Seeing Things, Saying Things

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As It Once Was in Small Town Indiana

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In the final scene of the movie Hoosiers, a small boy dribbles a basketball beneath a photograph of the 1952 Indiana state champion Hickory Huskers, dreaming of some day winning a title himself.

But chances are that title was not the state championship but the sectional tournament. In 1950s Indiana, winning the sectional title was as big as players in small schools dared dream.

The sectional was the first of three tournaments that a team had to win to reach the Final Four, which was played in Indianapolis.

Hoosiers was inspired by the story of how Milan High School won the 1954 state tournament, becoming the smallest school to ever do so.

But that was an aberration. Small schools stood little chance to win once they got past the sectional tournament because they would be playing larger schools and their deeper talent pool.

There never again was another Milan that won the championship when it was still single class. Milan was a once in a lifetime team.

Hickory is a fictional school and the actual 1952 Indiana champion was Muncie Central. The boys in the photograph in the Hoosier Gym are actors and their coach was actor Gene Hackman.

What some visitors might pay less attention to are the small banners “honoring” the 1931 and 1932 sectional championships that Hickory “won.”

Those banners are not meant to be just mere movie set props. And there is a reason why there is a line in the movie in which coach Norman Dale tells his players that it has been a decade since Hickory was in the sectional tournament title game.

Winning the sectional was once a big deal in Indiana, particularly if you had to knock off a larger school to do it.

Hoosiers represents an era when many Indiana schools were operated by townships. In the middle 1950s, Indiana had 776 high schools.

The Indiana School Corporation Act of 1959 mandated that school districts with fewer than 1,000 students in grades 1 through 12 merge with a neighboring district. The number of high schools in Indiana quickly shrank.

Most of the basketball scenes in Hoosiers were filmed in the former Knightstown, Indiana, high school gym. Today that gym is a community center and museum to Hoosiers.

When I visited the Hoosier Gym a few years ago I was reminded of my time in the middle 1980s, when I was a part-time sports reporter for The Herald-Telephone in Bloomington, Indiana.

My job was to cover the outlying high school basketball teams and I saw some gymnasiums much like the Hoosier Gym.

Like the Hoosier Gym, they had banners celebrating past sectional champions. And if a school had a once in a lifetime team that won beyond the sectional tournament, there was a photograph of it prominently displayed on the wall just like in Hoosiers.

The times have changed in Indiana. The last single-class state basketball tournament was played in 1996.

The next season the tournament was divided into four classes based on school enrollment.

Attendance at high school games had been declining for years prior to the switch to a four-class tournament.

Even when I covered high school basketball in the 1980s it wasn’t quite the same as it had been in earlier decades. I used to hear now and again about how that 1959 law requiring consolidation had changed things.

Of course high school basketball also lost popularity because people began having more things to do than attending a basketball game on a Friday or Saturday night.

Nonetheless, basketball remained ingrained in the social consciousness of Indiana. Hoosiers may have resonated with most people because of its storyline of the underdog triumphing, but it also harkens back to a time when dreams of hardwood success were more often than not focused on winning what many today might consider a “lesser” tournament.

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Written by csanders429

February 20, 2017 at 5:33 am

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