For the scene where Dennis Hopper walks onto the court drunk in the middle of the game, Hopper wanted a ten-second notice before calling action. At the ten-second notice, he spun around in circles until action was called, allowing him to stagger onto the court in an awkward fashion in order to appear drunk.
The scene with Jimmy and Coach Dale talking while Jimmy shot baskets was filmed in one take. Maris Valainis said that he "wasn't even listening to him." "I was just concentrating on making them and I made one and they kept going in."
Steve Hollar was actually playing basketball for DePauw University at the time. The NCAA noticed when the film was released. The NCAA eventually decided that Hollar had been hired as an actor, not a basketball player. He still got a three-game suspension and was told to return 5% of his pay.
An actual Milan Indian Guard, Ray Craft, was in the movie. Craft was the person that greeted the Huskers when they got to the state finals, and he also was the one that told Coach Dale that it was time to take the court before the state final.
Jack Nicholson wanted to play Coach Norman Dale but had a schedule conflict. He told the producers he knew they were on a tight schedule to shoot, and if they found another actor, to go ahead. If not, he could do it the next year. Gene Hackman then signed on for the part. (from the DVD bonus features)
The actual game was played between the Milan Indians and the Muncie Central Bearcats. For the movie, the South Bend Central Bears were the opponent. The true championship took place in 1954, not 1952 as in the movie, and the score was Milan 32, Muncie Central 30.
While delighted with his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, Dennis Hopper privately admitted to friends and colleagues that he felt the Academy nominated him for the wrong film. He thought he should have been nominated for his performance in Blue Velvet (1986).
The actor playing Ollie once left the set to watch his high school basketball team play. He was a junior on the team when he got the role and was feeling homesick, so he decided to go watch them. The crew had to contact his mother to get him to return.
The filmmakers had trouble filling the FieldHouse with extras for the final game, and needed to move people around when shooting different angles. Extras were given 1950's hairstyles and their clothing was checked for anachronisms.
After this film became a hit, Kent Poole earned the nickname "Hollywood" back home in Indiana. Poole was a small-town Indiana high school basketball star. In 1982, Poole helped Western Boone High to a "near miss" in the Indiana State Finals. Unlike Hickory, Poole's team lost their playoff game by one basket. The director knew Poole loved small school spirit, and felt he could deliver the movie's famous line, "Let's win this one for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here," with true heartfelt emotion.
Jerry Goldsmith's score is well known for its "Americana" essence, but the music was performed by the Hungarian State Opera orchestra in Budapest. American orchestral unions were reportedly upset with Goldsmith for choosing a foreign orchestra for a lower budget film.
The Travel-Aires, who sing the national anthem, were never auditioned for it. The national anthem wasn't included in the script until the end of filming. No one heard the group sing the national anthem until the night it was filmed, all in one take, for the very first time!