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Where the Game Matters Most

Posted on March 23 2019


Today is the IHSAA Boys Basketball State Championship games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.  Hoosiers have long thought that we teach and play the game better than any other state and used our single class basketball tournament as our showcase each year.  It was a part of our fabric, our being.  The IHSAA has since moved on to a multi-class tournament and Indiana HS basketball has lost a little of its mystique.

William Gildea's "Where the Game Matters Most" about the last single class tournament in Indiana High School basketball history was released in December  of 1997.  Chapter 1 titled "The Mystique" can be read below.  His book is available for purchase here.    

The Mystique

Indiana. The state is shaped something like a stocking hung on a fireplace at Christmas.  Evansville is in the toe.  The capital, Indianapolis, is dead center.  From it radiate routes to flat fertile farmland, to middle-size cities like Fort Wayne and Kokomo, to the industrial northwest Gary region, which faces Chicago and operates on central time, south to Kentucky and Boone country.  Indiana's hills that parallel the north bank of the Ohio River roll like gentle waves, and the sun sets so slowly on late-autumn days it seems suspended. 

Basketball in Indiana, particularly high school basketball, is as universal as the freight whistle there.  The game binds diverse people and places.  They're all Hoosiers, a team that defies derivation but may stem from a slang expression- "Who's here?" is one of countless possible etymologies.  The Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley suggested the word derived from a pioneer settler entering a barroom in the morning after a brawl, seeing an ear on the floor, asking, "Whose ear?"

Hoosiers carry on enduring loves.  A small display on a desk in the athletic department at Evansville Bosse High defined a Hoosier this way: "A person born or living in Indiana, industrious, hospitable, down-home folk, who enjoys popcorn, race cars and BASKETBALL."  And basketball begins in earnest in the high school gyms.  The gymnasiums range from the second-floor bandbox of Cannelton High, on the Ohio River, enrollment eighty, to the one at New Castle in eastern Indiana, which seats 9,314 and is the world's largest high school gymnasium.  Indiana boasts fifteen of the country's sixteen largest high school gyms.  These are known as "Hoosier Temples."

Nicholas C. McKay, a protege of James Naismith, basketball's inventor, brought the game to Indiana in 1893, to Crawfordsville, an early cultural center called the "Athens of Indiana."  Crawfordsville's high school teams are still known as the Athenians.  Delphi has its Oracles, Martinsville the Artesians, for the spring waters that flowed there.  Speedway High is the Sparkplugs.  Many teams are called Indians, for whom the state was named; prehistoric Mound Builders of a thousand years ago are the earliest known inhabitants.  Elsewhere in the United States basketball was a diversion to fill time between autumn and spring.  Not in Indiana.  Winter was the one season when rural Hoosiers had free time.  The rest was taken up by farming: planting a spring, working the fields in summer, harvesting in fall.  As Indiana University coach Bob Knight put it: "Basketball was invented in Massachusetts and developed in Indiana."

The first all-comers high school tournament was held in 1911.  Crawfordsville won the championship by beating Lebanon, 24-17.  The high school tournament became an annual rite, a sacred institution, a touchstone of Indiana culture.  On old recordings, the moment in 1954 when Plump won the state championship for Milan in Indianapolis's Butler Fieldhouse sounds like 15,000 people screaming into the same tin cup.  Plump's shot completed an improbable journey through the tournament by a school with only 161 students, a dot on the map.  The tournament, open to all schools regardless of size, became the Hoosiers' vehicle for reenacting the biblical story of David and Goliath.

Nothing like Milan's upset has happened since.  But high school basketball and its tournament retained a grip on the Indiana populace.  From early legends such as John Wooden of Martinsville's 1927 champions to the latest rising star, Indiana hoops has connected different eras into a strand of brightly burning lights.

There was the "Big O."  As Cyril Birge, eighty-one, who jumped center (after every basket) for Jasper in the 1930s and later refereed, said: "As many games as I officiated and watched, you see a lot of people you don't remember.  And others, like Oscar Robertson, hell, when he was a sophomore or junior in high school and I saw him I came home and told my wife, 'If there's a better ballplayer than Oscar Robertson, it'd have to be Jesus Christ himself.'"

In 1955 and '56, Robertson led Crispus Attucks of Indianapolis to state championships.  The year 1955 marked the first time that an Indianapolis school won the title, and 1956 was the first time that a school in the state went undefeated.  Attucks compiled a 61-1 record during Robertson's junior and senior years.  The balance of basketball power began to shift to the big-city schools.  It was a victory of urban over rural, just as John F. Kennedy's succeeding Eisenhower in 1960 was portrayed by Norman Mailer.

Lebanon's Rick Mount, "The Rocket," with the mid-sixties blond curlicue forelock, was Indiana's "Mr. Basketball" of 1966 and the first high school athlete to look out at America from a Sports Illustrated cover.  And inside the February 14, 1966, magazine he was pictured wearing narrow-cut jeans and varsity jacket, leaning against a light pole on Main Street.  Frank Deford wrote: "Rick Mount does fish for crappies and channel cat out in Cool Lake, and he wanders through the woods outside of town hunting for rabbits with his beagle Bootsy at his side, but he also has a lavender '57 Chevy convertible and a pretty little blonde who wants to be a dental technician, and he take her to the Sky Vue Drive-In and to the Tom Boy for Cokes and 19 cent hamburgers."

