Basketball is an eduring passion in Indiana

Dale Lawrence

America's No. 1 basketball event climaxes this week in America's No. 1 basketball state: The NCAA Final Four is coming to town April 1 and 3 at the RCA Dome. Though the game was invented in Massachusetts, Indiana is where basketball's popularity really took hold, first at the high school level - where local passion for the sport was (and to some extent remains) unprecedented - then expanding with the century to include the college and pro games.

It's always a little hard for nonresidents to grasp just what a big deal high school basketball is in this state. When I inform friends from California or Florida that 12 of the world's 13 largest high school gyms are located in Indiana, or that even today regular-season games sometimes draw crowds of 5,000 or more, they usually assume I'm making a joke. When Wingate, a school of 60 students (80 percent of whom were girls), won the state tournament in 1913, the town responded with a middle-of-the-night hero's welcome, an organized parade, a town victory dinner and immediate plans to fund a new gymnasium. It was a scenario that turned out to be a paradigm, reenacted many times by many different communities over the next century.

While doing research a few years back, it was suggested to me by an official at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame that Milan's 1954 state championship (the only small-school title of the modern era; inspiration for the film Hoosiers) was perhaps the single biggest event in Indiana history. It seemed an absurd claim until I actually tried to think of a bigger one. Certainly wars and depressions have had bigger impacts, but those can't really be considered specifically Indiana events. He may have been right.

Exactly why basketball is so popular here is a question whose answer is probably always going to remain somewhat elusive. The closest thing to a consensus theory goes like this: Indiana has always been a predominantly agricultural state, whose population's free leisure time naturally occurs during the winter months. Furthermore, for most of the 20th century (and unlike neighboring Illinois, Ohio or Michigan), Indiana had no major pro-sports franchise, basketball or otherwise, so threw its allegiance to the local high school team. For as far as it goes, this explanation makes sense. One can't help feeling, however, that there's something missing. This version of the story accounts for why high school games have historically drawn so well, but not for why they're the center of the universe for so many residents.

When I think of why I prefer basketball to other sports, I can easily come up with reasons. (For one, I like the fact that you have just five players per side on a relatively limited playing area, making it easy to appreciate the physical patterns of team play without sacrificing players' personalities. Unlike football, you can always see their faces.) It's just that those reasons don't seem to have much to do with my status as a Hoosier. And in fact, it's the emotional resonance that the game has here - the connections between team and community, the particular flavor of Indiana basketball - that I find most appealing of all. Which pretty much puts us back where we started.

Perhaps it has something to do with the amazing amount of hardwood talent that has hailed from here. That a single state could account for John Wooden, Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird (just for starters) is pretty darn striking. But that ultimately is a chicken-or-egg argument: Did the talent spawn the passion or the environment nurture the talent? Certainly the longevity of our late, still lamented state tournament, with its winner-take-all format, had a lot to do with it. Year in and year out, it was a galvanizing force for Hoosiers, as well as the only high school tournament to ever matter beyond state lines, to ever capture the national imagination.

It was also, of course, literally the model for the modern NCAA basketball tourney, its 64 sectionals translating to a field of 64 college teams.

And, just as who won the state was never more important to Hoosiers than how far the best little schools could get in a given year, so for many hoops fans, it's not the Final Four that's the most compelling part of the college tournament - it's those first and second and third round games, when obscure mid-majors pull the unexpected upsets, when Valpo makes the Sweet Sixteen, when Princeton sends UCLA home early. Forest Park High doesn't get to measure itself against the big boys anymore, but Bradley and Wichita State sure do!

So it is especially fitting that Indiana is hosting the Final Four this particular year, when George Mason University broke through, winning not just an early-round game or two, but pulling four straight upsets to become only the second 11th seed or lower to ever reach the finals. No offense to UCLA, Florida or LSU, but I think I know which team most of my fellow Hoosiers will be pulling for this weekend.

Dale Lawrence is a member of the Vulgar Boatmen and the author of Hoosier Hysteria Roadbook (2001, Diamond Communications).


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