On an October morning in 1951, Norman Dale (Gene Hackman
) drives through the Indiana countryside. In the afternoon he arrives in the small rural town of Hickory and enters the high school. He notices, on a shelf in the hall, basketball trophies won in previous years. As the bell rings to end the school day, he encounters teacher Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey
). She realizes that Norman must be the new basketball coach and teacher of history and civics. She directs him to the office of principal Cletus Summers (Sheb Wooley
), where the two men recall how they met many years ago at Buffalo State Teachers College. They had lost touch until recently, when Cletus tracked down Norman and asked him to come coach at Hickory. When Norman thanks Cletus for the opportunity, Cletus interrupts and says, "Your slate's clean here." They proceed to the gym, where student Jimmy Chitwood (Maris Valainis
) is shooting baskets. Cletus introduces Norman, but Jimmy ignores the new coach and keeps shooting.
That evening on his farm, Cletus explains to Norman that Jimmy has been strongly affected by the recent death of the previous coach, who was like a father to Jimmy. Now the young man has withdrawn from almost everything and everyone and has decided not to play basketball this season. Cletus adds that Jimmy is the best player he has ever seen. As they finish talking, Norman cryptically mentions that he hopes things will work out for him this time.
That night, Norman meets some of the townsmen in the barbershop, who bombard him with questions. He tells them he last coached 12 years ago, in Ithaca, New York, and that he has been in the Navy for the past 10 years. The men voice their opinions on what Norman should do with the team. They all agree that Jimmy must rejoin the Huskers for them to have a winning season. Losing patience with all the questions and unwelcome advice, Norman cuts short the meet-and-greet and leaves.
The next morning, before school begins, Myra tells Norman that Jimmy is her neighbor, and she has been looking out for him ever since his father died. She thinks it best that he stay off the team. After school, the Huskers are already practicing in the gym when Norman walks in. George Walker (Chelcie Ross
), one of the townspeople Norman met in the barbershop, is leading the practice and assumes that Norman will continue allowing him to assist. When Norman brusquely makes it clear that he doesn't need any help, George storms off. As Norman gathers the seven Huskers and begins to introduce himself, Buddy (Brad Long
) rudely whispers to his teammate Whit (Brad Boyle
), who is standing next to him. Norman orders Buddy to leave, and Buddy convinces Whit to go with him. Jimmy is watching, unseen, at one of the far exits. Norman begins the practice and puts the Huskers through drills of passing, running in place, and dribbling while weaving between chairs; they never scrimmage. Norman explains, "There's more to the game than shooting. There's fundamentals and defense." He also wants them to be in top physical condition because, if they continue to have only five players, substitutions and rest during games will be impossible. On the second day of practice, several townspeople walk in to observe; they've heard about Norman's unusual drills. Rollin Butcher (Robert Swan
), Whit's father, brings in his son and has him apologize for walking out the day before. Rollin then tells the other men to leave, because the coach doesn't want them there.
One day, as Cletus and Norman eat pie at the diner downtown, in comes Wilbur "Shooter" Flatch (Dennis Hopper
), stumbling a bit and wearing a worn-out coat. Shooter, a former basketball player, describes for Norman how he almost led his team to victory in the 1933 sectional game of the tournament on a last-second shot. When Shooter asks Cletus in a low voice if he can borrow some spare change, Shooter's son, Everett (David Neidorf
), who has been sitting in another part of the diner, walks up. He insists that Shooter give back the money and then escorts his father outside.
One afternoon, as Jimmy shoots baskets at the school's outdoor court, Norman approaches him and asks why he wasn't in class that day, but Jimmy doesn't answer. Norman goes on to tell him that he believes Jimmy has a special talent that belongs only to him. Norman concludes by stating matter-of-factly that he doesn't care if Jimmy rejoins the team, and he walks away. From a window in the school, Myra has been watching them. Entering the school, Norman runs into Myra, who tells him to leave Jimmy alone. They begin arguing about Jimmy's future. She says she thinks Jimmy could receive an academic college scholarship if he concentrates on his studies instead of athletics. She doesn't want him to get stuck in Hickory, where the high point of his life will have been his days playing high school basketball. She doesn't understand why the townspeople place so much emphasis on the sport. She also is suspicious of Norman, wondering why someone like him has moved to Hickory, a town unaccustomed to seeing outsiders. She believes he might be running away from something.