The seventies brought the reserved Larry Bird, the self-proclaimed "Hick from French Lick," Indiana's ultimate small-town basketball success story: the immortal Boston Celtic.  During the eighties, Steve Alford played for his father, Sam, at New Castle, and every time he did, the mammoth field house was filled.  Damon Bailey, the state's all-time leading scorer, was loved so much that on March 24, 1990, a crowd of 41,046, the largest ever to attend a high school basketball game, poured into Indianapolis's domed stadium to watch him lead Bedford North Lawrence to the state championship.  On the day Bailey delivered the title, the excitement in Indiana was so all-encompassing that the single-class tournament seemed like the Hoosiers' version of soccer's World Cup.

The winnowing process leading to a single champion in Indiana was harrowing.  One defeat and a team was out.  The 382 teams began play with either two or three sectional games at 64 sites, followed by 16 regionals of 64 teams, then four so-called semi states of four teams each, and finally the final four.  To prevail, the champion not only had to escape sectional week and its rivals waiting in ambush but also had to win two games on each of three consecutive Saturdays in the regionals, semistates, and finals.  How could most teams think of winning it all?

Indiana traditionalists have always contended that winning the four-week tournament wasn't the important thing.  It was everyone having a chance, in theory at least.  It was the competing, and the coping with adversity.  Most considered the tournament as the chance for modest success, for players to be champiions among people who knew them, rather than the champiions to thousands they didn't know.  The tournament's first stage, the sectionals, crowned the best team in the neighborhood, and offered miracles in doing so.  Crossroads Davids would again beat county-seat Goliaths in 1997. 

But the 1996-97 high school basketball season in Indiana was like no other this century.  There'd been tremors, but the change hit like an earthquake.  A way of life was disappearing.  The season would be the last in which every one of Indiana's high schools would be grouped together to compete for a single state championship.  Before the season even opened, Indianans lamented that the champion to be crowned in the RCA Dome on March 22, 1997, would be what they were calling the last "true" champion.  Only three other states- Delaware, Hawaii, and Kentucky- retain single tournaments.  The prospect of change so drastic fell heavily on Hoosier hearts.

On April 29, 1996, the Indiana High School Athletic Association's board of directors voted twelve to five to change Indiana's game- a change that, according to polls, was something unwanted by a majority of fans, coaches, and, significantly, athletes.  The impetus came from small-school principals who wanted their students to have a better chance to win a title of some sort.  In September of that year, Indiana school principals affirmed the board's action by a vote of 220 to 157.  Small-school principals again made the difference, although Milan and other small schools voted to keep the tradition.  But newer principals and many elected recently to the IHSAA board no longer were so-called "basketball people"; in decades past many school principals were former basketball coaches.  In January of 1995, a diehard traditionalist retired as the IHSAA commissioner, clearing the way for a vote by the board.  The new commissioner, Bob Gardner, wa not swayed by sentimentality, even though he once was Milan's principal and a piece of the old Milan gym floor decorated his office.

No less a guardian of Indiana basketball and its traditions than Bob Knight concurred with the move to the class system.  "Basketball's changed a lot in twenty or twenty-five years, and there probably are, with certain rare exceptions, only a certain percentage of schools that can actually win a state tournament in a state like this," he said one day after an I.U. practice in Bloomington.  "And in the majority of cases, probably the vast majority of cases, they're going to be schools from relatively populated areas.  I think a class system provides teams and communities the opportunity to be playing for a state championship where obviously they otherwise wouldn't be.  i think people will kind of enjoy the competition that involves relatively equal schools.'"

Knight had won more than 700 games at I.U., but most Hoosiers disagreed with him on class basketball.  When his viewpoint was noted, some even countered that he grew up in Ohio.

Most Hoosiers insisted that, win or lose, little schools taking on bigger ones often motivated young people to do better than they believed possible.  Hoosiers argued that at that special time in their lives when almost anything seemed possible, young people were having possibility taken from them.

Bird shared that opinion, "Being from a small town, I really don't like class basketball.  My dream and my goal was to play with the big boys, and the only way we could do that was to work our way through the tournament," he said.  "Playing against the big boys and beating them is a dream for everyone."

Walking into a high school gym in Indiana in the fall of 1996 meant hearing talk about the demise of the single tournament.  Steve Witty, the respected coach of Ben Davis High in Indianapolis, envisioned a serious loss in revenue that went to all the schools' athletic departments, enabling them to operate without taxpayers' money.  He foresaw players having to travel farther to tournament games and missing more school time.  As coach of a powerhouse team that had won the state championship in 1995 and '96 he admitted that his words had been ridiculed.

"As parents we want our kids to have it better than we had it," said Witty.  "what we do is make it easier for them.  We want to win the title and we want the media gratification.  We're all greedy, we have that quality in our society.  But we use basketball to teach the game of life, and when you go to class basketball I don't know what you're teaching kids.  Are we teaching them that they're not good enough to go toe Indianapolis and take on the big boys?  Once there was a group of thirteen colonies.  People said they were crazy to take on the most powerful country in the world.  If we had a class-basketball mentality back then we might not have our independence today.  Now that may be an exaggeration, but life in not a level playing field."

One more thing:  "The mystique of Indiana basketball will be lost."

Josh Barnett

Blogger | H.V.S.

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