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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2019 812 Magazine

Is Indiana still the basketball state?


Some say we've lost the Hysteria that used to go with Hoosier. But find the right gym on the right night and, well, you'll wonder why we even had to ask.


My grandpa came from humble beginnings. He was raised during the Depression on a small 42-acre farm in Flat Rock, Ind. His mother sold eggs at the local market, and his father raised corn, oats, clover hay, cattle and hogs. When he was 12, his father rigged a backboard and a hoop to the top of an old telephone post in the barn lot - a much-needed upgrade from the tin can he had nailed to the side of the garage. Students in Flat Rock didn't have organized basketball until grade 7, which, for my grandpa came in 1949. That same year he started running a plow for 33 cents an hour, earning up to $4 a day during planting and harvesting seasons. Come winter, though, he longed to do what every other Hoosier-born farm boy wanted to do.

Play basketball.

My grandpa speaks of those days in a preserving tone, as if to seal the game in a jar the same way his mother used to can peaches. Those peaches tasted even sweeter in the dead of winter, he recalls. His stories about playing high school basketball in the early 1950s give me a similar taste of sweetness. He pulls a jar from the shelf, wipes the dust from the lid and opens it to remind me of the way the game used to be. Then, after a long pause, he sets the jar aside, shakes his head and tells me basketball is losing ground in Indiana.

Most Hoosiers would agree that the game has fallen on tough times. It's been almost 15 years since the last single-class tournament, Indiana University is coming off two of its worst seasons in the program's history and the recent success of the Indianapolis Colts has a lot of Hoosiers thinking football. Some of us question if our self-proclamation as "the basketball state" is anything more than a failed attempt to preserve what little Hysteria we Hoosiers have left. Maybe if we continue talking about how much we love basketball, letting the delightful taste of what once was linger on our tongues, we'll be able to convince the other 49 states that Indiana is still deserving of its cherished title.

We were once known for our winner-take-all high school boy's tournament and the cream of the crop players it produced. Every community had a high school and each one competed for the same championship, which, in the 1930s was up for grabs to nearly 800 teams. Eventually, schools consolidated, and by 1975 the tournament fell to roughly 400. In 1997, the Indiana High School Athletic Association ruled in favor of four-class basketball, devaluing the worth of a state title by crowning four champions every year, which, some say, killed Hoosier Hysteria.

Regardless of where you stand in this time of uncertainty, let's reach through the cobwebs together and open a jar of sweet, old-fashioned Indiana basketball. Now, I understand that some people need more than just canned history to prove we're still the basketball state, and I'll get to that. But for now, let's look at how the game of basketball, as we know it today, grew organically from Indiana soil.

WE FIT THE GAME

Back when basketball was nothing more than a seed, it fell on our rich Indiana soil. Hoosiers nurtured the game and watched it flourish. The growing conditions were perfect. Eventually, the game's roots reached deep into the dirt and basketball became a part of our state's identity.

James Naismith, the inventor of the game, once wrote that basketball was established in Massachusetts, but had its origins in Indiana.

One of his top aides, the Rev. Nicholas McKay, brought the game to Crawfordsville, Ind., in the late 1800s. Once here, he substituted iron hoops for peach baskets, taking the first step toward the modern-day rims and nets and the notion that we Hoosiers "perfected" the game.

By 1911, the IHSAA had established the first official high school boys' tournament with 12 teams. Fittingly, Crawfordsville was the first state champion. During the next 85 years, the state tournament grew as more schools formed basketball teams. The nature of Indiana, with its network of small towns and farming communities, drove the sport's popularity. Most kids worked on farms in the spring and fall, which left winter free for sports. Basketball aligned perfectly with the seasons, not interrupting planting and harvesting the way baseball and football did. Those sports also required more players and greater start-up costs for equipment. Even the smallest schools could have a basketball team. It only takes five boys to play, seven if you need substitutes.

"Hoosiers," the movie based on the 1954 state championship game between Milan and Muncie Central, captures the flavor of small town Indiana basketball. Today, the Milan Miracle is one of basketball's most celebrated underdog stories. What most sports fans don't realize, though, is similar upsets happened in Kentucky, Illinois and Wisconsin around the same time. The story from Indiana just happened to be made into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Emerson Houck, author of "Hoosiers All: Indiana High School Basketball Teams," has followed Indiana basketball for more than 50 years. As more schools entered the tournament, the state became better connected, he says. Teams that won were met with the need to travel, and carried with them Hoosier values such as playing hard, winning and losing with grace and working together as a team.