At the beginning of an afternoon pep session meant to showcase this season's Huskers, several people in the crowd begin chanting "We want Jimmy!" Norman silences them and defends his six-man squad, concluding, "This is your team."
In the locker room before the first home game, Norman reminds the team what he taught them in practice: they must pass at least four times before attempting a shot. After Rev. Doty (Wil Dewitt
) offers a prayer, a kneeling Strap (Scott Summers
) continues praying silently, even after everyone else has departed the locker room and begun warming up. Norman tells team manager Ollie (Wade Schenck
) that he will substitute for Strap in the game until Strap finishes praying. To Ollie's relief, Strap shows up right before tip-off. Early in the game, the Huskers quickly fall behind, and some of the townspeople in the crowd start yelling at the Huskers to shoot. Jimmy watches from the top row. Myra and Shooter are in the crowd as well. At halftime, Norman chews out the players, again telling them to always make at least four passes before shooting. In the second half, an impatient Rade (Steve Hollar
), feeling pressure from the fans, decides to disobey the rule and shoot if he's open. Even though he makes these shots, Norman benches him. Moments later, after Merle (Kent Poole
) fouls out, Rade attempts to reenter the game. Norman orders him to sit back down, even though this means Hickory will have only four players on the floor for the rest of the game. The fans yell and boo, but Shooter smiles with amazement. In the locker room after the loss, Norman asks the boys to consider whether they really want to be on the team. He reminds them that his instructions to them are "the law, absolutely and without discussion!"
The next week, Norman encounters Myra and her sports-loving mother, Opal (Fern Persons
), outside the feed-and-grain store. Opal invites him to Sunday dinner because she wants to talk basketball. Arriving well before dinnertime, Norman helps the two women grind sorghum on their farm. When he gets a chance to talk to Myra alone, she tells him a bit about her family and past, including the fact that she left Hickory for a few years but later returned. When he asks her if she's ever thought about getting married, she declines to answer, explaining that in Hickory, people tend to mind their own business.
A few days later, Shooter unexpectedly calls on Norman at home and offers him unsolicited advice about the Huskers' upcoming game against Cedar Knob. Norman can tell from Shooter's remarks that he is quite knowledgeable about basketball history and strategy and has valuable insights into Hickory's opponents. That weekend, the Huskers travel in the team bus, owned and driven by Preacher Purl (Michael Sassone
), Strap's father, to their first away game at Cedar Knob. The game is a tough one, with lots of physical contact. A drunk Shooter is present. Norman begins arguing with one of the referees, and then the Cedar Knob coach, and then one of the Cedar Knob players, who pokes Norman in the chest. Norman slaps his hand away, and Rade decks the player with a left hook. The rest of the boys begin scuffling. Norman and Rade are ejected, leaving a distressed-looking Cletus to take over as coach.
The next day, Norman visits Cletus, who is suffering from heart trouble and has been ordered to be on bed rest for a while. After that, Norman goes to see Shooter at his dilapidated cabin in the woods. He offers to make Shooter his assistant coach, on one condition: he must remain sober. Offended and embarrassed, Shooter asks Norman to leave. However, at the next home game, Shooter surprises the players and perplexes the townspeople by showing up in a suit and tie, ready to accept the coach's offer.
The next week, after class, Everett tells Norman he has doubts about his father's being the assistant coach, because he's a drunk who will do something stupid. After that, Myra comes in and informs Norman that a town meeting has been scheduled for Saturday, at which Hickory residents will decide if he will be removed as coach.
During that Friday's game, Norman receives a technical foul and, after arguing with the referee, is thrown out. An anxious Shooter is forced to take over. The next day, Myra finds Norman standing alone along the fencerow on Cletus's farm, lost in thought. She tells him about an old newspaper article she found at the library, which describes how Norman was suspended from college coaching after he hit one of his players. Myra then says she appreciates how Norman is trying to help Shooter and how he hasn't pressured Jimmy to rejoin the team.
At the town meeting that night, which takes place in the church, Norman gives a brief speech in which he defends himself. Myra then steps up to the lectern and prepares to tell the crowd what she has discovered about the coach. But she abruptly changes her mind and tearfully tells them she thinks it would be a mistake to let him go. After the residents vote on Norman's dismissal, as George finishes counting the ballots, Jimmy enters the church. He announces he has decided to rejoin the team, but only if Norman is allowed to stay. George indicates that the majority of votes are for dismissal, but Opal calls for a revote. This time most of the residents vote for Norman to stay.
