274 “Hoops!”

By Hetty Gray

# 274

“Those were the days!”

July 23, 2019

It’s not rare or those of my generation to wax nostalgic about our youth. Value systems were solid. Family life revolved around school and church. Parents and children sat down to eat together without technological interruptions. Sundays were set aside for church and family. Most businesses were closed and it was a bad decision not to fill up the car or truck before Saturday night.

Few restaurants were open on Sunday and while drive-ins were common, a drive thru didn’t exist. The weekends were not tethered to today’s widespread youth Sunday sports schedules. Sunday was a family day. What’s more, our parents didn’t need to worry too much about what we saw when we went to the local motion picture theater.

Oh, the classic western showed violence, but the raw “in your face” blood and guts seen today would not have been tolerated fifty years ago. Yes, the bad guy fell off the horse or down the hill, but the bodily damage was never seen. The good guy won. Oh, for those days….

To you who grew up in Indiana, the following description will be more than familiar. Others will find it intriguing. For many of you, it will be a memory that perhaps you have buried for a while. Last night, surfing through the channels on DISH, the movie “Hoosiers” popped up. Wow!

Long story, short, we settled down to immerse ourselves in the legendary days of Indiana high school basketball. I had the opportunity to travel a lot when I was younger. Worldwide, I was met with similar queries. When I mentioned that I was from Indiana, questions fell into just two categories: The Indianapolis 500 and the winner-take-all high school basketball championship. That’s how famous the tournament was.

The introduction of Class Basketball brought to an end the tradition and the spectacle of the State Finals. From its inception, it was the highlight of the year for basketball fans statewide. And it wasn’t lost on college scouts either. Its abandonment is more than sad, its replacement arrangement has set a terrible example to youngsters: everybody wins. Once a championship trophy stood for victory. Now, trophies are handed out willy-nilly just for participation.

Well, folks, life does exact winners and losers, and in every conceivable venue. School taught us that. Today, as shocking as it sounds, even handwriting stands at risk. You remember handwriting? Cursive? We learned it from the large alphabet script that ran along the top of what was then called a blackboard. Ah, yes, even the simple blackboard bit the dust. Maybe green is easier on the eyes, but stark cursive examples on that blackboard served generations of us Americans and served us well.

If the so-called educators in charge of current elementary school curricula get their way pushing no cursive in school, I suppose that, in the future, a signatory will need only place an “X” on a legal document. How comforting. Many crimes were solved because an expert identified a criminal from handwriting samples. The only plus I can see for the no cursive movement is that active or would-be forgers will be out of business permanently.

Sorry for that pathetic bit of levity, but I fail to see the wisdom in hobbling our young people and pushing a really stilted dependence on gadgets. Yes, cell phones are great assets. Calculators are, too; but the person who invented that calculator knew how to add, subtract, and divide. While I acknowledge that many lives have been saved because of a quick, “911” cell call, there is another side of the coin — the countless lives lost due to texting or talking when driving. For every plus there is a minus. I digress.

Back to “Hoosiers”….

I make no claim that our younger years were devoid of problems, but we had a solid foundation on which to base our future. Some of us took jobs in factories, some went into the military, and others went on to college.

Some of us moved far afield and lived in locations thousands of miles from home. Others stuck around and never left, but that camaraderie we shared in the crowd as our basketball teams played their hearts out on the hardwood never left our souls. It awakened at the first scene of the movie. You see, that sense of community remains for a lifetime.

That is why, for my husband and me, “Hoosiers” is more than an evening’s entertainment. It portrays a clear image of the world in which we lived, a world where the very thought of a 24-hour-news channel was as improbable and far-fetched as science fiction.

In truth, not every family was a close one, but the community at large served as an extended family to many of us. Crime was all but nonexistent in our hometown, even if Indianapolis did have its share of trouble. Our radio news came in the morning, and at noon Fred Heckman’s familiar voice on WIBC radio (formerly WFBM) brought us up to date in his daily rendition of “My Town Indy.” Later, in the evening, most people checked in with the 11 o’clock news on television if only to check on the weather.

I chuckle now when I think about my mother in that regard. She was careful to make sure I was upstairs before the weather aired. I guess I didn’t sleep well if storms were forecast. That may date to the night that a tornado tore through town just a few blocks from our home. We heard its roar as it took off the third floor of the Five Points building across from Thomas A. Hendricks Elementary School. A few blocks east, the twister set the roof of the Kroger Store down in the middle of South Harrison Street!

Friday night in our hometown mimicked those in many a small Indiana town. Friday night was spectacular. Downtown stores remained open and, walking around, you saw nearly everybody you knew. Folks of all ages and parents with children strolled the sidewalks together. Rural families, too, flocked to the county seat to enjoy the shopping. Ice cream parlors offered up the latest treats. And world problems? Those subjects were tackled by groups of dads gathered on street corners while wives shopped with kids in tow.