As important as travel, though, were the local sectionals and the pride towns took in having the best basketball team in their area. Champion teams became a significant part of a town's identity, giving rise to the construction of enormous gyms all over the state, each of which was packed full, some with as many as 10,000 fans every Friday night.

Today, Indiana still has nine of the 10 largest high school gymnasiums in the country.

WE SPREAD THE WORD

Within these large field houses, Indiana produced some of its most valuable crop. Basketball players, coaches and styles of play sprouted from the hardwood in front of the largest high school crowds in the country. As the sport became more popular nationally, state borders began to fade. But if you travel to some of the nation's other basketball-crazed states and dig deep enough, you'll find their traditions come from Indiana.

Take John Wooden. Before becoming the coach at the University of California, Los Angeles, Wooden led Martinsville High School to three straight state finals as a player, winning the championship in 1927. He later won twice as many National Collegiate Athletic Association championships as any other basketball coach.

Everett Case, who coached Frankfort High School to four state championships, popularized basketball in North Carolina and the ACC after being named head coach at North Carolina State in 1946. Case's winning record, which spanned his 18-year career, still stands as the best in school history. It's even rumored that he took from Indiana the tradition of cutting down the nets after a big win.

"I'm not sure who started that," Houck says. "I don't remember them cutting down nets in Illinois in the '50s. I can't swear they didn't do it in Kansas, but I would bet it probably is a tradition rooted in Indiana."

Everett Dean, the first basketball All-American at Indiana University, went on to coach at his alma mater and is credited with developing what he called "progressive basketball," or the modern day fast break. Dean then took his coaching style out west to Stanford, leading the 1942 team to the NCAA championship with his up-tempo style of play.

Branch McCracken, a former All-American under Dean, went on to coach the Hoosiers to two NCAA championships in 1940 and 1953. His team, called the Hurryin' Hoosiers or "point-a-minute men," pushed the ball up the floor as Dean's teams had done. While the fast-paced, offensive attack wasn't strictly Indiana, it was a style most frequently found in the Midwest. Dean and McCracken helped popularize what was then called "firehouse basketball."

Bob Knight, a man synonymous with Indiana basketball, is widely known for his strict coaching style, clean programs and incendiary temper. Knight came to Indiana University in 1971, where he coached the Hoosiers to one National Invitation Tournament, three national championships and eleven Big Ten conference championships. He also coached the USA men's Olympic team to a gold medal in 1984 and currently holds the record for more career wins than any other NCAA men's basketball coach.

Larry Bird is another name that hardly needs elaboration. The "hick from French Lick" led Indiana State to its first NCAA tournament appearance, losing in the national championship game his senior year. Bird then won three NBA championships as a Boston Celtic from 1979 to 1992. After his playing career, he returned to Indiana and coached the Pacers for three years. Today, he's the team's president and still a basketball icon in Boston.

"A lot of states claim to be big on basketball," says Bob Padgett, author of "Hatchets - A Comprehensive History of Washington High School Basketball." "But there sure is a lot of Hoosier-blood in those places."

WE BROKE BARRIERS

From 1910 to 1940, The African American Great Migration changed America's racial landscape. Nearly 2 million black Southerners headed for points north - mostly big, industrialized cities like Indianapolis and Gary. This sparked racism in those states, shifting the Ku Klux Klan's political power from the South to Indiana and reinforcing the barriers that would soon be broken on the basketball court.

In 1947, Bill Garrett led Shelbyville High School to a state championship and was named Indiana's Mr. Basketball. That fall he arrived at Indiana University and became the first black basketball player in the Big Ten.

Celebrated sports writer Bob Hammel remembers the sociological impact of Garrett's recruitment. "It was a gentleman's agreement, of all things to call it, that no one in the Big Ten would draft black players," Hammel says. "As shameful as that era was, it was transitioning on its own."

The Klan had long played a role in Indianapolis' politics and pushed to keep schools racially divided. In 1955, there were three all-black high schools left in Indiana, two of which played in the state title game. Crispus Attucks, led by Oscar Robertson and coach Ray Crowe, became the first all-black school to win an integrated tournament anywhere in the nation.