With Jimmy on the team, the reenergized Huskers go on a winning streak. About halfway through the season, Norman counsels Shooter, who is struggling with sobriety, that if he can't resist the urge to drink, he should go to the hospital to dry out. Shooter promises not to fall off the wagon if Norman will promise not to be ejected from any more games. At the next home game, Norman gets himself thrown out on purpose so that Shooter can take over as coach and hopefully gain some confidence. Shooter has the team run the picket fence play, and they win. Everett is proud of his father.
At the end of the regular season, tournament play begins. At the start of Hickory's sectional game against Terhune, Shooter is nowhere to be found. During the game, he suddenly shows up and stumbles onto the court, drunk and yelling. After Rollin leads him away, a technical foul is called on Hickory. Everett becomes angry and distracted. When one of the Terhune players shoves Jimmy during a layup, Everett retaliates by punching him. As the two continue fighting, the other players from both teams join in. Everett is pushed hard into a trophy case in the adjoining hallway, cutting his shoulder badly. The fight breaks up and the game continues, with Hickory winning by 2 points.
The next day, Norman and Everett go looking for Shooter, who has been missing since he was tossed out of the sectional. They find him lying unconscious in the snow-covered woods. Shooter is soon admitted to the hospital's alcohol rehabilitation unit, where Norman visits him.
That weekend, reporters mob Norman and the team as they enter the Jasper gym for the regional game against Linton. In the locker room, Norman advises the Huskers to think about this game only and not to worry about progressing in the tournament. They should focus on the fundamentals, not on winning or losing.
With the score tied at 50 with 2:30 to go, one of the Linton players hits Everett in his injured shoulder, causing the stitches to pull out. At first Norman wants Everett to ignore the pain and keep playing, but then he changes his mind and takes him out. Strap, not one of the better players, enters the game and immediately scores several points. When Buddy fouls out, only Ollie is left to substitute; he reluctantly enters the game. With Hickory up by 1, Ollie is fouled. He shoots awkwardly and misses his free throw. Linton then scores. Ollie is fouled as he shoots and misses. Two Linton players try to intimidate Ollie before he attempts his free throws, but Merle steps forward to offer encouragement. Using the same unusual underhand shooting style as before, Ollie makes both his free tosses, winning the game and sending the Huskers to the state finals.
The following week, after Norman receives a haircut from Opal at her home, he notices Myra working in the muddy garden. They go on a walk. He asks her if she would like to go to a movie sometime, but she responds by bringing up the incident in which he hit his college player. He says he can't really explain or understand why he did it. They kiss.
A few days later, Norman and the Huskers encounter a group of reporters gathered in the Hickory gym, waiting to interview Norman about the upcoming state-finals game. That same week, Everett visits Shooter in the hospital.
On the morning of the state finals, Norman and the team enter an empty Butler Fieldhouse and are awed by its enormity. Norman has the Huskers measure the length of the free-throw lane and the distance from the rim to the floor. He reminds them that these dimensions are the same as those in the Hickory gym.
In the locker room that night, Norman reviews game strategy with the team. He then tells them that the last few months have been special for him. He asks the Huskers if they would like to say anything. Merle wants to win for all the small schools that never had a chance to get to the state finals. Everett wants to win for his dad. Buddy wants to win for their coach. After Rev. Doty and Preacher Purl offer appropriate Bible verses, the Huskers take the floor. They struggle early in the game against the taller and more muscular South Bend Central Bears. But they regroup and begin to close the scoring gap until they are tied with the Bears at 40. After Rade intercepts a South Bend pass, Hickory controls the ball. With 19 seconds on the clock, Hickory calls time-out. Norman tells his players that, because the Bears will expect Jimmy to take the last shot, the Huskers will use Jimmy as a decoy while Merle attempts the final basket. Seeing the boys' uncomfortable reaction to his plan, Norman demands to know what's wrong. They say nothing until Jimmy declares, "I'll make it." Norman hesitates but then realizes that entrusting Jimmy with Hickory's last chance to score is indeed the best course of action. Play resumes, and with only 2 seconds left, Jimmy launches his shot, which sails through the net. The Hickory fans erupt in celebration and spill onto the floor.
The final scene shows a grade-school-age boy shooting baskets in a quiet, empty Hickory gym as the camera zooms in on a team photo of the state-champion Huskers hanging on the wall.