Ten years ago today, Troy Bolton sang and danced his way into our hearts with the premiere of High School Musical, the Disney Channel made-for-TV movie that made every pre-teen question the lack of spontaneous musical numbers in the hallways between Spanish and Home Ec.
Let’s not forget, however, that Troy also basketball-ed his way into our hearts, because at its core, HSM is a sports movie… sort of. It follows the classic formula: An athlete has a goal, an obstacle, a downfall, a redemption, and a climax. A big part of sports movies is making sure that the sports are treated in a way that is faithful to the actual game, and that is perhaps the least discussed aspect of HSM. How well does the movie handle its portrayal of basketball?
Curiosity got the best of us, so we analyzed the basketball portions of the movie frame-by-frame to see how true to reality these sequences really are… with a suspension of disbelief during the musical numbers. Those aren’t necessarily meant to be interpreted literally, because if they were, this article would work better as a tweet.
Let’s break our way-too-in-depth analysis down into a few sections: the coaching, the practices, the team rosters, the rules of the game, and the championship.
1) The Coaching
Above is East High Wildcats coach Jack Bolton, Troy’s dad who has a big heart, and an even bigger desire to win basketball games. In the opening scene of the movie, the two are on vacation but still find time to practice basketball, because ball is life and relaxing at a ski lodge is time that could be spent improving your ball-handling.
Coach Bolton and Troy are practicing in what appears to be a converted ballet studio (you can still see the ballet bars on the wall), and this is where we realize that Coach has no clue what basketball is.
His first line is “Keep working left, Troy. Got a guard in the championship game we’re expectin’. You’ll torch ’em!” Then Troy asks if he’ll “torch ’em” by going left, and Coach Bolton responds, “Yeah. He looks middle, you take it downtown.” This means that Troy, a right-handed player, will fool his opponent by going left as opposed to going right, and will then take a long-range shot (from “downtown”) relatively unguarded because of his deceptive move.
Doing what your opponent doesn’t expect is smart, and is the key to virtually all sports except for competitive eating, where pretty much all you should be doing is gauging how many more hot dogs you can fit down your throat before they explode through your torso like a chestburster in Alien.
In the opening scene, Jack and Troy are on vacation but still find time to practice basketball, because ball is life.
You also might want to get on Coach Bolton for pushing his kid too hard, but Troy seems to be an equal a participant in the practice session, because he wants to be great. Later in the movie, Coach Bolton tells Troy that there will be college coaches at the game, so playing basketball beyond high school is clearly in his future plans. Troy has a goal, and Coach Bolton is very supportive in his pursuit of it, guiding his player/son with encouragement, motivation, and dedication to his future athletic endeavors. Troy wants to be great, and his coach is simply fostering that ambition.
Being a good motivator is part of being a good coach, but the other part is having an intimate familiarity with the sport, a knowledge of the game that allows you to see it from perspectives that your players, and hopefully opposing coaches, do not. But Coach Bolton… doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about.
Back to his first line: “Got a guard in the championship game we’re expectin'”? Is Coach Bolton saying that East High has a guard in the game that they know and are aware of? That statement is completely devoid of content, like something somebody who doesn’t watch sports would say while trying to blend in with their buddies at the bar.
In the scene, Troy is working from a back-to-the-basket post-up position, something he wouldn’t really do as a point guard. However, let’s say he is playing a forward or center position–that could be a good way to take advantage of his post skill set against a defender not used to guarding post players, especially if there’s a size advantage. In that case, Troy wouldn’t likely be in a position to “take it downtown,” because he’s about seven feet away from the basket (the high school three-point line is 19 feet and 9 inches out from the hoop). This range apparently qualifies as downtown for Coach Bolton, because Troy gives a shoulder fake right, then spins left into a short range jump shot, which Coach praises despite his previous instruction.
Having a coach who doesn’t know the game well isn’t all that uncommon in high school basketball, but a school that expects a lot from its program and pours a lot of resources into it (they have a giant banner of the team’s starting lineup in the hallway) should typically have a more knowledgeable coach. Having an ignorant coach isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s not a great start.
Coach Bolton also inadvertently teaches his players that because they are athletes, their actions have no consequences, which can lead to some not-so-good realities down the road: Troy and Chad miss a practice because they are in detention, a punishment they received for using their cell phones in class. That seems fine. If phones are against the rules, don’t use them or live with the punishment.