"It was especially pronounced because of the racism and conservatism in Indiana," sport sociologist Gary Sailes says. "The IHSAA banned Attucks until the mid-1940s. Them winning put a stamp on Black Nationalism, dispelling the myths of inferiority and proving, not that we're better, but we're equal and we can compete. Just give us a chance and open the door."

Prior to that year, an Indianapolis-based school had never won in the tournament's 44-year history. Attucks then went on to win state in 1956 and again in 1959.

"Crowe's coaching style centered on the talent and athleticism of his players. He let the horses out of the corral so to speak," Sailes says. "During a time when the philosophy of basketball was to slow it down and work the play, Attucks would come out, put on a dunking show during warm-ups, run their opponents hard on offense and swarm them on defense. It was a style of play most of the opposing teams had never seen."

In 1966, Texas Western upset heavily favored Kentucky to become the first team in NCAA history to win a national championship with five black starters, two of which were from Gary, Ind. Western's coach, Don Haskins, implemented a flexible coaching style comparable to Crowe's. Later, the game was considered a milestone in the integration of black basketball players in college. But Bob Hammel questions that game's landmark status. "Eleven years prior to that, in a state that once was a Klan state, Indiana accepted the fact that blacks could play basketball quite well," Hammel says.

DO WE STILL HAVE IT?

Basketball is written in our state's history. We shaped the game and the game shaped us. It built schools, defined communities and brought the entire state together. It's easy to get caught up in that history - to think back to a simpler time when basketball breathed life into every single town in Indiana. Back when nobody would question whether or not we were the basketball state because, well, we were mad about it. Furious. Foolish. Senseless. And if you were crazy enough to doubt it, you still weren't as crazy as Hoosiers' love for the game.

The question, though, isn't were we once the basketball state. That's easy. Just sit down with my grandpa for 30 minutes and he'll tell you about Friday night games at Flat Rock, the packed gyms, the cheer blocks and the way they turned the firehouse into a dancehall after a big win. He'll tell you about taking his sweetheart to the Chicken and Steak Inn for a Coke before cruising around Shelbyville's town square in his gray 1949 Pontiac Sedan. He'll tell you about his Flat Rock letterman jacket, how they used to issue them to basketball players only, and then he'll try it on and laugh at how it fits a little tighter these days. But as sweet as those stories are, we can't live off canned history forever. The more we keep trying to convince ourselves that Indiana is still the basketball state, the faster we run out of jars.

In search of a fresh batch, my grandpa and I drove south on Indiana State Road 57 to watch Cody Zeller and the Washington Hatchets open their season against fellow Daviess County rival Barr-Reeve. Zeller, before signing with Indiana University in November, was one of the most sought after recruits in all of college basketball. He's just one of eight high school players to recently commit to the Hoosiers, seven of whom are from within state borders and five of whom are among the top 100 recruits in their class. It looks like coach Tom Crean is not only restoring a struggling IU basketball program, but also building a fence around the state and keeping our well-coached talent in Indiana. Finally.

We arrived in Washington, Ind., not long before tip-off. The town was dormant, and we were forced to park three blocks away from the gym. The Hatchet House, as it's affectionately known, seats 7,090. That night was the unveiling of last year's state championship banner, the sixth one in Washington's history and third of the Zeller era. We walked in at court level and were surrounded by fans and gold and black banners hanging from the rafters. Dave Crooks, the voice of the Hatchets for the past nine years, says attendance was easily 6,500. It was a Wednesday night.

Roger Gillingham hasn't missed a Washington game since 1976. He sits courtside every week keeping stats of the game. "I'm a little off tonight," he tells me, as he reviews his game notes. "Missed a couple of baskets there in the second quarter." Gillingham never looks up from his stat sheet as we talk. Not until I ask him if basketball in Indiana is dead.

He shoots me a puzzled look. "Dead?" He asks, now laughing. "I can't speak for other parts of the state, but around here, in Daviess and Martin counties, in Southern Indiana, basketball hasn't slowed down a bit. Just look at all these fans."

Washington won. Zeller put up 30 points and 13 rebounds. After the game, my grandpa and I drove in silence for a while. Then, somewhere along Old U.S. 50, I spoke up:

"There sure were a lot of people in attendance tonight," I say.

"Yeah," he added. "Kind of reminds me of back when I played ball."

He smiled.

We arrived home and added another jar to the shelf, this one fresher than the rest, with a shiny lid and our reflections in the glass. Neither of us said anything else, but we both knew it.

Basketball in Indiana still tastes just as sweet.

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