trying to make a quick buck everywhere I could.

BLOCK: But, Davy, in the end, Rusty does go back to school and he is one of the basketball team's stars.

ROTHBART: Yeah. You know, what we witnessed was pretty amazing. And even in the face of some pretty extreme challenges in their home lives and on the basketball court, too, these kids somehow find a way to keep going. And it's inspiring, really. I mean, Rusty was essentially homeless when we arrived, living in a car. And soon, his teammate Zach Fish - Zach's mom took Rusty in. And Zach and Rusty, you know, the point guard and the center on the basketball team actually shared a single twin bed.

And, you know, Rusty, eventually his mom got out of rehab. She started doing a lot better. And you just see this kid transform his life within a year. And it was pretty incredible to watch. And that was one thing that we learned about these small towns is, you know, although they have their share of struggles, there is a real community feel that's pretty powerful.

You know, you have people like Zach's mom. You have these coaches who are heroic themselves. It's a cop, a preacher and a stonecutter. You know, you had these guys who work full-time jobs and make time to work essentially a volunteer job working with these kids. There's people in the community, you know, grandparents, they'll reach out and help through the kids who are struggling the most.

BLOCK: Yeah. There's another character, a player on the team, Dylan McSoley, who lives with his grandmother.


DYLAN MCSOLEY: One time I was snooping around the house here looking through a drawer and I seen a picture. I asked my grandma who this was and she said, I think that's your dad. He was really skinny, kind of curly hair. I threw it away. I don't know where my dad lives and I really wouldn't care because I won't see him.

BLOCK: And, Davy, Dylan tells you at one point that he's considering becoming a pastor. He says, God is your father. He won't leave me. He'll always be there for me, which just - your heart kind of breaks.

ROTHBART: It does. What was amazing is just how open and generous these kids were with us. You know, it was - the first week we were there, you know, the kids were trying to jump in front of the camera - hey, I'm on TV. Within two weeks, the cameras were invisible. We were invisible. And so you get these very personal and raw and intimate moments.

And there were a couple funny moments because Dylan would always - he - Dylan went on a lot of dates. And he did not always warn the girls that he was picking up at their house that there was going to be a filmmaker in the backseat.


BLOCK: Surprise.

ROTHBART: So I know he was so used to me being there that he was just - he didn't even think about it. So he'd pull up and some girl would come out of her house and get in the front seat. And then she'd be like, whoa, there's some dude filming us in the backseat. What's going on?

BLOCK: We hear the coach at one point tell the team that he has not lost faith in them.


GILBERT: So we're going to get better, all right? Boys, I'll never lose faith in you guys no matter what you do. OK? I'll never lose faith in you guys.

BLOCK: What kept the Medora basketball team going through all those losses? What really fueled them, do you think?

ROTHBART: That's one of the most incredible things for us, is just the resolve and determination of the kids on the team and their families in just overcoming some extreme difficulties. They were losing games by 40 points, 50 points. And somehow they never quit. They just wanted that single victory so badly. A lot of documentaries, you know, they're about a team trying to win a championship. Here's a team trying to win one single game. So every game had that drama and intensity.

This could be the one game that they would win all season. There was times when we'd be filming the games and have tears in our eyes because we wanted them to win so badly, and I'd forget to film. I'd, you know, be so engrossed in the game and then I'd snap out of it and keep filming. They came close a couple of times...

BLOCK: You forgot what you were doing there.

ROTHBART: Yeah. I forgot what I was doing there. I just became a fan of the Medora Hornets. We wanted them to win. We felt they deserved to win. There were some very close losses. And somehow, I think just the coaches, they gave them encouragement. They gave them moral support. And they said, you know, let's keep going. Let's - we can win a game. And we were there to witness the whole season and see what happened.

BLOCK: Davy Rothbart co-directed the documentary film "Medora" with Andrew Cohn. The movie is available now on video. Davy, thanks so much.

ROTHBART: Thanks, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.