Having an ignorant coach isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s not a great start.
However, Coach Bolton storms into detention and orders his players to the gym, taking away all responsibility for their actions and showing the players that they are above the law because they have desirable physical skills. Part of being a coach is being a mentor, and training athletes to see themselves as “greater than” is just irresponsible.
THE VERDICT: Coach Bolton has a good heart and is a skilled motivator, but he seems to have a disappointing lack of basketball knowledge and he doesn’t hold his players accountable for their behavior off the court. All things considered, he holds up fine as a plausible high school basketball coach.
2) The Practices
There are four practice scenes in HSM. That might seem like a lot of work to put in just before a championship game, so let’s look at how often they actually practice in relation to the movie’s timeline, and what the rules are for high school basketball practices.
East High is in Albuquerque, New Mexico, so we will assume that the school’s sports are governed by the New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA), since they are the governing body whose “principle purpose is the regulation, direction, administration and supervision of interscholastic activities in the State of New Mexico.” If there is an aspect of the game for which they don’t have their own specific rule, they defer to the rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations. For our purposes, we will be referring to the 2012-13 NFHS Basketball Rules Book, because it was the only one we could find for free online.
So, let’s determine the definition of a practice: the NMAA defines a practice as “a structured period of time in which a coach or other agent of the school directs the activities of a sports team or part of a team (this does not apply to conditioning sessions).” Like we said, there are four practice scenes in the movie, and in case you’re following along at home, they begin at approximately 13:31, 20:07, 51:26, and 1:12:35.
We will assume that East High’s sports are governed by the New Mexico Activities Association.
Coach Bolton is only present at the last three, meaning the first practice wasn’t technically a practice, according to the NMAA. Still, some high school coaches allow their players to hold “captain’s practices,” giving their players access to school facilities (with the school’s permission) under the direction of the team captain, so the practice isn’t unheard of.
We didn’t find any rules that put a limit on how often a high school team is allowed to practice, so we’re going to go with the NCAA’s take on the issue: “Countable athletically related activities may occur not more than 20 hours per week, with a maximum of four hours per day.” Assuming their practices run an average of two hours, the East High Wildcats had about six hours of practice between the start of the movie and the championship game, but how long of a time frame is that?
The film opens on a scene that takes place on New Year’s Eve and goes into New Year’s Day, so let’s say our starting point is January 1, and since the movie came out in 2006, let’s say the year is 2006. The action really kicks off one week later, when everybody returns to school:
That places us at around January 8, 2006. Since January 1, 2006 was a Sunday, the first day back at school would have been the next Monday, January 9.
At about 13:10 into the movie, Sharpay Evans asks Troy when the “big game” is, and he says it’s in two weeks, which would have been January 23. But at 58:48 into the movie, Chad Danforth says that the game is on Friday (here’s the script for the movie, by the way). January 23 was a Monday, so we estimate that the championship game took place on Friday, January 20, 2006, which is (perhaps not) coincidentally the exact date that HSM premiered on Disney Channel, exactly 10 years ago today.
Does that mean that all footage leading up to the game was pre-recorded, but the game itself was a live broadcast? Was High School Musical an amazing hybrid of film and live performance? Probably. That makes the post-game musical number so much more impressive.
So the time frame depicted in the movie, aside from New Year’s day, is from January 9 to 20, 2006. Three official practices over 11 days is permitted by the rules, and is actually probably too few practices for the team if anything, so we’re assuming there were plenty of off-camera basketball activities.
As for the content of their practices, it seems up and down. At the first practice (when Coach Bolton isn’t there), before breaking out into song (which again, we’re ignoring), the team practices a bunch of weird and nonsensical passing that neither have any in-game implications or serve to strengthen basketball-related skills. They’re shooting basketballs at each other from six feet away, and one pair of teammates is standing THIS CLOSE TOGETHER to practice passing:
Things seem more organized when Coach Bolton is around, though. At 51:23, the team is practicing passing drills, working on strong chest passes that are often used during the course of play. At 1:12:35, it looks like the team is scrimmaging against each other and working on their offensive plays, which is substantive basketball stuff.
