A view from the upper level of Indianapolis' Hinkle Fieldhouse. (Luke Winn/SI)
INDIANAPOLIS — Before this fairy tale hit the Final Four, before the upset of Kansas State, or the upset of Syracuse, or the viral explosion of Too Big Yo, I paid a visit to Butler. This was on March 9, for the Horizon League title game, and I intentionally booked a morning flight to Indy, so there’d be time to explore Hinkle Fieldhouse in advance of the crowd.
The previous day, I called former Butler athletic director and football coach Bill Sylvester, to see if he’d act as an unofficial tour guide. The school’s sports information director, Jim McGrath, told me that Sylvester was the closest thing to a historical authority on the Fieldhouse, since he spent years there sharing an office with the eponymous Tony Hinkle. Sylvester agreed to drive down from Carmel to meet me after the Bulldogs finished their pre-game walk-through. I sat in on that as well, as they ran through their sets in front of coach Brad Stevens and his staff. The players were calm, business-like, precise. Stevens never once raised his voice in anger.
I should admit something at this point: I wasn’t gathering material in anticipation of Butler playing in Indianapolis this week. I’m a convert to The Butler Way, but back then, wasn’t a believer that they could get this far. I was just gathering material because I knew I’d be back in Indy at the end of March, and I thought the Final Four venue, Lucas Oil Stadium, was a super-sized, ultra-expensive rip-off of Hinkle, the crown jewel of college basketball and setting for Hoosiers. I figured a tour of Hinkle might make a good blog post. I also wanted an excuse to wander the place in the quiet of the afternoon, when the light would be pouring in the eastern fieldhouse windows, leaving rectangular reflections on the floor. Near the start of a 31-day run of hoops Madness, I was looking for a moment of Zen.
Sylvester arrived a bit later — he’d run into a nasty traffic jam on the Interstate, caused by some wreck between a semi and a couple of cars — and we sat down to talk, just under the south basket. He’s 82, the same age as the building, which opened as Butler Fieldhouse in 1928, at a cost of $1 million. He grew up with the place, coming to see games in the ’30s and early ’40s with his father, always sitting in the balcony that lines the north baseline. During World War II that upper level was converted into bunk space for Army and Navy men before they were shipped off to battle.
I took FlipCam video (above) of some of our conversation. We examined the court, which still has the original, super-thick boards that groan if you step on them in the right places. He told me that Hinkle personally supervised the Frenchmen who constructed the raised hardwood surface over a dirt floor. Sylvester pointed out the old fans that used to blow heat from a coal-burning furnace in the basement. We looked at where the old track had been from the famed Butler Relays, in which Jesse Owens tied a world record in the 60-yard dash in 1935.
Sylvester, who had to deal with the logistics of Hoosiers’ filming in his building, spoke of the movie with more annoyance than reverence. His best memories at Hinkle were of other things. When we walked to the spot where Milan High’s fictional squad first entered the building, he pointed out the gate, but remembered it more as the location where President Gerald Ford was accosted, after a speech, by an old Butler equipment-room manager. “Mr. President,” the manager said after stopping Ford by the drinking fountain, “I never voted for ya, but I love ya.”
You don’t have to be a Butlerite to love Hinkle. It’s the gym you wish your old college team called home. I went to Northwestern, and always lamented that the campus’ original Patten Gymnasium, site of the first Final Four, in 1939, was torn down later that year to make room for a new Technical Institute. Patten wasn’t built with reddish-brown brick, but there’s a photo from the NU archives that shows an interior reminiscent to Hinkle’s: an arched roof supported by angular, steel beams; tall windows letting in the sunlight; and wooden bleachers set up over dirt. We played our intramural games at the new Patten, which isn’t all that new — it opened in 1940 — but just didn’t have the same amount of character.
Northwestern's original Patten Gymnasium, which hosted the first Final Four. (NU Archives)
I did more wandering around Hinkle, on my own, to take photographs. The visitor’s locker room, which Wright State would occupy that evening, was open; it’s been modernized with a digital clock and a whiteboard, but still has old, wooden benches, classic grey lockers, and a bathroom area where the showerheads never fully turn off, so water-sounds keep echoing off the tile — drip, drip, drip, drip.
In one of the main-floor hallways, there’s a stained-glass tribute to Tony Hinkle, which furthers the feeling that you’re in a basketball cathedral. Much of Hinkle’s other signage is painted directly on the brick; descending the upper-level ramps, you pass “CAUTION” messages against running, sprayed on through old-school stencils. I assume that those warnings have been disregarded by at least three generations of Indiana children.
But the most memorable sign I saw, in retrospect, had nothing to do with nostalgia. It was just a few words on a sheet of white paper, taped up next to the ticket-booth windows. At the time, I didn’t even deem it worthy of a picture. The sign said something to the effect of, “Final Four Ticket Allotment Sold Out.”
Butler had tickets to sell in early March because it was designated as the NCAA’s “co-host” of the games at Lucas Oil Stadium, along with the Horizon League. I remember thinking that it was nice that at least a few seats were going into the hands of regular folks at Hinkle, rather than corporate sponsors or scalpers.
I made the mistake of not thinking bigger; not dreaming that the Bulldogs, in three weeks’ time, could be more than hosts.