Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hoosier Hysteria

Wingate won the state title in 1913 and again in 1914.
As the first decade of the 20th century ended, two entertainment realities were in evidence: There would be a 500-mile car race in Indianapolis ... and it would be hard to get a ticket to watch the local high school basketball team in action.

The Indy 500 has been explored in another blog ABOUT CARL FISHER,  though I have learned that the race itself was not considered popular by the moneyed class of the early 20th century. Instead, it was viewed as banal, appealing only to the lower classes.

It's nice to know that Indiana, in 1912, had an upper crust.

Not so true with basketball, however.

As an aside, Indiana's love of basketball is a legend that has outlived its truth. There is empirical evidence to show that the popularity of the high school-level sport began a gradual decline in the late 1960s, attributed to the closing of the hundreds of small township schools and the creation of larger, less appealing consolidations.

That is not, however, the point of this blog item.

What is the point is that as Indiana became more homogenized in the 1910s, communities found a central focus in their schools.

One thing leading to another, somebody had decided to take James Naismith's creation to another level. Peach baskets, be damned ... somebody made a couple of iron rims and tacked them up in the school cafeteria.

A game was held.

As luck would have it, somebody challenged the school down the road to a game, and history was about to be made.

Details, yarns of great adversity, challenge and the picket fence aside, high school basketball became a lifestyle of its own inside an imaginary triangle stretching from Lafayette south to Crawfordsville, and eastward to Lebanon.

It was inside this triangle that the first high school basketball powerhouses thrived. Crawfordsville won the first tournament, in 1911, over Lebanon. Tossing in Wingate and Thorntown over the next few years, the power base was clear.

But the immense popularity of the sport could not have been fully anticipated. After Crawfordsville won the first title over Lebanon, the state athletic association (formed in 1903, oddly) agreed to govern the sport, and basketball soon became most important event in the state.

Carl Fisher wasn't bothered by that.

A billion books have been written about the history of basketball in Indiana, and glowing claims of its importance fall into disbelief. Indiana just had more enthusiastic fans than other places did, though most top colleges recruited heavily in Indiana and the state's reputation for producing top talent endured well into the late 1970s.

Nobody seems to know why, though Indiana was appealing to some of the top coaches. Players excelled because, well ... that's just what they did.

Those early years were part of a culture in Indiana that spoke to a more rudimentary form of entertainment. It wasn't like the symphony was playing a concert in Brownsville.

Brownsville did win a sectional tournament in 1946, in case you cared.

Brookville's earliest success came in 1916, when it reached the finals of a 16-team field before losing to Vincennes.

The non-homophobic Franklin Wonder 5 (1920)
James B. Madison, in writing "The Indiana Way" in 1986, explains some of the sport's appeal. "Basketball was especially important to the small towns and rural townships. Because it required relatively few players and because skills could be developed with only a ball and a hoop above a barn or garage door, every school had the chance to compete."

And ...

"Basketball often seemed a fairy-tale sport with a timeless form and ritual that created shared emotions and bound individuals in a community that seemed to transcend everyday life."

The game was largely played only by whites and the few African-Americans who did play often faced bias and ridicule.

While basketball held sway in rural towns, as the 1920s approached, so did the birth of college football, fueled mainly by the exploits of Knute Rockne at Notre Dame.

Indiana was indeed finding time for leisure as the state's centennial approached in 1916.


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