THE VERDICT: The team seems to practice a reasonable amount, but without Coach Bolton’s guidance, they don’t seem productive. High school kids phoning in a practice is supremely realistic, so the practices seem totally reasonable.
3) The Team Rosters
It took some doing, but we figured out the names and numbers of everybody on the East High Wildcats, as well as the starting five of the West High Knights. Here are the rosters for both teams:
And here are the frames from the movie we used to determine these rosters (click the image for a larger version of it):
If a player only has one name listed on the roster, it’s because his first name is never actually revealed, so all we have to go on is the back of the jersey (or they’re pulling a Madonna and going by just one name). Only team members who are part of the main cast have actual names, while the rest are only credited as “Basketball Player Dancer.” We do suspect that a couple of the “nameless” East High players were actually named after people who worked on the movie, though: HSM had a payroll accountant named Kathleen Dombo and a gaffer named Garlan Wilde. How else would you explain Dombo?
A more important question: Are these rosters legal? East High has 12 players, so we’ll assume that West High also has 12 players. And if you’re wondering why we couldn’t figure out their entire roster, we’ll get to that in a second, as well as roster-related rule infractions.
If this high school basketball coach is to be believed, there are no clear rules on the size limit of a high school basketball roster (there was nothing in either of the aforementioned rule books about it), so a realistic range is from 10 to 17. Roster size seems largely unregulated, so we’re assuming the brains behind HSM went with the NBA rule, which is currently 13 active players on a roster, but in 2006, was only 12.
THE VERDICT: There wasn’t much to mess up here, since there aren’t any real roster size limitations. It’s a go.
4) The Rules of the Game
This is where things get rocky. The rules broken are all very minor, mind you, but they were broken nonetheless.
Let’s consider rules for uniforms, or specifically, rule 3, section 4, article 3-d of the NFHS Basketball Rules Book:
“ART. 3 . . . Numbers shall adhere to the following: d. Each team member shall be numbered on the front and back of the team jersey with plain Arabic numerals. The following numbers are legal: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 00, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55. A team member list shall not have both numbers 0 and 00.”
We’ve already gotten a pretty good look at the back of a West High uniform, but here’s the front of one:
This player is not “numbered on the front and back of the team jersey with plain Arabic numerals.” ILLEGAL! But East High isn’t innocent either: Their uniforms are legal, but Chad Danforth (8) and Green (6) have illegal jersey numbers.
Another rule infraction we found was that it seems the game isn’t being played with the right ball. Here’s a screenshot of Kelsi Nielsen holding the game ball, with an image of what we believe the ball to be: some version of a Spalding TF-1000:
We may not be exactly right with the kind of ball she’s holding, but that doesn’t matter because it’s the wrong brand entirely: The NMAA uses Wilson basketballs as their official ball.
There is a limited amount of gameplay footage in the movie, so the only other broken rule we noticed was this:
On the left side of that image, two players on the bench and a coach are on the court while the play is live. According to rule 10, section 4, articles 2 and 4 of the NFHS Basketball Rules Book:
“Bench personnel, including the head coach, shall not: ART. 2 . . . Enter the court unless by permission of an official to attend an injured player. […] ART. 4 . . . Stand at the team bench while the clock is running or is stopped, and must remain seated.”
This would be a technical foul, so East High would be awarded two free throws and possession of the ball. However, this is more an issue of etiquette: A reasonable official wouldn’t call this infraction unless the offending parties disrupted the game, especially in such a close contest, so this one is fine to let slide.
THE VERDICT: There’s not much for us to go off of here, but aside from a few small violations, they seem to have gotten it right.
5) The Championship
This is it. The big game. The final showdown.
There’s some history here: At 21:55, Coach Bolton says that West High has knocked East High out of the playoffs the last three years. Despite that, Coach Bolton also tells Troy at 54:23, “Championship games, they don’t come around all the time.” Well, you’ve been in the running for the past three, so they kind of do. Regardless, that’s rivalry material right there.
In order to make it to the championship game, Troy hit a buzzer beater in the previous contest, according to the photo caption in this newspaper article:
This could have been a goldmine resource, but the above image is, unfortunately, the clearest shot we get of the newspaper. It says his buzzer-beater “advances Wildcats to District Playoffs,” a sentiment echoed by the headline, but we think this is the filmmakers not realizing there is a difference between “playoffs” and “championship.” The playoffs are the entire tournament, the championship is the final game/round of that tournament.
