Hoosier Hysteria: The Basketball Craze in Indiana
“While the game was invented in Massachusetts, basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport.” -Dr. James Naismith, Creator of Basketball and Head Basketball Coach of the University of Kansas
In the late 1800s in Massachusetts Dr. James Naismith created a sport meant to be an indoor alternative to the game of football. He published 13 rules of the game that he dubbed “Basket Ball” in The Triangle, the newspaper of Springfield College. From there the game took off and evolved and is now one of the most popular sports in the world with professional teams in many countries. While the professional game is what most fans of the world follow, the state of Indiana has taken the love of the game to an entirely new level. The story goes that Nicholas McCay learned the game from Naismith while in Massachusetts in 1891 and then brought it back to his hometown of Crawfordsville, IN to be played in the local YMCA and the rest is history.
For many people in Indiana, basketball is not just a sport; it’s a lifestyle. They’ll hang a basketball goal anywhere they can find space outside to practice their jumpshot. They will plan their days around basketball games and then spend days after talking and reading the multitude of articles about the results of the games. As the creator of the sport noted, the sport did not originate in Indiana. However, that has not stopped residents of the state from adopting it as their own and their love for the game has extended well past only the professional level. Whether they are Pacers, Hoosiers, Boilermakers, Bulldogs, Sycamores, or the Fighting Irish fans take it personally when their team gets a big win or has a disappointing loss.
College games are followed very closely and even the high school level has a huge following. Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis became the first all Black state championship basketball team in the country with their back-to-back wins in 1955 and 1956. The team, led by elite scorer and eventual NBA star Oscar Robinson, was so popular that Indiana’s professional team at the time, the Olympians, paled in comparison to the Tigers of Attucks. While there is no high school team today that has that same kind of popularity, this stage of the sport is still highly important in the state. In fact, of the 16 largest high school gymnasiums in the country 14 of them reside in Indiana, the largest of which, New Castle High School, has a capacity of 8,424, larger than a good number of college arenas across the country.
The New Castle gym may be the largest gymnasium in the state but it is one of the smaller gyms built over 100 years ago that is perhaps the most famous. The small town of Knightstown, about 30 miles East of Indianapolis, is home to the Hoosier Gym which was immortalized in the movie Hoosiers, based on the story of the state championship run of Milan High School in 1954. With a capacity of only 650 the feelings of history and nostalgia keep people visiting and playing in the gym all these years after it was replaced by the larger and newer gym built at the local high school.
College level stadiums have also risen to fame over the years with Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington even being designated “the Carnegie Hall of College Basketball” by announcer Gus Johnson. For many in the state arenas like Assembly Hall, Mackey Arena, and Hinkle Fieldhouse are the pinnacle of viewing a game and the efforts that universities have gone through to preserve and improve these facilities show that. These elite gymnasiums were on display for the whole country in the postseason last year as the entirety of the NCAA Tournament was held in Indianapolis and the universities in surrounding cities due to COVID-19 restrictions.
For the most part sports aren’t usually thought to have much of a correlation to art, but if you look close enough you can find it. Designs of court floors, uniforms, warm-ups, and shoes become iconic to different schools. The Candy Stripe Pants at Indiana and the formatting of Purdue as it is written across their jerseys to resemble the front of a train fall into this category, to name a few. Players are said to be “put on a poster” when an opposing player has an emphatic dunk over them. The plays themselves, with their Xs and Os, have their own type of beauty that can appeal to the masses when each player is in the perfect place to convert a big shot. These big shots are then immortalized, much to the chagrin of the opponent, in photos, posters, and videos.
As an IU fan myself and a sophomore in Bloomington at the time, one of the most notable of these big plays is the last second shot by Christian Watford in December 2011 to lift the unranked Hoosiers to a win over No. 1 ranked Kentucky. Video of the last 6 seconds of that game and the aftermath in Assembly Hall has been played on the big screen in the stadium as well as on other platforms ever since. More recently, when the Hoosiers knocked off the then #3-ranked Boilermakers at Assembly Hall this season with the help of a huge game and shot in the final seconds from Rob Phinisee there was similar mayhem that ensued with the crowd storming the court following the game and lifting the heroic Phinisee on their shoulders.
While the results on the court do not always match up to the lofty expectations that Indiana basketball fans have for their respective teams, you can rest assured that as March gets closer each year they wait with bated breath to see if their team’s name will be called on Selection Sunday to make it into the March Madness NCAA National Tournament. Barring something crazy happening in post-season conference tournaments, this year it seems that the Boilermakers and the Fighting Irish will be the teams from Indiana to make the tournament after a brutal month of February for a Hoosiers team that started the season with a great deal of promise and struggles from Butler and Indiana State on the men’s side. The Indiana women’s team has had a great season this year with a runner-up finish to the Big Ten Tournament. They, along with Notre Dame and IUPUI, will be representing the state in the tournament this year.
Teams have a lot to play for in March and it is March Madness that can either cement a great team into the history books with their One Shining Moment or serve as a harsh reality check for those who fail to meet expectations. Who can forget the incredible runs that Butler made to the championship game in back to back tournaments in 2010 and 2011? While they fell short in each of those games, those Butler teams became a Cinderella Story that has lived on. As Selection Sunday looms large, less than a week away, I hope that all your basketball wishes come true this year and your team makes a deep run in the Big Dance. Unless you’re a Purdue fan. Go Hoosiers.
By Hanna Gish