Basketball means more in Indiana
Dana O'Neil [ARCHIVE]
January 31, 2013
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Following the dump truck along Route 50 East in Indiana was a huge advantage. It offered an excuse to drive slowly over the curved and hilly two-lane road between Bedford and Seymour; to appreciate the changing leaf colors, and most important, to scour driveways and farms in search of a symbol of what basketball is and means in this part of the country.

For two days this past October, Indiana locals spun stories of idyllic childhoods, when basketball was both the competitive outlet and social conduit for kids in every corner of the Midwest. The love affair with the game grew out of those early years, blossoming into an all-out basketball passion that consumes the state like nowhere else in the country.

Besides maybe Kansas and Kentucky, no state population identifies itself more with a college team than Indiana.

When the Hoosiers suffered the shame and stain of NCAA sanctions, the entire state suffered along with them.

And now that the Hoosiers are back -- ranked No. 3 in the country and one of a handful of favorites to make the Final Four -- the state's passion is once again flourishing. On Saturday, ESPN's "College GameDay" returns to Bloomington for the first time since 2008 for the Hoosiers' Big Ten showdown with No. 1 Michigan.

But what separates Indiana from other places with a steady hoops heartbeat -- Kentucky, Kansas, Tobacco Road -- is that here, it is not simply about the Hoosiers.

The love affair is far more personal and intimate, almost in reverse of everyplace else. It doesn't start with devotion to IU -- or even Butler's famed Hinkle Fieldhouse -- that trickles down.

It starts with the basketball goal that, by its mere presence, redefines a space from a simple driveway or hayloft into a gym, and trickles up.

Locals love to tell stories about how they played on goals nailed to pretty much anything old-fashioned ingenuity could conjure.

I'd heard about barns as backboards and haymows as courts, about garages used to set picks and the home-court advantage of a partially paved drive.

I just hadn't seen any.

I'd come across plenty of portable hoops that you'd buy at sporting goods stores and more than a share of the ones cemented into the ground, but none of the makeshift versions folks liked to brag about.

I began to wonder if maybe the iconic images of the past had been entirely replaced with the online-ordering convenience of ready-made hoops.

And then, as I drove along Route 50, there it was, on a farm off the left side of the road -- a gigantic silver silo, and stuck on its front, a basketball goal -- a vision of Hoosier nostalgia and heartland hope.

I made a quick U-turn into the gravel-lined driveway. There was a car in the carport, so I was optimistic that maybe someone was home.

I knocked and waited but no one answered, so I wandered toward the silo to have a look. A farm spread out behind it, with a barn to the left.

I stared at the silo for a bit before leaving, but as I continued my weeklong visit through the state, I found myself thinking of it again and again and what it represented.

California has its wineries; New Jersey its shore towns. In Massachusetts, you can walk the Freedom Trail; in Kentucky, you travel the Bourbon Trail.

In Indiana, it is the gyms defined by the hanging of a basketball goal -- hung majestically at Assembly Hall, where IU plays, or simply on the side of a silo -- that connect the state.

"When I was growing up, you had your ABC, NBC, CBS and then you had Channel 4, the independent channel. Every Friday night, they'd have Indiana games and then Purdue games. So when I was a kid, that's what you did. You'd sit there and watch.''

-- ESPN analyst and former Indiana player and assistant coach Dan Dakich

INDIANAPOLIS -- Their noses pressed against the glass doors, the elementary school boys elbowed each other for position.

"I wish I could go in there,'' one boy said to his buddy.

"I wish I could play here,'' his friend responded longingly.

The Butler University basketball offices were the inner sanctum of awe for this particular crop of kids from Hagerstown, part of a fifth-grade class field trip to the hoops mecca, Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Of course, a 10-year-old can't quite wrap his arms around the significance of an 85-year-old basketball gym built with 15,000 seats so the high school playoff crowds could be accommodated. He probably can't quite grasp the importance of the 1928 state championship game that was played there, the one in which Martinsville lost 13-12 after a guy named John Wooden missed a free throw; or the significance of Bobby Plump's shot without Hollywood's help.

The 10-year-old only knows that Butler made it to the Final Four twice in the past three years, and that's good enough for him.

The man inside the sanctum gets it. Brad Stevens is a child of Indiana, the sort who still remembers jumping off the school bus before his eighth birthday and spying a basketball goal in the driveway.

"It was the happiest day of my life,'' the Butler coach said over lunch at his favorite spot, the Broad Ripple Tavern.

And Stevens is the sort who appreciated the pinch-yourself moment when, as a volunteer assistant at Butler, he was first given a key to Hinkle.

"I was 23 years old and it was awesome,'' he said. "I wasn't married at the time, so I'd work until 7 and then my buddies would sneak in and we'd have a game at 8. We played a game every Christmas Eve.''

In between the ages of 8 and 23, there were enough quintessential Indiana basketball moments for Stevens to write a "Hoosiers" chapter of his own. There was the buddy whose parents put a full court in his backyard so the boys could play 5-on-5, or at worst, 3-on-3; there were the weekends when Stevens would spend Friday at a high school game, Saturday alongside his dad, Mark, an IU alum, watching the Hoosiers, and Sundays watching the Indiana Pacers.

It's honestly the small moments as much as, if not more than, the big ones that matter. Basketball is just the connection.'

-- Butler coach Brad Stevens

And there was the unforgettable night in 1991 when he served as a ballboy during the high school state title game that pitted Alan Henderson and Brebeuf Jesuit Prep versus Glenn Robinson and Gary Roosevelt High, with 30,345 in attendance. "I thought Alan Henderson was the greatest high school basketball player I'd ever seen,'' Stevens said. "And then Glenn Robinson mopped the floor with him.''

Friendships were forged in the parks or in the driveways, playing pickup games where you called your own fouls and made sure to foul hard. It was in the various open gyms around Indianapolis, in fact, where Stevens first met Micah Shrewsberry. Stevens was just starting his...
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