Now that we’re at the championship game, let’s get into it. It’s nitpicking time.
West High is using both sides of the court for a dribbling warm-up drill. There’s no clear rule on teams having to be confined to one side of the court, especially since East High hasn’t entered the gym yet, but this is more of a courtesy thing. You stick to your side of the court so you don’t have to get out of the other team’s way when they come out and mingle with the enemy before the opening tip-off.
When East High emerges, they do a classic lay-up drill: Totally fine and realistic.
At the opening tip-off, you see Troy and Garza each have a foot over lines they are not supposed to cross:
Ideally, for the jump ball, the official would establish a position at exactly midcourt and make sure both jumping players are behind the line, so as to not give either team an unfair advantage.
This next issue is less of a definitive ruling and more of a question from us to you:
The math club runs some sort of code that causes the scoreboard and all the lights in the gym to go bonkers, forcing the game to be delayed (which the school handles fine, by the way: the principal asks everybody to leave the gym when things start going amiss, and while there is no rule on what to do in that kind of situation, it seems like a good policy put in place by the school).
Our question is whether or not a laptop has the capability to disrupt the gym lights and scoreboard (specifically, a Fair-Play BB-1520-4 Basketball Scoreboard) like that. We’re leaning towards no, but we don’t have enough knowledge about that kind of thing to give you a definitive answer. During that sequence, though, we discovered a disturbing continuity error:
Either that time and score don’t make sense, or these two high school teams played the most productive and spectacular two seconds in the history of the sport by combining to score an astounding 16 points.
Above you’ll see the audience at Troy and Gabriella’s rehearsal for the musical. In the back of the crowd, upper-left corner of the photo, you see West High players giving the duo a standing ovation. Is that something you could really get yourself to do in the middle of an important basketball game? How could you return to guarding the guy when you were on your feet cheering his musical abilities just minutes earlier?
Now for the final, game-winning play: Troy gets a steal with about 12 seconds left, so down 66 to 67, he brings the ball down the floor and sets up a decent play considering they didn’t have a time-out beforehand and there’s not much time left. Here’s the play, diagrammed:
In case you can’t make that out (which is totally fair), here’s what happened: Troy makes a pass to Marks, No. 3 (who apparently plays in crunch time over starting center Garza, who was not in the game for the final possession). Troy then runs near where Zeke is, perhaps hoping to get his defender tangled up in a mess of bodies down there. While Marks still has the ball, Troy curls up around the free throw line and has his man screened by Chad. This leaves Troy open to receive a pass from Marks for a moderately contested mid-range jump shot, which he hits as time expires to give the East High Wildcats the 68-67 victory.
That’s actually a pretty legitimate play. East High wouldn’t have had time to set up a patient, elaborate offense, so the best thing to do was to try freeing Troy up for the final shot. He’ll obviously receive more attention with the ball in his hands, so he gives it up in order to attempt to shake his defender off twice (once by Zeke, again with Chad’s screen). West High probably should have double-teamed a lethal scorer like Troy, but again, there wasn’t much time left for either time to think much about what they were doing. East High sure made the best of the situation, though. And way to come off the bench for the game-winning assist, Marks.
East High wouldn’t have had time to set up a patient, elaborate offense, so the best thing to do was free Troy up for the final shot.
The basketball gameplay is actually pretty accurate, and the only other error we found was logistical. We established earlier that the game takes place on January 20, 2006, but assuming that East High follows the traditional high school basketball season, the game happened way too early in the year. According to the NFHS, the final rounds of the playoffs for the 2005-2006 high school basketball season took place between March 16 and 18, so the East High/West High championship game was actually a couple months too early.
THE FINAL VERDICT: For a pseudo-sports-movie, High School Musical was actually relatively faithful to the source material with its treatment of basketball. The only rules broken were somewhat minor ones, and the play of the game appears to be natural and realistic, the only major error (the early scoring surge according to the scoreboard) is more of a continuity error than a basketball inaccuracy.
Is High School Musical a sports movie? It is certainly not. Very little of the film’s run time is devoted to the sports, but when the game is on, does it make sense? It certainly does.
Thanks for taking this stupid, stupid journey with us, and remember…
IMAGES: All images are screenshots from the movie High School Musical.