“It was a sport for the lonely,” journalist David Halberstam would later write. “There was nothing else to do, and because this was Indiana, there was nothing else anyone even wanted to do.”
It also served as a haven to combat the unbearable winter. There was no television, and early on, no radio. But there was basketball. Fans flocked to gyms by the hundreds, even thousands. Rivalries were hatched of one small town battling its neighbor. High school games on Friday nights became the social event of the week.
Indiana had found its pastime.
“In a dark and lonely winter, the gym was a warm, noisy and well-lit place,” Halberstam wrote. “For Indiana, basketball was a godsend.”
Yet the confluence of demographics, climate and timing pale in comparison to the final impetus stirring Indiana’s basket-crazed soul. It was the vehicle that, more than any other, drove the state’s love affair with the game: The high school state tournament.
Appropriately, it was Crawfordsville that won the state’s first crown in 1911, commencing a decade of dominance for the Cradle of Basketball. Each of the first eight state champions came from schools located within 30 miles of Crawfordsville.
As interest grew, entries into the state tournament skyrocketed. Consider: In 1916, the tournament consisted of 204 teams. Eight years later, the total had grown to 564. By the 1950s, some 900 schools threw their hat in the winner-take-all ring. With no professional teams to compete with for newspaper coverage, the gospel of Indiana high school hoops filled the sports pages. Teenagers with a jump shot became legends; teams that won a sectional lived forever.
“When I was a kid, everyone in my family would fill out the state tournament bracket for all 700 schools, just like everyone does now for the NCAA Tournament,” says Bobby Plump, the boy from Pierceville, Ind., who grew up to hit the most famous shot in the history of the state.
Plump’s basketball arc mirrors the era of his youth: As a nine-year-old, in 1945, he received a basketball hoop on Christmas morning. Sure enough, a few hours later, he was outside shoveling snow so he could try it out.
When not shooting on his goal, which stood somewhere around nine feet, Plump played at his friend Roger Schroeder’s barn. They’d shove the hay bales against the wall and scoop the cow manure out of the way. At night, back on Plump’s court, they’d string a 300-watt bulb on an extension cord along the house and above the basket and use tin sheets to reflect light down. That way they could shoot until 10 p.m. in the fall and winter and midnight in the summers.
“Why did we play basketball?” Plump says, looking back. “Think for a second. I grew up in a town of 50 people. It was the only thing to do!”
The stage Plump and Schroeder starred on years later, Butler Fieldhouse - where Plump sank the jumper to lift tiny Milan over Muncie Central in the 1954 state title game - proved just as vital as the underdog myth the farm boys of Milan furthered with their historic upset.
Their triumph came to embody the splendor of the single-class system, one where David always stood a chance against Goliath. Fans couldn’t get enough of it. And the later-renamed Hinkle Fieldhouse, home to the state finals for four decades, served as the cathedral where Hoosiers came to worship.
Originally, in 1928, the plan called for a 10,000-seat arena on the campus of Butler University, a head-turning plea for a school of only a few thousand students. But IHSAA commissioner Arthur Trester, anticipating an explosion of interest, persuaded the school to expand the building to 15,000 by promising to house the state finals there for 10 years.
Trester’s inclination paid off. The tournament sold out for 60 straight years.