If we felt any shudder at all, it was that looming decision after our senior year — what to do after graduation.

Today, some scenes in “Hoosiers” should give you pause — a minister in the locker room before each game. Yes, a player in the movie did take a knee, but to pray to God. Just before the final game in Butler Fieldhouse there were prayers yet again. While we hear phases of financial dealings labeled “Pay to Play,” the cast of “Hoosiers” had a twist with meaning: “Pray and Play.”

All those years dissolved into a mist of memory. Then came The Class of 1961’s 25th school class reunion held in June of 1986. Classmates could hardly wait to see “Hoosiers,” but its release would not be until November. We wondered if the movie would be true to life. Our vivid mental images of tumultuous Sectional and Regional games remained clear.

Dreams existed, to be sure, but they were realistic. Every high school understood the odds, but any small school that won its regional positively reveled in that victory. A Regional win heralded the thrill of playing in the State Finals held at Butler Fieldhouse. The finale recreated by the filmmakers is just terrific and accurate at its core. Even the 48-Star American Flag is true to the time.

Winning “The State,” was the ultimate prize for an Indiana high school. I miss the excitement of it all, and I know I am not alone. Yet, for countless schools, a sectional or regional win was met with great celebration.

Enter the father of famed Indiana University basketball player Steve Alford, currently the coach of UCLA. Sam Alford was an Assistant Collegiate Basketball Coach under Steve at Iowa in 1999 when my husband met him and his wife for supper in the Amana Colonies. Sam’s is a storied life, replete with the amazing records amassed as a high school coach. A member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, Sam Alford was 452-245 in 29 seasons as a high school coach in Indiana, including a 300-188 mark in New Castle.
Sam Alford coached his son at Chrysler High School in New Castle, Ind., and was an assistant to Steve for four years at Southwest Missouri State, then joined him at Iowa in 1999.
Sam was a head coach at three other high schools — Monroe City, South Knox and Martinsville — and spent two years as an assistant at Franklin High School.
What a wonderful visit we enjoyed with Sam and his wife. He reviewed my book, Net Prophet – The Bill Garrett Story. It is the biography of our own hometown hero, the first Negro to play collegiate basketball for Indiana University in the Big Ten. I felt so honored to have Sam agree to review it for me.
After light conversation, I asked him if he would consider answering a pressing question. I remember the exchange very well. “Sam, what do you think of Class Basketball in the ISHAA?” His answer was short and sweet. “I hate it. It ruined the tournament.” He isn’t alone in that opinion. A lot of us feel that way, and I have even heard banter that there might be a referendum on an Indiana ballot one day to go back to one class. Gate receipts are a shadow of what they were and crowds have dwindled. Even with the growth of girls’ sports, there is absolutely no excuse for breaking up the tournament that made Indiana famous worldwide. What a shame it is for all of us….
The real problem that threatens going back to the former system is generating the necessary interest — a real worry because our generation, the one that fully appreciates the value of the one class tournament, is dying off. Sadly, young people who have never experienced the basketball competition we knew are in the dark. To put it mildly, they just don’t know what they are missing!
You see, we have two generations of people who never experienced the euphoria of “Hoosier Hysteria.” They are all the poorer for that. The lines that wound around the block at high schools waiting to buy tickets are scenes of the past.
Waxing nostalgic comforts those of us who lived those days. Memory may be the only thing we can embrace when it comes to high school basketball. The excitement we knew is no more….
Could there be a rebirth of the One Class, Winner-Take-All State Tournament? Will there be a time when neighbors will gather around a television set to tune in to the “The Finals?” (No other description would be necessary.)
Final is a terminal word, but it stands for an obituary when applied to the sole event that folks in Indiana loved and respected for decades. My hope is that it will return.
If you haven’t seen “Hoosiers” starring Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper, you can order a copy on-line or simply watch for it on cable or satellite television channel listings. “Hoosiers” recreates a time when basketball was king, when Friday night games (or the occasional Saturday game) drew packed crowds to gyms in hamlets, towns and cities. Keen rivalries fueled spirited cheer blocks and adults reveled in the games as much as the students. If your team won, you celebrated. If your team lost, your coaches and teachers reminded you to lose gracefully. It was just a game, but what a game it was!
In truth, the movie is based on the 1954 victory of tiny Milan. One of my favorite lines is from the locker room before the team walked out to face their opponent in the final game for Hickory. “Let’s do this for all the little schools…” They did.
The title “Winner” should mean something in Indiana. Once upon a time it did. The State Championship was the goal every school, no matter its size, sought to achieve. It can be that way again, but a sea change in the ISHAA brackets tournament games will require a groundswell of public support. Our state tournament had class — one class.
Think about it.
Oh, and watch the movie. Screen it for your grandchildren.

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